A link between writing book reviews and writing your literature review

Last year I published two book reviews. In my country’s higher education system, I get no ‘brownie points’ for writing these, as they accrue no status or subsidy in terms of being ‘proper research’. I know, as a journal editor, that it is notoriously difficult for many journals to fill their book review sections, because producing good book reviews is time consuming, and in many research-incentive systems around the world, they don’t really count as being an activity that ‘pays you back’ as much as journal articles, book chapters or books do. Yet, I think they are a useful and important activity for postgraduate students to consider engaging in.

Firstly, you get a free book. Considering how little funding postgraduate students tend to have for research materials like expensive, pristine hard cover books, a free book is a very cool thing to get your hands on. If you choose to review titles that are connected to your research (and you really should not be doing otherwise), you will have free access to the latest research in your field, and you will be able to join a conversation through that review with the author, and others in the field.

Which brings me to my second reason why I think writing book reviews is a good PhD-related practice: you have an opportunity to make a small argument in relation to the book, and introduce yourself as a scholar in the field. Ideally, a book review is not a precis of the book you have just read. The worst kind of book review takes the reader chapter by chapter through the book, and tells them more or less what they can find by looking at the Table of Contents, and skimming the book themselves. The better book reviews, the ones that add a critical voice to the process of reviewing, identify the central argument of the book, locate that argument within the broader field, and consider the significance of what the author has said, who the book would be relevant for, and why.

Writing this kind of critical book review is a useful activity for scholars working on finding their own voice within the research conversation that want to join, which is a lengthy process that involves reading, commenting on and reviewing a small mountain of published research in your field of study. Learning how to write a critical book review would teach you how to better identify an argument made by an author, consider the ways in which they have convinced you of the veracity of the argument (or not), and what kind of contribution they have made to research in your field. You would have to locate your own point of view on the argument, and express this through the review, not seeking to criticise, but rather to critique, and offer readers of your review insight into why the research in the book matters. Thus, learning to write critical book reviews could really help you to develop a more critical literature review – one that goes beyond summarising and synthesising, comparing and contrasting, and rather shows your command of the selected research you have read and connected, and how it all relates to the study you are engaged in.

I certainly have found writing book reviews a useful exercise for honing my thinking, and for teaching myself to express my ideas more succinctly and clearly. Most journals prefer reviews that are no longer than about 800 words, so you need to learn to make your points directly, concisely and clearly so as to say everything you need to say about the book within the word limit. I have also found them helpful for teaching myself how to get to the point more directly: what is the main argument? Why is this a significant argument? What is the main evidence the authors uses to make this argument? Are there any areas that are fuzzy, underdeveloped or that point to further research? Who could benefit from reading this book? By following this basic set of questions, and making notes as a I read that I then develop into a draft that starts with the argument of the book, and where it fits into its field of scholarship. I can then refine the review to be as clear and concise as possible.

I believe all PhD and early postdoc scholars could benefit from writing book reviews – free books, ongoing opportunities to improve your ability to write succinctly and offer useful critique of texts in your field, and a way of getting your name and an idea or two you have out into the wider world as you work on the more ‘valuable’ publications, like those book chapters, articles and books.

 

Endnote: most journals have review editors. If you are keen to review a book, write to the review editor with your brief proposal of which book you’d like to review and why you think the journal would be a good home for the review – have a careful look at the aims and scope of the journal, and tailor your proposal accordingly. If they accept, they’ll give you a deadline and have the publisher send you the book. There are various versions of this, so make sure you find out exactly what the review requirements and deadlines are before you get reading and writing. Good luck!

