Top ten tips for writing engaging, fair and publishable book reviews:
James Chapman recently shared his top ten tips for getting research published in academic film and media journals. His invaluable insight and practical advice has inspired this set of “top ten tips” for writing book reviews. The book review is both a rite of passage for early career researchers and, hopefully, an enjoyable aspect of shorter-form publishing for seasoned academics throughout the course of their careers. This blog aims to make a few suggestions for those new to the format about avoiding some of the common pitfalls that often arise for journal editors during the review process
1. Know your text!
Read the book in its entirety. It’s important that you’re familiar with the full text before you construct your review. Take notes while reading in the way that is most efficient for you in terms of signposting the main areas you want to address and summarizing particular sections or arguments.
2. Context is crucial
What’s the book about and who is it for? Clearly set out the central topic of the book and consider its audience. Do you see it as most useful as a textbook for an undergraduate course or is it a niche study in a specialist area? Who will benefit from this book in terms of subject area and career level? Comment on the structure of the book, the topics covered, the sources utilized and the methodology employed. Is there a set theoretical framework? What areas of previous scholarly research does the study elaborate on or debunk? If you were to summarise the overall achievement or contribution of the book, what would it be?
3. Self-promotion is not cool
Don’t use the review to publicise your own work. The editor will most likely ask you to remove any overt references to your own publications, unless you can make a very good argument that they are closely tied to the book under review.
4. Maintain objectivity
Don’t offer to review the book of a close colleague or friend. It’s useful if you know about the field in which the book is situated, but having a friendship with the author may cloud your judgment and obvious championing of the work of a colleague will not reflect well on you or the author.
5. Pursue vengeance elsewhere
Equally, don’t use the book review as a chance to take revenge on someone you’ve clashed with or to take up a broader academic argument you have with them. This kind of (often legitimate) academic debate is better played out in a forum where everyone involved has the right to reply.
6. Criticism should be constructive
Whether glowing, unfavourable or mixed, reviewers should always express criticism respectfully. Book review editors are responsible for maintaining professional standards and may ask reviewers to reword or rewrite sections of the reviews for a range of reasons, but always to improve the publication with a view to maintaining the standards of the relevant journal. Diplomatic critique will always be welcome.
7. Follow the house style
Appropriately, and with due deference, this tip is directly plagiarized from James Chapman’s blog “Publish or be Damned”. Following the rules is tedious, especially when they relate to pedantic style sheets and some journals will have more prescriptive and detailed rules than others. The clearer the guidelines the better, and if you’re unsure of what’s expected from your review you should always clarify this with the editor before you begin writing.
8. Proof reading is key
Always check your work carefully before submission. Does each sentence make sense? Is there a flow to the piece? Does your prose engage the reader? Because book reviewers often make notes while reading, the review can sometimes appear like a list of disjointed comments rather than a polished academic piece. This is usually easily addressed by imposing a coherent structure and checking for grammatical errors, strengthening syntax and rewriting overly long sentences.
9. Respect the deadline
If you’re not going to make the deadline, let the editor know as soon as possible. Editors always appreciate an advance warning if their list of proposed contributions will change when it comes to final publication.
10. Turnaround edits swiftly
Complete suggested edits as quickly as possible. Usually this is the shortest phase of the process and if you are efficient, it is likely that the editor will add you to a list of reliable contributors.
Finally, remember to enjoy the process. Don’t take on a review when you are overworked as you’ll just resent doing it. Taking the time to thoroughly read and review a book should be one of the more pleasurable aspects of the academic experience; particularly when academia is now so often saturated with draining administrative activity. Writing a book review offers the chance to get back to the world of the mind, ideas and scholarly pursuits, even if only for a short time, so it should be a fulfilling and rewarding experience…
Dr Ciara Chambersis book reviews editor for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and Lecturer in Film and Screen Media in University College Cork. Her research interests include newsreels, amateur film and the recycling of archival images. She has worked on a range of archival projects and digitization initiatives with the Irish Film Archive, Northern Ireland Screen, Belfast Exposed Photography, UTV, BBC, and the British Universities Film and Video Council. She is scriptwriter and associate producer on Éire na Nuachtscannán (Ireland in the Newsreels), a six part television series to be broadcast on TG4 in autumn 2017 http://www.irelandinthenewsreels.com
The film was directed by Sabina Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum and produced by Zeva Oelbaum who reported to Executive Producers Denise Benmosche, Elizabeth Chandler, Ashley Garrett, Ruedi Gerber, Alan Jones, Thelma Schoonmaker and Tilda Swinton (who also played the voice of Gertrude Bell). Zeva Oelbaum was also helped by three co-producers—Mia Bays, Fabrice Esteve, and Christian Popp—and four Consulting Producers—Kevin Brownlow, Tracie Holder, Andrea Miller and Carla Solomon. Zeva Oelbaum had an Associate Producer Rob Quaintance and a Line Producer Serena Nutting, no doubt to keep the other sixteen Cos, Executives, Consultings and Associate in line. No one was credited as being responsible for Film Research (though ‘Insurance Broker’ and ‘Legal Services’ both got a mention) and that gave my inventiveness carte blanche.
