I. Bibliographic Information
Provide the essential information about the book using the writing style that your professor has asked you to use for the course [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.]. Depending on how your professor wants you to organize your review, the bibliographic information represents the heading of your review. In general, it would look like this:
El Ghonemy, Mohamad Riad. Anti-Poverty Land Reform Issues Never Die: Collected Essays on Development Economics in Practice. (New York: Routledge, 2010. xx, 223 pp.)
Reviewed by [your name].
The first challenge in reviewing any type of collected essay work is to identify and summarize its overarching scope and purpose, with additional focus on describing how the book is organized and whether or not the arrangement of its individual parts facilitates and contributes to an understanding of the subject area. Most collected essays include a general statement of purpose in the foreword or an introductory chapter that describes the overarching themes and summarizes each essay. In some cases, the editor will discuss the scope and purpose at the beginning of each essay.
To help develop your own introductory thesis statement that covers all of the material, start by reviewing and taking notes about the aim and intent of each essay. Once completed, identify key issues and themes. For example, in a compilation of essays on environmental law, you may find the papers examine various legal approaches to environmental protection, describe alternatives to the law, and compare domestic and international issues. By identifying the overall themes, you create a framework from which you can cogently evaluate the contents.
As with any review, your introduction must be succinct, accurate, unbiased, and clearly stated. However, given that you are reviewing a number of parts within a much larger work, you may need several paragraphs to provide a comprehensive overview of the book's overall scope, purpose, and content.
If you find it difficult to discern the overall aims and objectives of the collected essay work [and, be sure to point this out in your review if you believe it to be a deficiency], you may arrive at an understanding of the purpose by asking yourself the following questions:
- Why did the contributing authors write on this subject rather than on some other subject? Why is it important?
- From what point of view is the overall work written? Do some essays systematically take one stance while others investigate another, or do the essays just represent a mish-mash of viewpoints?
- Were each of the authors trying to give information, to explain something technical, or to convince the reader of a belief’s validity by dramatizing it in action?
- What is the general field or genre, and how does the book fit into it? Review related literature from other books and journal articles to familiarize yourself with the field, if necessary.
- Who is the intended audience? Is it very specialized or intended for a broader audience?
- What are each author's style? Do they clash or do they flow together? Is it formal or informal? You can evaluate the quality of the writing style by noting some of the following standards: coherence, clarity, originality, forcefulness, correct use of technical words, conciseness, fullness of development, and fluidity.
- Scan the table of contents because it can help you understand how the book is organized and will aid in determining the main ideas covered and how they are developed [e.g., chronologically, topically, thematically, etc.]
- How did the book affect you? Were any prior assumptions you had about the subject changed, abandoned, or reinforced due to this book? Did some essays stand out more than others? In what ways?
- How is the book related to your own course or personal agenda? What experiences have you had that relate to the subject?
- How well has the book achieved its goal(s)?
- What are the main takeaways? Would you recommend the book to others? Why or why not?
III. Critically Evaluate the Contents
Critical comments should form the bulk of your book review. A good method for reviewing a collection of essays is to follow the arrangement of contents, particularly if the essays are grouped in a particular way, and to frame the analysis in the context of the key issues and themes you identified in the introduction. State whether or not you feel the overall treatment of the subject matter is appropriate for the intended audience. Ask yourself:
- Has the purpose of the book been achieved?
- Have all of the essays contributed something important to the overall purpose? If not, how have some author's failed to add something meaningful?
- What contribution does the book make to the field?
- Is the treatment of the subject matter fair and unbiased?
- Are there facts and evidence that have been omitted?
- What kinds of data, if any, are used to support the author's thesis statement?
- Can the same data be interpreted to alternate ends?
- Is the writing style clear and effective?
- Considered collectively, did the essays cover the topic or research problem thoroughly? If not, what issue or perspective about the topic do you believe has been omitted?
- Does the book raise important or provocative issues or topics for discussion and further research?
Support your evaluation with evidence from the text and, when possible, in relation to other sources. Do not evaluate each essay one at a time but group the analysis around the key issues and themes you first identified. If relevant, make note of the book's format, such as, layout, binding, typography, etc. Do some or all of the essays include tables, charts, maps, illustrations, or other non-textual elements? Are they clear and do they aid in understanding the research problem?
