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
A journal editor’s top ten tips for getting your research published in academic film and media journals
We take it for granted that as academics we all need to publish our research – and that articles in peer reviewed journals carry a certain degree of intellectual kudos that’s important when it comes to applying for jobs or securing tenure. And that’s not to mention the best reason for publishing – to disseminate your research to your peers and colleagues within the field.
That said, however, there are right ways and wrong ways of going about it.
This blog is intended to offer some informal guidance to publishing your work in film and media journals. It’s particularly focused on the HJFRT – though the same general principles will also apply to other journals too. The following ‘top ten tips’ are intended particularly for doctoral students and early career researchers, though some more established scholars might also want to take a peek.
1. Research your journal
This is one of the most important factors in getting published, and it’s surprising how few people actually bother to do it.
Whatever your subject and approach, you should give careful consideration to the most appropriate journals in which to place your work. A good rule of thumb is to look at the journals you consult most often for your own research. There’s little point in submitting your work on electronic or new media to a journal specialising solely in film studies, or sending a piece of purely formal analysis to a journal that prioritises archive-based research. Around four out of every five submissions to the HJFRT are turned down without being sent to readers. This is not because they are no good but rather because their subject or methodology does not fit the journal’s remit.
In the case of the HJFRT what we’re interested in is:
Historical research based on primary, and especially unpublished archival, sources.
Social, economic, technological and cultural histories of the media industries.
Case studies of production and/or reception.
Historical studies of institutions and/or individuals and/or groups.
Histories of film/radio/television criticism and theory.
Representations of the historical past in film, radio and television.
What we’re not so interested in is:
Articles that do not focus on the audio-visual media
Narrative and/or textual analysis unsupported by any historical contextualisation or archival research.
Abstract theoretical approaches without any empirical or archival basis.
In other words don’t waste your time writing an article on Deleuzian aesthetics for the HJFRT!
An article written specifically for a particular journal will almost always stand a better chance of publication than a generic submission for AOJ (that’s editorspeak for Any Other Journal).
2. Consult your colleagues
As with so many things in academia, taking advice from your peers and colleagues is essential. If you’re a doctoral student, for example, consult your supervisor or advisor before submitting an article for consideration to a journal – e.g. is this something that’s integral to your research (in which case you might want to save it for your thesis and think about publishing it later) or is it something that stands alone in its own right? Always bear in mind that a journal article needs to be self-standing in its own right – we are not interested in publishing chapter 4 of your thesis.
Also talk to fellow students. Have they published, and in which journals? What were their experiences? Your peers might well have useful advice of potential pitfalls to avoid.
3. Peer review is the Gold Standard
There are dozens of film and media journals out there. On the one hand this means that there are plenty of publishing opportunities. On the other hand it also means there are some journals that might be less good than others …
For academia, peer-reviewed journals are the gold standard. Peer review means that your work has been deemed suitable for publication by recognised experts in your field. It is a measure of quality control. It ensures that high academic standards are maintained. All submissions are subject to peer review – whether you’re a PhD student or a tenured professor. The HJFRT usually operates ‘double blind’ peer review meaning that articles are sent separately to two readers and the readers will not know the identity of the author. (It helps the editor if your submission does not include your name and institutional affiliation: you can provide these in a separate document.)
Of course excellent research can be published anywhere: in journals, in edited collections, in print or online. But the peer review process helps to ensure that journals such as the HJFRT publish only the very best work in their field.
Sometimes readers will recommend publishing an article as it stands, but more often than not they’ll suggest some revisions: there might be areas where some clarification is needed or where the argument could be strengthened. Readers may have come across other sources that will complement your research. All articles benefit from the process of peer review: it has turned many good articles into excellent articles and can turn an excellent one into a great article.
Publication of the article is usually conditional upon making the revisions or amendments suggested by readers – the journal editor will advise you which revisions are required and which are advisory.
4. First Contact can be a good idea
It’s perfectly okay to email a journal editor to enquire whether they would be interested in an article on Topic A (Ernst Lubitsch reference!). Occasionally it happens that the journal has recently accepted an article on Topic A and can’t therefore publish another that’s too close. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often. But it can be useful making that ‘first contact’ before you spend six weeks writing the article with that journal in mind.
5. No round robins please
Put yourself in the place of a journal editor. You’ve been sent an article that you’re interested in and that fits your remit. You find peer reviewers (perhaps calling in a favour or two to get them) and people take the time and effort to offer constructive advice on how the article might be improved. You email the author to tell them the good news that subject to a few revisions you’d like to publish their article – only for the author to reply that they’re publishing it elsewhere.
This is why most journals require that the article should not be under consideration elsewhere when you submit it.
It’s one of those things you can probably get away with once over the course of an academic career. But as soon as you have a reputation for doing it, don’t be too surprised if editors decline your next submission without sending it for review.
And always bear in mind that journal editors speak to each other …
6. And no generic submissions either
When submitting your article, bear in mind that nothing shouts ‘here is a generic submission that I am sending to multiple journals’ more loudly than an email addressed to ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Editor’ and which makes reference to ‘your journal’ or even (sometimes) ‘your most illustrious journal’. In these cases I’m probably not even going to bother reading the abstract before declining your article. And the same goes for the email that begins ‘Dear Professor Chapman’ in one font and then switches to another font for the rest of the generic text …
A brief covering email summarising the content, sources and approach is a good idea, including a line or two to explain why you think it’s suitable for the HJFRT. In other words show the editor that you’re familiar with the journal and the sort of material it publishes.
