THE EDITOR'S DEPARTMENT

LANGUAGE 72.1 (1996)

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT BOOK REVIEWS

 We receive a lot of questions about book reviewing. In this issue's column, we have summarized answers to some of the typical questions we receive in hopes of providing a better picture of the review process and how it fits into the overall editorial scheme. *

Q1:  What's the difference between book reviews, book notices, and review articles? 
Q2:  Are the deadlines and length limitations really important?
Q3:  How important is good writing?
Q4:  What's the correct format for reviews and book notices?
Q5:  How are reviews assigned?
Q6:  Should I send a copy of my review/notice to the book's author?
Q7:   Are responses to reviews published?

 

What's the difference between book reviews, book notices, and review articles?

Sally Thomason's Editor's Department in Language 69(3) describes the types of submissions to Language, and at the risk of redundancy, we review the relevant material about reviews, notices, and review articles here.

Book reviews focus on a particular book (and very occasionally on a pair or set of books). [1] The best reviews are those that cogently summarize a book’s contents, illuminate its strengths and weaknesses, and situate its contribution to the field—all in twelve hundred to fifteen hundred well-chosen words (n.b. effective June 2002, the length requirements of book reviews have been changed to 1200-2000 words). One way to accomplish this is to provide an introductory paragraph placing the book in some context and then move on to a chapter-by-chapter summary with evaluative comments provided along the way. This works particularly well for books with a highly technical central argument, but it is not the only way to proceed. Some successful reviews focus more holistically on key issues that unify the book and contain little summary. (This is especially the case in writing about conference volumes and festschriften, where reviewers need to be more selective. See The Editor's Department column in Language 66(3).) We think that the best way to get a feel for what is appropriate for a particular book is to read a large number of reviews and see what works.

Please note: Book notices have been discontinued as of November 2013. Book notices are generally just that—shorter descriptions of a book's content. Though they evaluate a book's contribution to the field, success at its goal and overall impact, the brevity of book notices limits the amount of in-depth praise or criticism that can be attempted. The typical length of book notices is about 500 words. Book notices are written by volunteers, solicited from twice yearly lists circulated to linguistics departments, previous book notice writers, and now posted on the Linguist List. Books are assigned to qualified volunteers on a first-come first-served basis. We generally send books out as soon as possible, but sometimes a backlog develops, especially when the book notice list is hot off the presses, and there may be a slight delay in getting books in the mail.

Review articles are longer pieces and are actual articles rather than reviews. As Sally Thomason points out in her 1993 column

"Review articles fall into two overlapping categories. The rarer type does not in fact take one or more particular books as its starting point: instead it is a general survey of an area of research, and is not a main article because it primarily reviews past work rather than breaking new ground…. The more common kind of review article takes a particular book (or two) as a stimulus for considering .one or more important issues in depth. It also provides an overview of the book's contents, but the focus is on issues rather than the details of the book."

 Proposals for review articles should be sent to the Editorial Office at language@journals.linguisticsociety.org.

 

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Are the deadlines and length limitations really important?

YES. The deadlines (three months for book notices and six months for reviews) help to ensure that the readership of Language gets feedback about books while they are still current (and still in print), Deadlines are thus even more crucial for material that is of current theoretical interest and that is likely to be passé if a reviewer sits on it for too long. When reviews and notices are long overdue we usually send reminders and in some instances will ask for a book to be returned. We are under no obligation to publish late reviews or notices if they are so dated as to be of little interest to readers.

The length limits (about five hundred words for book notices and twelve hundred to fifteen hundred words for reviews) are important for a different reason. Each volume of Language is limited to about nine hundred pages of text. This means that the more vigorously the length limitations are enforced, the more reviews and notices we will be able to publish. (2006 update:  Please note that all book notices accepted after summer 2005 will be published online at the eLanguage website rather than in the print journal Language; this will free up more space for research articles and full book reviews in the print journal.  But this change of venue for book notices in no way diminishes the general need for authors--whether of reviews or of book notices--to observe length restrictions in a conscientious way:  the point being made here remains as valid now as it was ten years ago.)  This, in turn, means that we are able to have more books reviewed or noticed and more linguists heard from in the pages of the journal. Of course, we are unlikely to ask for revisions on a notice or review that is just two or three hundred words over. But beyond that, we will ask for revisions. Note, by the way, that it is not necessary for a book notice to use the whole five hundred words or a review the whole twelve hundred. [2]

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How important is good writing?  