IV. Examine the Front Matter and Back Matter
Front matter refers to anything before the first chapter of the book. Back matter refers to any information included after the final chapter of the book. Front matter is most often numbered separately from the rest of the text in lower case Roman numerals [i.e. i-xi]. Critical commentary about front or back matter is generally only necessary if you believe there is something that diminishes the overall quality of the work [e.g., the indexing is poor] or there is something that is particularly helpful in understanding the book's contents [e.g., foreword places the book in an important context].
The following front matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing its overall quality:
- Table of contents -- is it clear? Is it detailed or general? Does it reflect the true contents of the book?
- Author biographies -- also found as back matter, the biography of author(s) can be useful in determining the authority of the writer and whether the book builds on prior research or represents new research. In a collected work, think about the following: what is the distribution of expertise among authors? Does it represent an interdisciplinary perspective or is the scope of expertise more narrow? Are the authors from a variety of institutions or just a few? Are the author affiliations international in scope or just from one country or region?
- Foreword -- the purpose of a foreword is to introduce the reader to the author as well as the book itself, and to help establish credibility for both. A foreword may not contribute any additional information about the book's subject matter, but it serves as a means of validating the book's existence. Later editions of a book sometimes have a new foreword prepended [appearing before an older foreword, if there was one], which may be included to explain how the latest edition differs from prior ones.
- Preface -- generally describes the genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness to people who have helped the author complete the study. Consider, is the preface helpful in understanding the study? Does it provide an effective and thorough framework for understanding what's to follow?
- Chronology -- also may be found as back matter, a chronology is generally included to highlight key events related to the subject of the book. Do the entries contribute to the overall work? Is it detailed or very general?
- List of non-textual elements -- a book that contains a lot of charts, photographs, maps, graphs, etc. will often list these items after the table of contents in the order that they appear in the text. Is it useful?
The following back matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing the overall quality of the book:
- Afterword -- this is a short, reflective piece written by the author that takes the form of a concluding section, final commentary, or closing statement. It is worth mentioning in a review if it contributes information about the purpose of the book, gives a call to action, or asks the reader to consider key points made in the book. This is a common feature of collected works because it's an opportunity to reflect upon the contents. If this is the case, does it help in wrapping up the book? Does it leave you thinking about the significance or implications of the contributions?
- Appendix -- is the supplementary material in the appendix or appendices well organized? Do they relate to the contents or appear superfluous? Does it contain any essential information that would have been more appropriately integrated into the text?
- Index -- is the index thorough and accurate? Are elements used, such as, bold or italic fonts to help identify specific places in the book? An index is particularly important in collected works because it brings together key terms, concepts, and names from a variety of essays that would otherwise be disconnected without a comprehensive index.
- Glossary of Terms -- are the definitions clearly written? Is the glossary comprehensive or are key terms missing? Are any terms or concepts mentioned in the text not included?
- Footnotes/Endnotes -- examine any footnotes or endnotes as you read from chapter to chapter. Do they provide important additional information? Do they clarify or extend points made in the body of the text? Some collected works arrange the citations by chapter at the end of the book. Is this helpful or would it been more effective to list the references and notes after each essay?
- Bibliography/References/Further Readings -- review any bibliography, list of references to sources used, and/or further readings that are included. What kinds of sources appear [e.g., primary or secondary, recent or old, scholarly or popular, etc.]? How does the editor[s] of the collected work make use of them? Be sure to note important omissions of sources that you believe should have been utilized.
V. Summarize and Comment
State your general conclusions succinctly. Pay particular attention to any capstone chapter that summarizes the work. Collected essays often have one written by the editor. List the principal topics, and briefly summarize the key themes and issues, main points, and conclusions. If appropriate and to help clarify your overall evaluation, use specific references and quotations to support your statements. If your thesis has been well argued, the conclusion should follow naturally. It can include a final assessment or simply restate your thesis. Do not introduce new information in the conclusion.
NOTE: The length of a review of a collected work will almost always be longer than a review of a single book. Treat an assignment to review a collected work as a short research paper assignment in terms of the time needed to read and to write a thorough synopsis. Due to the factors noted above, more effort will have to devoted to describing the content of the essays and the thematic relationships among each of them.
