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.