It is always an honour and flattering to be offered a post such as book review editor of a respectable journal such as the Edinburgh Law Review (ELR), particularly if you allow yourself to think that you were the first person asked and that there are hordes of colleagues who would give their right arms for the opportunity. In this instance, I think I may indeed have been the first person asked, but jobs like this have to be rotated every few years or so and somebody has to do them so the offer may demonstrate little more than that the chances of my making a pig’s ear of it were considered to be less than 50%. I was pleased to be asked nonetheless.
It is useful, early on in an academic career, to develop the ability to say ‘No,’ when offers of things that involve extra work come along though this is a strategy that can be pursued too far. Some projects will bring benefits while others are inherently worthy. From the opposing point of view, that is when recruiting a volunteer for a post with no immediate and obvious remuneration, a good strategy is to proceed well in advance of any actual work needing done by the victim (prospective post holder) so, “you don’t take over until November and the January issue will all have been taken care of by then,” may prove an effective palliative when delivered in March. This works if, in the mind of the victim, all immediate burdens will be long past by November and irrationally, the future is perceived as containing more available time. In short, nobble your victim before it dawns on him or her as it will eventually, that workloads only ever get worse.
And I very, very nearly made a pig’s ear of my first issue. A disadvantage of taking over a post for which nothing is required for several months is that it permits a vague notion along the lines of, “Oh yes, I’ll need to look at that ELR stuff sometime,” to persist rather longer than it ought. Under such circumstances I received on the Wednesday an email from the editor asking if my submission would be with him on the Friday. My submission, ideally, is 10,000 words comprised of ten book reviews all edited by myself. I had in hand two unedited reviews and that was my lot. Fortunately, it was reading week so I had no teaching. A number of panic stricken emails were fired off, the Old Pals Act was invoked, the editor himself offered to help with editing and certain professors and certain advocates proved their ability to knock off a review at great speed of something they had read. I had inherited from my predecessor an un-reviewed copy of Sir Peter North’s 2nd edition of “Occupiers’ Liability,” so I reviewed that myself, a well-researched and considered text that finds a happy balance between academic interest and practicality and which is commendable for the extent to which it looks beyond the English jurisdiction to the rest of the UK. In the end my submission comprised 8 reviews which was sufficient though it wasn’t quite done by the Friday, a never to be repeated performance which did, however, establish a protocol of early dissemination of submission dates.
Top Tips for reviewers
Starting with the obvious, writing a review is a relatively easy way of obtaining a free book. Never hesitate to contact a review editor offering to review something new which is of interest to yourself. Such requests are helpful to editors who are generally on the lookout for new texts and reviewers.
Read other reviews, especially those written by more senior reviewers: professors, QC’s and so on. You are not looking for guidance on being clever so much as style, interest, readability and diplomacy (see below).
Think about what the review ought to achieve. The reader may simply be looking for sufficient information to decide whether the text is one which they might like to read, buy or order for a library. Bear in mind though that the reader may have no serious interest in the text and may just read your review for the sake of it. Try to make your review of interest to the general non-specialist reader. Don’t be boring!
Don’t feel you need to give a descriptive account of the contents of every chapter. This is particularly a danger with edited collections. It helps here if chapters can be grouped under themes as they often are in such texts. You can be selective in isolating chapters or other elements for particular attention, the review does not have to be fully comprehensive.
Pay attention to the word count for the journal. The word count for the ELR is 500-1,000 words. Short reviews are welcome, because inevitably there will be submissions that stray above the limit and the editor will be concerned that the combined word count of all reviews in an edition is within a reasonable degree of tolerance of a stipulated total. If you are happy with the 800 words you have written, then submit. If you feel you need more space, it is not a bad idea to clear this with the editor in advance of submission. The largest submission I have received was something over 5,300 words which gave me something of a headache.
Pay close attention to whatever guidance you have been given on house style.
When you realise you are not going to make a deadline, inform the editor at an early stage and avoid making promises that you cannot keep. Missed deadlines due to illness or workload or both are however common and the editor will have allowed for this. It is usually possible to extend a deadline although there comes a point where a book has been published for sufficient time for a review to seem out of place.
Finally, be diplomatic. A book that is indigestible is probably best un-reviewed. It is very common and potentially useful to identify possible shortcomings in an otherwise good book, themes that you would have liked to have seen further developed perhaps or a surprising and unaccounted for omission, but the consequence of diving in with all guns blazing may simply be that the review does not get published. In any case, the subtle knife can be a much more effective weapon in this context than a carpet bombing. This is an aspect of reviewing where much may be learned from reading the contributions of senior reviewers.
Senior Lecturer, University of Dundee
(Suggested Citation: G. Cameron, “Thoughts of a book review editor”, available at