Bazerman, Charles. Comparing and Synthesizing Sources. The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Book Reviews. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Book Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Writing a Book Review. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Rhetorical Strategies: Comparison and Contrast. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Visvis, Vikki and Jerry Plotnick. The Comparative Essay. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing Book Reviews. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University.
By Emma Brennan, Editorial Director and Senior Commissioning Editor: History, Art History and Design
Academics often find themselves confronted with the task of editing a volume of essays, sometimes following a conference, and sometimes simply because a state-of-the-field volume is overdue. Not all publishers like them, but a high-quality essay collection can work well as a book and in some cases make a valuable intervention in a field.
The first question a prospective volume editor should ask themselves is whether they can do (and want to do) what commissioning editors do all the time:
- persuade busy people to spend time writing for your volume
- keep them to a strict timescale
- impose specific house style guidelines
- critique, edit and even cut the work of friends, colleagues and senior figures in your field
The things a publisher will look for in an edited volume proposal are these – the 4 Cs:
- coherence (how well does it all fit together as a book?)
- contribution (what is this book going to do, as a collection, and why does that matter?)
- coverage (is it as broad or as focused as it needs to be do that job well?)
- contributors (who’s in it?)
Coherence and where to begin
The best way to begin is by defining an overall purpose for the volume. The book as a whole must amount to more than the sum of its chapters.
Ideally, you’d start with research questions, commission essays to explore them from interesting angles and then prepare a perfectly coherent proposal for something that has always, in the minds of everyone involved, been a book.
Back in the real world, you’re probably going to start with a conference. My advice would be to start work on the book well before the event itself.
- tell your speakers that you’re planning a volume
- give them all a set of questions that any piece that ends up in the book will have to explore
- tell them that some (but not all) papers will be used
- be clear that you’ll decide based on the book and its coherence as you put it together
After the conference, choose your chapters wisely, and if there are any glaring gaps or biases in what you’re covering, it can be a good idea to commission further essays in order to fill the holes or provide balance.
You will need to answer the ‘so what?’ question convincingly, and ‘highlighting themes’ or filling a gap is rarely going to be enough – some themes and gaps remain unexplored and unfilled precisely because nobody is very interested in them.
You as the editor have a difficult job because you have a group of different writers with different ideas and approaches and sources, but this is precisely the strength of an edited volume – so really think about what those different approaches, backgrounds, sources, areas of interest and so on can bring to the subject your volume will explore.
Here are some things the book could usefully do, from a range of angles to be determined by your range of authors and what you ask of them:
- challenge the existing thought/literature (it should definitely do this)
- advance an underexplored area or open up a new approach to a much-studied area
- compare something across cultures, empires, industries (or whatever is appropriate to your area of study)
- work the chronological angles to show changes or continuities over time
- compare methodological or theoretical approaches
All of your chapters should contribute explicitly to what the book as a whole is doing. A generic chapter structure can be a good way of making things very clear for the reader, so that (for example) everybody starts with a little piece on how their chapter relates to the book overall.
Balance is essential. Some would argue that different essays should be different lengths depending on the subject matter. I would say that if something is really important, have more than one chapter cover it, and have all your contributions roughly the same length. If it’s not important enough for a full-length chapter then replace it with something that is. It’s part of the editor’s role to do this work.
If there are different kinds of chapter (for example in art history, you sometimes get dialogues between artist and scholar) then varying the length makes more sense. Afterwords and forewords can be much shorter, too.
If you are grouping your chapters into themed sections, then match them well, explain the rationale for the grouping in your introduction, and make the sections of balanced size or thereabouts.
Try to cover all the angles in sufficient depth to do so usefully. Eight chapters on the British empire followed by one on the German empire and one on Goa will not convince any peer reviewer that your book is either global or focused, unless you have a very strong reason for following that pattern. It’s important to aim for chronological coherence, too, and if your volume should cover a period, then do it properly.
On the other hand:
- Not every angle can be covered in one book
- Some angles invite more to say than others
- Your volume does need limits, and these should be outlined and justified in a substantial introduction to the volume
Experience says that your book will be best and your life as volume editor simplest with no fewer than eight contributors, and no more than fourteen.