I couldn’t help noticing that all the principals in this fascinating story—about how Gertrude Bell single-handedly invented Irak (If I’ve got things right) in the period immediately following the First World War—are now dead and buried, so I thought I’d produce a set of alternative facts and bring them back to life, so we could actually experience Lawrence of Arabia, Vita Sackville West, Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell, uttering words attributed to them. Of course, I had to pretty them up a bit so as to be presentable for a family audience.
I then turned my attention to my day job, and discovered the Cinématographe was not developed in the 1890s but at least as early as 1865, and found a close-up of the hands of the young Gertrude Bell playing the piano. She evidently didn’t like it much and wrote her mother so in no uncertain terms. I’m sure that I too would have been annoyed by the presence a camera crew and its lights getting in the way of my practising scales.
For readers of the IAMHIST Blog who have yet to meet the Office Cat (who writes regularly for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television), you’ll find it a ‘ferocious yet felicitous feline who has assisted in aiding and abetting slovenly television producers and directors since it first saw light in the pages of the History Workshop Journal’. (HJFRT, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 2016: 339). Born in 1976, the Office Cat is no ordinary cat, but a film researcher. It might be fluffy, but unlike human film researchers, for whom it has the greatest respect, never takes ‘no’ for an answer. It specializes in finding film footage that no other film archivist, historian, critic, or other researcher has found before. The Office Cat finds film footage that doesn’t exist or does exist, but not in the ways that film producers or directors would like it to. For example, the Office Cat’s ancestors found footage of the Wright brothers’ first flight, another found footage of the Battle of Jutland. One even unearthed shots of Adolf Hitler marrying Eva Braun in the Führerbunker…
Jerry Kuehl is an independent television producer whose principal but not exclusive interest is visual history. His first grown-up job in television was as a historical advisor to the 26-part 1964 BBC production, The Great War, he was then an associate producer of The World at War, the 26-part series made by Thames Television in the 1970s which set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of film archives. He was the Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In the 1980s, he was a director of Open Media whose productions included After Dark. In the 1990s, he was a writer and consultant to the 24-part CNN production, The Cold War. In 1991, he wrote and co-produced the 4-part La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée (English title: The Great Adventure of Newsreels) for France 3. He is responsible for Kuehl’s Reels, a programme series for YouTube which punctures the pretensions of those who misdescribe films sent to the site. He is also responsible for the Office Cat who skewers irresponsible producers and directors in both the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the IAMHIST Blog. He is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from FOCAL, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries.
In recent years, outside Australia, there has been significant research undertaken into utilitarian filmmaking, particularly in the US, and across many territories in Europe. This research provides a highly informative, revisionist complement to the thoroughgoing study of the production, distribution, exhibition and viewing practices that have long been associated with feature-film drama, television, ‘art cinema’, and documentary filmmaking around the world. These latter domains have always been the mainstay of film history, film theory and media studies worldwide, including in Australia (which has been an extremely influential contributor to these disciplines on a global basis over the past four decades). But now European and American research into utilitarian cinema has begun to provide a provocative and informative complement to the disciplinary orthodoxies. For example, the recent books Films That Work(Hediger & Vonderau, 2009 – Europe-focused) and Useful Cinema (Acland and Wasson, 2011 – America-focused) have canvassed the scope and cardinal themes of utilitarian and non-theatrical cinema in a range of different national cultures and economies where it has only recently become evident that utilitarian cinema provided employment for thousands of people, fostered the long term publication of several trade journals and generated an international circuit of trade shows, festivals and industrial and governmental conferences between 1950 and 1980.
Also, highly influential archives have been made available to scholars under Creative Commons licences. The global ‘gold standard’ is the Prelinger Archives that is now administered by the Library of Congress in the US; Archive.org is also a vital contributor in this field. Even so, Australian specificities concerning utilitarian cinema have received almost no attention, at home or abroad. Archives of utilitarian cinema in Australia are nowhere near as consolidated as they are in the US and Europe, even though there are some small but notable exemplars such as portions of the Mu-meson Archive, and the Teasdale Collection of films detailing farm work and rural culture, which Ross Gibson has been investigating for some time (see Gibson, 2015): http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/john-teasdale-chronicle-of-a-country-life/.
