How to Write a Great Book Review (Or at Least How Not to Write a Bad One)

July 20, 2011

How to Write a Great Book Review

There are many who write better, clearer, and more persuasive reviews than I will ever produce. But, as my byline says, my duties at The Gospel Coalition include editing book reviews. At some level, I have to be able to say to a review, “Yes, that works!” or “No, let’s try something different.”

But I know you are a demanding reader who expects more from me than simply how to write a review that works. You want to know the stuff that turns a review that simply works into a review that’s great. And on the occasion of the launching of our new book review site, this is as good of a time as ever to give some answers to that question.

I want to ensure you that these mysterious “great” reviews do exist and not just in the world of Forms. There are excellent reviews that can shift the entire discussion on an issue much faster and more effectively than the book itself. Some reviews are thigh-slapping funny, much to the expense, unfortunately, of the authors. And then there are the reviews that when you are done, you say to yourself, “Yes! That’s what I needed to know!” So don’t assume that book reviews are only dull necessities.

But like every popular self-help book, where the title over-sells the content, I may not have the combination for greatness to offer. But let me give some suggestions that will certainly point you in the direction where greatness dwells.

1. Forget everything you learned in seminary.

I could tell you horror stories of seminary students sending me the review they just handed in to their New Testament professor to see if we’d like it for publication. I’ll have more to say about this below, but Bible colleges and seminaries do not train you to write a readable, much less great, review. Chances are, their guidelines tell you to do the opposite of what you should to produce interesting reading. For there is a foul motive behind academic style manuals: to ensure the review never exposes that there may be an actual person behind the reviewer!

2. Answer the question everyone is asking.

The obvious example is Love Wins. Is Rob Bell a universalist or not? That was the question, right? It won’t always be as obvious as Bell’s book. But you should try to find the key question people are asking about the book and, then, try to answer it.

And do not just answer the question of whether the author is right or not. That should go without saying. But ask the deeper questions. Here’s one more example. Christian Smith—you know, the “moralistic therapeutic deism” Christian Smith—is coming out with a book soon entitled, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Surely, he is talking about the fruit of the youthful “therapeutic moralistic deism” crowd from Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers who are transitioning into adulthood. Just what is this “dark side”? What implications does this have for the family, marriage, or even the economy? Does Smith answer these questions?

3. Don’t over-summarize.

If it’s not poor writing that kills a review, it’s often the misguided inclusion of too much summary. Here is another sour consequence from our seminary courses. Some forums, particularly academic journals, want more summary than we prefer on this site, while other publications have no use for them at all. But if you want to ensure that nobody finishes your review, then offer a chapter-by-chapter, detailed summary. Trust me, it’s hard enough for editors to not look for the quickest distraction.

Well, stop it! You are belaboring your readers for no good reason and working too hard in a strategy that produces no good fruit.

A review is close to greatness when the author minors on summary and majors on interaction and reflection. A good rule of thumb is to give your readers a sense for the book’s main argument and then include whatever context your interaction and reflection require. You don’t need to prove that you’ve read the book. Your readers will give you the benefit of the doubt, I promise.

4. Show the consequences of an idea.

This is an important but dangerous point. It’s important, because ideas have consequences, and if a review is going to further the discussion, then the reviewer must show where the book’s conclusion leads. It’s dangerous, because in order to show consequences, the reviewer must make reasonable assumptions—stress on reasonable—and, unfortunately, reviewers don’t always have the logical equipment or forward-thinking ability to make this work.

We should never be afraid to call a spade a spade, but many authors have foolishly been called heretics or accused of other egregious sins because of unreasonable assumptions. Nevertheless, reviewers should warn their readers of bad and unfortunate consequences of ideas put forward in books.

There you have it.

As I mentioned before, I don’t have the formula for greatness, but you should now have a sense of its substance. I am aware that there is probably more to be said, and what I’ve said could have been said more eloquently. But what many readers of reviews intuit, I have tried to put into words.

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Note: This article was originally posted at The Gospel Coalition at How to Write a Great Review. It is used with permission.

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