Skip to main content Accessibility help
Author instructions

* If publishing Gold Open Access, all or part of the publication costs for these article types may be covered by one of the agreements Cambridge University Press has made to support open access.

What Makes a Good Book Review?

Classical Review publishes hundreds of reviews every year. The books reviewed in our journal run the full range of topics related to antiquity and its reception; and the reviewers who write them are similarly diverse in their approaches. As editors, we do not want to be prescriptive about what makes for a good review. We are proud of our broad perspective on the practice of reviewing since this makes the journal an interesting read in itself. Still, there are certain characteristics that ensure that a book review is particularly useful to our readers.

Readers of reviews tend to want a quick and easy way to understand what is happening in the field and whether a particular book is worth delving into in more depth. The most useful reviews will cater to this by describing both the book and its relationship to existing research. Our reviews are typically 1300 words per book, with a little more for edited collections; within this reviewers should find the space to both describe the book’s contents and offer some contextual observations on its approaches. Getting the balance right between these two aspects can be tricky, and structure is key. It is usually advisable to offer an introductory analysis that puts the book into context before going on to present a more detailed description, and then close with a summary evaluation. A description of the book that proceeds chapter by chapter makes sure that nothing is left out and that readers can understand how the argument develops; but a thematic structure usually creates a more engaging review.

We approach reviewers on account of their specialised expertise. We are asking them to comment on how the book contributes to a field that they know well and contribute to themselves. Such assessments are of course, at heart, subjective. We ask that reviewers aim to be balanced, objective and fair. Criticism is to be expected and even welcomed, but unverifiable comments are not. All specific claims must be corroborated by clear references to page numbers in the book or other literature where appropriate. Most importantly, we ask that reviewers respect and appreciate what the book aims to do even if they would have proceeded differently with the same topic.

Some reviewers fall into the trap of thinking that a list of minor errors proves their care in reading the book. Readers, by contrast, are typically more interested in the broad outlines of the book and its notable contributions. For this reason, we typically discourage enumeration of the kind of minor typographical errors that might occur in any publication. That said, where such errors rise to the level of hindering comprehensibility, mention is warranted. Similarly, issues that are beyond the author’s control (such as a book’s price) can be mentioned, but should be distinguished from the assessment of the work of the author.

Like all pieces of writing, reviews will end up filling many purposes. The same review might be skimmed quickly by some readers, engaged with closely by others and hunted through for useful pull-quotes by one reader – the book’s author – in the hope of bolstering a promotions file. As ever, clear and precise expression will make all readers’ tasks more enjoyable, as will giving a thought to structuring the review so that it serves both the careful reader and the skimmer.  In general, the opening and closing paragraphs will be the most read. These, then, should provide a clear and balanced assessment of the book that is borne out by the observations that appear in the intervening paragraphs.

Writing a review should not be a daunting prospect; it remains a crucial and even exciting way of contributing to ongoing scholarly discussion.