Clearly an investigation of utilitarian cinema in Australia can inform an important and innovative recasting of audiovisual media histories as well as industrial practices in communications both at home and abroad. A team consisting of Ross Gibson (University of Canberra), Mick Broderick (Murdoch University), John Hughes (University of Canberra), Joe Masco (University of Chicago), PhD candidates Grace Russell (Monash University), Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd and Stella Barber (Murdoch University) and myself received Australian Research Council funding to pursue what we understand to be urgent and important research for at least three compelling reasons. Firstly, an understanding of the ‘peculiarities’ of the Australian utilitarian filmmaking ‘scene’ adds nuance to the global account and brings Australian- focused scholars into fruitful dialogue with their international counterparts in a rapidly-expanding field of scholarship. Secondly, we are generating and disseminating vital new knowledge about market-focused and audience-focused interpretations of Australian media and communications, particularly because of the way utilitarian filmmakers developed systems of exhibition and distribution in this country that were different (and sometimes even oppositional) to the US-dominated cartels that organised the entertainment sector here. Thirdly, from industrial-relations and labour-history viewpoints, a history of Australian utilitarian filmmaking deepens our understanding of how the utilitarian sector maintained a critical mass of well-trained technical and creative staff who formed the basis, despite long ‘fallow periods’ prior to the ‘renaissance’ that occurred during the1970s in the entertainment, of the theatrical and television-focused sectors of Australian film production. Indeed, for all their avoidance of explicitly aesthetic approaches to the medium, utilitarian filmmakers in Australia would appear to have supplied a consistent ‘through-line’ of factual, pragmatic and documentary ideologies and aesthetic and technical capabilities that have nourished and guided the more well-known, entertainment-focused sectors of cinematic production in the nation. This is a revelatory new line of investigation and explanation.
By utilitarian we mean pragmatic, purposeful films that were made and distributed outside the well-studied systems of entertainment, ‘theatrical’ exhibition and visual arts installation; films that were produced, distributed and exhibited to a wide range of (as-yet under investigated) audiences in mostly ‘non-theatrical’ and ‘mundane’ contexts and spaces.
Dressing a Chicken (Victorian Department of Agriculture, Australia 1960)
These were films produced in significant numbers worldwide (including in Australia) for the functional purposes of instruction, surveillance, quantification or recordkeeping rather than principally for reasons of commercial entertainment, creative non-fiction narrative, or clearly-contextualised artistic and aesthetic appreciation. The project is, at the same time, seeks:
To survey the full extent of holdings of utilitarian cinema dispersed across private, public and government-administered collections in Australia;
to assay the themes and patterns of historical information that are contained within this reservoir of cultural, pedagogical, sociological and industrial evidence; NOTE: as part of this assay, the team is conducting, recording and making available a range of oral history interviews with practitioners, users and consumers’ of utilitarian history 1945 – 1980;
to work with partners (such as the National Film & Sound Archive, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, the National Archives of Australia and the online departments of State Libraries) to ensure not only that there are secure repositories for the discovered material but also that there is continuing policy-development as well as curatorial commitment devoted to accessing and interpreting the national heritage of utilitarian cinema in Australia;
to consolidate and communicate to scholars and the interested general public the findings about Australian utilitarian cinema so that this new knowledge can be productively compared and integrated with extant knowledge of Australian media as well as with the global understanding that has begun to be accrued worldwide within the new sub-discipline of utilitarian film and media studies.
to engage the participant public in a process of continuing, long-term data-collection, assets-collection and oral history via the project’s online repository and via the crowd-sourcing and citizen-curatorship enterprises that are now being enacted by the partner institutions.
Deane Williams is a film historian specialising in documentary film history and Australian documentary from Monash University, Melbourne. He is the author of 7 monographs and edited collections and of articles published in Screening the Past, Continuum, Media International Australia, Framework and Critical Arts. He is also Editor of Studies in Documentary Film (ISSN 1750-3280 (Print), 1750-3299 Online), the only international, refereed, scholarly journal dedicated to the history and criticism of documentary. In 2015 he commenced work with Ross Gibson, Mick Broderick, John Hughes, Joe Masco on the four-year Australian Research Council Discovery Grant supported project, Utilitarian Filmmaking in Australia 1945-80. ($AUD 363,359).