Thursday, January 12, 2012

5 Tips for a Great Manuscript Review

By Guest Blogger Donna Morrissey

A key ingredient for publishing a successful textbook is the review process. Before a book is published, while the manuscript is still in draft form, publishers will seek out the opinions of other experts in the field to read the manuscript and identify weak areas and incorrect content as well as the strengths that make the book worth buying.

This feedback is critical for helping authors fine tune their work and for ensuring the book's success. As any writer can attest, one can lose sight of the forest while in the midst of the trees.

As an author gets deeper and deeper into the writing of individual chapters, it can be difficult to maintain continuity between chapters and keep track of all the details. For reviewers, particularly instructors who are involved in making decisions about what textbooks to use for their courses, it's a good way to keep an eye on the latest trends.

So what makes for a good review?

#1 — A good review focuses on the content as a whole. When teaching a course, does this content explain the material clearly? Will students understand what they're reading? Will they gain the knowledge needed from reading these chapters? Will instructors need to develop a host of supplemental materials to fill in the blanks that the book does not address?

#2 — A good review compares the manuscript to the textbooks they're already using. Does the new book do a better job of explaining the important concepts? Does it cover more topics than their current textbook or is it ignoring important topics that one would expect to see? Does it provide the most current information? Does it identify other resources students can easily access if they want more information?

#3 — A good review examines the learning outcomes or objectives given at the beginning of the chapter. Are they clear? Are they attainable? Are they practical? Will a student be able to accomplish these objectives after reading the chapter?

#4 — A good review also examines the review questions given at the end of the chapter. Do they prompt the student to think about what they read or can they copy and paste the answers from the text? Are the questions relevant to what's covered in the chapter? Do they assume more than what a student of this course would be expected to know?

#5 — Ask: Are key terms clearly identified and defined? Do the terms help broaden a student's vocabulary and knowledge? Do the terms help students deepen their understanding of the subject?

These are all elements authors and publishers need to know are being done well. A textbook that does not explain the subject, fails to inspire students to think critically about the subject, or does not provide students with tools to help them transition from understanding the concept to putting it into practical application is not a good textbook. Reviewers who provide this type of feedback are a valuable resource for publishers, authors, and for the market in general.

What does NOT make for a good review?

What does NOT make for a good review are reviewers whose comments focus on the mechanics of writing or the more technical issues. Many reviewers return chapters of manuscript with pages filled with notes about misplaced commas or typos. Publishers typically hire people to fix those mistakes. They're called copyeditors.

Reviewing drafts of chapters is understandably difficult. It can be distracting to read through a text that's filled with dangling participles, passive verbs, and split infinitives. For people who love language and writing, it can be hard to resist the urge to delete that unnecessary comma or insert that critical semi-colon or circle that annoying typo. I can respect that.

However, reviewers need to keep in mind they were approached to review a manuscript because they possess a level of expertise about the subject at hand and not because they have mad English skills. As a developmental editor, part of the job is to help guide authors in their writing to ensure they are expressing the content in a clear, concise manner that is useful to students and instructors.

Although a DE may be fairly knowledgeable in many areas, most of them aren't experts in any one particular area. Receiving solid feedback from reviewers can confirm that the authors are on the right track or give them the evidence that tells them a new direction is needed.

Copyeditors, on the other hand, have a completely different set of skills. They are trained to spot the smallest detail and the slightest wonkiness in sentence structure. The range of their knowledge extends from the most glaring of spelling mistakes (loose vs. lose is a favorite) to the finest detail of semantics and word selection (read that last paragraph...should it be 'ensure' or 'insure'? Are you sure?). They can recite their prepositions on command and know the differences between an en dash, an em dash, and a hyphen. They'll go to the mat to defend their placement of commas and apostrophes and woe betide the person who uses "it's" or "its" incorrectly.

Copyeditors may seem a bit obsessive, but that's why we love them. They'll take those draft chapters and vigorously disinfect them from spelling errors, grammatical errors, and ambiguous wording. By the time the manuscript gets to the printer, it will be as smooth as a baby's bottom with not a blemish in sight. Trust in this, reviewers.

So, let go of your inner copyeditor and tell us: After this book is published, will you use it?