Any publisher will be attracted by a contributors list that’s glittering with eminent names. It’s more likely though that you’ll have a mixture:
- one or two ‘keynotes’ (or equivalent figures in the field, if no conference papers were harmed in the making of this volume)
- some mid-career names who have published on the subject
- some up-and-coming early career researchers and PhD students
It will help if the publisher recognises some of the names, because readers (and therefore buyers) will too. There is no reason not to include post-graduate student contributions as long as they fit the book well, and are balanced by and in dialogue with those of the more established scholars in your book. You might also want to think about getting a big name in the field to do a foreword or an afterword of 2000-4000 words – this can help both coherence and name recognition.
A lot of editors team up so that we see a combination of one senior and one junior scholar, or a mix of three or four. While collaboration can be a great thing, we’ve all heard tell of the junior people ending up with the majority of the work in those situations, so be careful about what you are signing yourself up for. A share of the credit should imply a share of the work.
Try to make sure that you have a geographical spread of contributors and that all the voices that should be included are heard.
- What’s being studied. Does your book on colonialism include enough indigenous voices? If it’s on South Asia, how many contributors are working with South Asian primary sources? Again, these might come under limitations of the book to be discussed in the introduction
- Where the book will sell. If the subject is mainly studied in the UK, do you have any UK names in there?
- Gender balance. Even in this day and age, we get book proposals with all-male line-ups
- Where are your contributors based? Six people from one university might not win your book as broad an audience as six people from more dispersed locations, who go to different conferences and events
Within reason, the book should draw together a range of diverse perspectives to speak to as broad an audience as possible.
The book proposal
Any book proposal has to contain information relating to the length and general parameters of the book, and these are the factors that affect the cost to the publisher of producing the book.
- 80,000-100,000 words is ideal but a longer book with all its 4 C’s firmly in place could be attractive. Longer books will usually require discussion with the commissioning editor
- As a rule of thumb, chapters should be 6000-8000 words, including all notes and references. Too short implies superficiality; too long implies bloating. The introduction can be longer or shorter as needed
- Illustrations – these will depend on the publisher but for us, black and white are easier and cheaper to produce than colour and it’s wise only to include them if you’re working with visual material that has to be shown. You as the editor will have to do all the to-ing and fro-ing if there are problems with quality or copyright
Some publishers will ask to see the full manuscript before offering a contract. As a minimum, you’ll have to provide detailed chapter synopses and a couple of sample chapters. It’s essential to include a very detailed summary of the introduction you plan to write. This is the key chapter.
Try to avoid falling into the trap of two introductions – a short volume introduction listing all the chapters to follow, and then an essay from another contributor that sets up the context. That’s hard on the reader and lets all your introductory glory drain away into someone else’s pocket. If you have to, why not collaborate with that contextualising contributor?
The introduction should do all of these things:
- articulate the current state of the field
- place the volume within the relevant literature
- outline its many clear contributions to the field
- explain what each chapter will do to further those contributions
- also, if there are gaps you’re aware of, say what it won’t do and why
In your synopsis of the introduction, go into some detail about each of these points. Readers (and peer reviewers) want to see what you feel the relevant literature is and will need to be convinced that this book hangs together sensibly. Essentially, an introduction synopsis should be a mini-introduction, in draft form.
Your draft chapters should be standardised to the point where the peer reviewers and the publisher will be reassured of your ability to do the work required to get a whole volume into shape. This means addressing the styles used for headings, references, punctuation and so on – even if they aren’t in the publisher’s house style, it’s good to be consistent.
The same goes for chapter synopses – don’t just paste unrevised abstracts into a list – when one is three pages long with its own referencing system and the next one is a vague 150 words, it’s not going to give the right impression of your editing skills.
Put the synopses in the order that the chapters will appear in the book, so that the reader can see how the volume builds. Always provide a contents list to show that you have thought about the order of the chapters, and if you change their order in the course of revisions, change your chapter numbering, your synopses and your contents list so the peer reviewer will not get confused.
Pick your publisher carefully, based on the fit with their publishing strengths and what you want for the book (format, price and so on). It can be a good idea to send a brief outline to the commissioning editor (or series editor) to see whether they’d like to receive more. Approaching editors at academic conferences can also be a good way to gauge interest and to see who you’d like to work with.