Show the editor that you know the journal, and the editor will already be on your side.
7. House style rules
I once heard a story about a scholar who refused to format his work according to the house style of journals on the grounds that they were all different and it took up too much of his precious time to change from, say, Chicago Manual of Style to Modern Humanities Research Association.
The same scholar also wondered why he wasn’t getting any articles published!
Our journal doesn’t need to publish your research – we have enough submissions to fill the journal for years to come – so if you can’t be bothered to follow the house style, why should we even consider your piece?
An article that doesn’t follow our house style suggests that you haven’t even bothered to look at past issues of the journal.
8. Your article is not a special case
I once received ‘an offer too good to refuse’ from a would-be author, who offered me three articles (arising from the author’s PhD thesis) at between 15,000-20,000 words each: it wasn’t going to be possible to make them any shorter because of the unique and special nature of his research, and the subject demanded the additional length because it was so important …
Oddly enough, I did not take the author up on his generous offer.
Journals have minimum and maximum word lengths for a number of reasons: all journals have an annual page budget per volume agreed with the publisher and we want to publish X number of articles across a range of topics. The HJFRT publishes around 30 research articles per year and the usual length is between 6,000 and 10,000 words: the upper limit is generous and allows plenty of space for nuanced arguments, detailed evidence and full scholarly citations.
9. Patience is a virtue
It can take time to get an article published: 12 months is about the shortest you can expect from submission to publication, and for the leading journals in the field it might well be around two years. Even the wait from submission to acceptance might take six months or longer.
Why does it take so long? There are numerous reasons:
The editor has to find peer reviewers for your article: good readers do not grow on trees and are often very busy (i.e. reading your article might be the most important thing in the world to you but might be only the twelfth most urgent thing they have to do this week). Around three months or even more for receipt of peer review comments is not at all unusual.
If your article is in a particularly niche or specialist area, the previous point applies several times over.
Peer reviewing is unpaid: editors depend on the good will of colleagues to do it – and so our ability to chivvy them along is limited. (Ask yourself – have you ever agreed to write a book review and have been months late in delivering it? The same applies to reading articles for journals – it takes up people’s time and sometimes gets bumped by more urgent matters.)
Sometimes two readers can come to different assessments of a particular piece – in which case the editor will need to seek a third opinion (back to stage one above).
And when your article is accepted, bear in mind that any decent journal might well have a backlog of more than a year (HJFRT – like a lot of journals these days – uses the ‘Online First’ platform whereby articles are published online before they are assigned to a print issue: this counts as the official Version of Record and can be used for citations, in job and grant applications, etc.)
Good journals are not short of material to publish – while we would very much like to publish your article, we probably don’t actually need it and we can afford to wait until we publish it. If you can’t wait, then perhaps try a journal with less of a backlog – though bear in mind that a journal which offers to publish your article this year obviously doesn’t have much of a backlog and you might want to ask why that is.
Bear in mind that editors have lives too. There’s little point in submitting your article two days before Christmas and expecting a reply before the New Year – and in any event it’s not going to be sent for peer review for several weeks.
It’s perfectly okay to send a polite enquiry to the editor if you haven’t heard back after, say, three months. But if you badger them with weekly demands to know what the state of play is, don’t be too surprised if your article slips to the bottom of the editor’s priority list.
Look at it this way:
YOUR priority is the publication of your article that you need to build up your CV, for your promotion application, or for the next Research Excellence Framework or equivalent exercise. MY priority is maintaining the scholarly integrity and reputation of the journal, ensuring quality and consistency, and thinking about the balance of topics and periods: your article is just one of around maybe two dozen that I am dealing with at various stages at any one time.
10. Rejection is nothing personal
Rejection is always disappointing – but it’s something we all have to learn to deal with. In fact there are very few cases where I have had to reject an article on the grounds of quality. More often I decline submissions because they do not fall within the remit of the HJFRT either in terms of their subject matter or their methodology. In such cases I will usually try to suggest other journals that might be a better forum for your research.
And there have been numerous cases where I declined an article but where the author had another piece of research that was more appropriate for the journal and we published it.
(There are very occasionally cases where rejection really is final … I once had an article that I didn’t think was very good but which in any case was not the right subject matter for the HJFRT. I suggested a couple of other journals that the author might consider. He emailed straight back to say that he’d already sent it to those journals before sending it to the HJFRT – could I suggest any others? So I did so – by this time falling back on my standard list of the second- and third-division journals in the field. It turned out they’d all rejected him too – what would I recommend? At this point I had to suggest: ‘Try doing something else.’)
If there’s one point I would make in conclusion, it’s that the relationship between a journal and authors is mutually dependent. Authors need journals in order to publish their research – and at the same time journals need good-quality submissions to ensure steady copy flow and so that the journal may prosper and thrive. So editors want to receive submissions (preferably high-quality submissions of outstanding excellence, of course!). Do not be deterred from submitting your work to the leading journals in the field – but make sure you follow the basic ‘do’s and don’ts’ I’ve outlined here to maximise your chances of success.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester, UK, and has been editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television since 2011. He is a member of the IAMHIST Council. He first published in the journal in 1995 on ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) Reconsidered’ (HJFRT, 15: 1).