It pays to keep rivalry healthy

March 10, 2006

If you want to review other people's work, it is vital to be on top of your subject. And don't be unjustly critical of books that are in competition with yours - you'll live to regret it, advises Harriet Swain

You've had a quick skim and the impression you get is that the author should have written a different book altogether - something a bit more like your own perhaps, which happens to be out in paperback soon (price £8.99).

Nice to know that you're on top of the subject, but don't you think you should be a bit more on top of the book?

This is particularly true if you're going to be negative, says A. C.

Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, and an editor, author and regular reviewer. While it's bad enough not to have properly read the work you are praising - after all, the author will have spent years working on it and deserves better - a negative review must give, chapter and verse, the reason for the disagreement or criticism.

Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times , says the less you like something the more carefully you have to think about why that is the case.

"You can hardly err on the side of liking something too much - certainly from the point of view of the author," she says.

But if the book is bad, you shouldn't shy away from criticism. "A bad book, poorly researched, sloppily argued, badly written and feebly edited should be thoroughly criticised," Grayling says, "because now the reviewer is on the side of the person about to part with his/her £20 note, and also on the side of standards, which will be maintained only if reviewers don't let authors and publishers get away with things they shouldn't get away with."

He says the technique is simple: if the book is non-fiction, read it, go back through it noting passages that state the author's aims, the main contentions of the book - and the main supports in their favour - then ask what it adds to the field or the relevant debate. Is it persuasive, and if not why not? How is it written? Has it covered the ground adequately? If I were entering this debate, what would I need and want to know and does the book address these things?

When it comes to writing the review, Wagner says you should consider your audience and how much knowledge they are likely to have. Reviews of the same book for The Times Literary Supplement and The Times will be different because of the different readerships. "Don't assume too much knowledge but don't make people feel stupid either," she says.

Winston Fletcher, chairman of the Royal Institution who is a regular reviewer for The Times Higher , says you should also keep in mind the target audience of the book. "It matters much more how they might react to it than necessarily how you react to it," he says.

He adds that the ultimate purpose of a review is to let people know whether or not they should buy or read the book. You need to describe what the book is about and say how well it meets its ambitions clearly enough for people to make up their minds about it. You also need to say whether or not it lives up to its cover and blurb.

But he says that a review should also be an interesting read. "I approach every review as a small essay that has a beginning, a middle and an end," he explains.

Andrew Robinson, the books editor of The Times Higher , says that style matters more in a review than many academic reviewers think. He advises editing your own work. "Remove the redundant phrases and needless repetitions that clog up too many reviews," he says.

This will endear you to editors and could avoid later disagreements over editing once you have submitted your review. Over-squeamishness about being edited is one cause of reviewers not being asked again, according to Daniel Soar, an editor at the London Review of Books . He says the key to a successful review is to produce writing that is jargon-free but capable of conveying complex ideas. Robinson advises starting with material that should interest all readers, whether they are physicists or literary theorists, and then become more specialised towards the end of the review if the book is specialist.

"That way, you are forced to consider why the book matters outside a niche while also showing your own deep knowledge of the subject," he suggests.

Soar says that while expert knowledge is good, some academics are so involved in their subject that they sometimes have difficulty explaining it to outsiders. "Some of the best pieces we have published are by academics who are thinking hard about something that is slightly outside their field," he says.

Grayling suggests that when you have finished writing the review you should ask yourself whether you have fairly represented the book, explained what it is about to the readers, supported any criticisms and done yourself justice. You don't want to be caught out making a judgment on a mistaken or skimped reading.

Wagner agrees that if you have given a bad review you need to be extra sure to get the page references right.

She says that as a writer it is not necessarily the rave reviews of her work that she likes best, but those in which it is clear that the reviewer has understood what she was trying to do, whether or not they feel she has managed to achieve this.

Fletcher says that there is no point suggesting the author should have written a different book.

And if you can't resist giving a bad review out of malice - because you're afraid the author's book sales may outstrip your own perhaps - beware, warns Grayling. "Time brings in its revenges for those who wield the pen."


Read the book, making notes as you do so

Back up your opinions, especially if they're critical

Consider the likely readers of the review and of the book

Find a hook to draw in a broad range of readers

Write clearly

Avoid jargon

Be fair

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