Writing short reviews is an acquired skill, which involves getting the reader's attention and moving quickly through a series of convincingly related main points leading to a final overall impression. Each review and book notice goes through a three-stage editorial process; it is examined by the Review Editor, by a copy-editor, and by the Editor. (2006 update:  In the future, book notices will undergo a somewhat different process, as they will be published online at the eLanguage website rather than in the print journal.  We will have updated information about this change in the editorial process soon.)  Submissions with organizational, stylistic or format problems are often sent back for revision or are edited outright. So clear writing helps everyone, since the less revision and editing that is needed on a submission, the sooner it will find its way into print.

We maintain a list of strong, interesting writers, and these are often the first people solicited for book reviews.

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What's the correct format for reviews and book notices?

The guidelines are on the website.  

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How are reviews assigned?

When books are received, they are logged into the Publications Received file and categorized as either 'full review books,' 'book notice books,' or 'not for review'. Books that are clearly of interest to the whole field or that are especially notable contributions to a particular area are almost always assigned to the reviews category. Conference proceedings, published dissertations, textbooks, dictionaries, and grammars are almost always assigned to the book notices category. Occasionally a book may shift from one category to another—if, for example, several potential reviewers pass on a book, it may be put on the book notice list rather than further delay a review.

Reviews are solicited by the Review Editor, consulting with the Editor and the Associate Editors as needed. Solicited reviewers are sent a form letter, asking whether they can review a book and, if not, to suggest other potential reviewers. It's important to respond to these queries even if you aren't able to review a book. We try first to get the ideal reviewer for a book, in hopes that if that person cannot do the review he or she will have suggestions for other qualified reviewers.

We are sometimes asked whether writers of book reviews and notices need to be members of the LSA. While we certainly hope that regular readers of Language would join the society so they can read Language in the comfort of their own home, there is no membership requirement for reviewers or notice writers. In fact, we welcome any increase in the pool of reviewers with scholars from related fields. We do ask that graduate students have book notices supervised by a faculty member who examines the manuscript before it is submitted to the Review Editor. This is done on the honor system.

Reviews should not be done by close colleagues of a writer. Similarly, if a solicited reviewer feels that he or she cannot review a book fairly because of a personal or professional conflict with an author, he or she should decline.

Language does not solicit books from publishers or authors, since we then feel committed to publishing a review or notice and if a reviewer fails to complete a review, as sometimes happens, we are unable to honor that commitment. We also do not consider for publication reviews of older books. For discussion of material that has been published for some time, the appropriate forum would be a review article or discussion note.

When you publish a book, be sure to ask your publisher to send a copy to Language.

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 Should I send a copy of my review/notice to the book's author?

We recommend that you do, particularly if the review is more negative than positive. No one likes to open the latest issue of Language to a negative review of his or her work, and advance notice of a review can both avoid hard feelings later on and cut down on the number of potential corrections that we are asked to adjudicate by providing authors with an opportunity to give feedback directly to reviewers.

We encourage reviews that are critical in the true sense of the term, providing a well-supported discussion of the merits and deficits of a book, and we will never refuse to publish a well-supported negative review. But we do want the readership of Language to be a community of scholars, and in a community, the neighborly thing to do is to circulate reviews to authors.

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Are responses to reviews published?

We prefer to see the pages of the journal taken up with more reviews and notices than responses and rejoinders. There are two special categories of submissions that are available for authors wishing to pursue further discussion of a topic: Corrections appear at the end of the Editor's Department column and are intended to correct factual errors in articles and reviews (see Language 66(3), 67(3), 68(4), and 70(4), for examples); and Discussion Notes are brief (twenty-five hundred words or less) forums to discuss issues raised in the journal or relevant to the field as a whole. [3] Items intended for these categories should be sent to the Editorial Office at language@journals.linguisticsociety.org.

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