Finding and expressing your PhD ‘voice’

I’ve been thinking about this issue of voice a great deal lately, partly because I lost my physical voice when I handed in my final final copy and got it back a week later when I woke up on the morning of my graduation. My best friend suggested that it was symbolic – leaving my pre-doctoral voice behind and gaining my new doctoral voice. I like to think she’s right, but we’ll have to wait and see what this new voice sounds like – the symbolic doctoral one, I mean. It still feels a bit croaky to me…

The issue of ‘voice’ – finding one, expressing it, having it sound to others in your field like one that is authentic, authoritative, sufficiently knowledgeable and confident – is a complicated one. It is complicated, not least, because ‘voice’ is a rather vague concept for talking about understanding knowledge, conceptualising ideas, formulating evidence-based arguments on the basis of the knowledge and ideas and expressing these, in writing, in English (often) and in the right genre, tone and register. There’s a lot that goes into this concept of ‘voice’. So, this is justifiably a concept that puzzles and also worries many PhD students and writers. ‘How do I find my voice? How do I express it? How will I know whether it sounds right?’ These are questions I asked myself over and over (and still do).

To start with the first one, finding my voice, I thought about gaining some kind of confidence in ‘owning’ the concepts and theories I was trying to understand and use in my thesis, and taking confidence here to mean ‘voice’. When I started reading I had very little confidence in myself and in my ability to claim the concepts and theories, translate them through understanding them into my own words, and then begin to put them to work in building my theoretical framework. I read some very useful posts by Pat Thomson on literature reviews and working with texts and with the other, stronger voices of the researchers and theorists I was reading. I kept a reading journal and wrote to myself about what I was reading and what I was thinking about all that reading. Slowly, I started to piece together a few paragraphs, and then a larger chunk, and then two chunks joined together, and slowly I started to find a voice. A small one at first, saying ‘I think this might be useful’ and ‘Maybe this makes sense if we think about it like this’ and (very scary) ‘Maybe this theorist is not completely right and we could think about this issue differently’. It got stronger as I went on, but this is a process, and it takes time and is a bit more circular than linear – you may find and lose your voice over and over as you encounter new ideas and research that challenges you to rethink and rethink again.

Expressing your voice – your ideas and your thoughts and your organisation and summarising of the theories in relation to your own study – is also challenging. It ties in with the third question of how to make your voice come out ‘right’ in your writing so that those reading your work – your supervisor and peers and eventually examiners – will say ‘Ah yes, this is PhD level work’. In facilitating a writing workshop for 4th year students at an early point in writing my theory chapter, I taught myself a useful way of trying to express my own voice.

The students were writing literature reviews for a research project, and were battling to get to the point where they were directing and organising the research they had done in relation to their own projects rather than simply writing down everything they thought was important in the research and doing a summarise, synthesis, compare and contrast type of exercise. I was battling too, unable to see beyond the authors’ words to my own and therefore battling to get to a point of directing and guiding the writing and thinking process rather than being guided by it.

I used a trick I learnt from a colleague, who got it from the work of Toulmin, and it is summarised as P E E or Point, Evidence, Explanation. It’s a quite a simple one to use, and it can be adapted and played with as needed, and depending on the level of sophistication required of the writing. You start with the point of the paragraph (understanding that this point stands in relation to the other points you want to be making in this section/chapter and not on its own). This is your voice coming through – it should not be referenced or a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas but rather you, summarising a key idea you have because of what you have read, and that needs to be fully discussed and developed. It may be one sentence or a couple of linked sentences. Then you go into the evidence – why do you make that point or claim? Who supports you in this claim? What have they claimed or said that you can include to strengthen your point? (Here, of course, you reference the work of others). Then you close the paragraph with explanation that connects your point and the evidence in this paragraph to your research or your study, and that also (if you are in the beginning or middle of a section) links it to the next point or idea. This explanation, for the most part, is also you – your voice – coming through to tell us what this knowledge means in relation to the whole picture you are drawing, and what you make of it (and what you’d like us as the readers to make of it too).

You will find your voice as you go on, and it may be very different from the one you started out with, or quite similar. The starting point is important, as PhD students come into this process from very different places. Many of my peers on our programme have worked for years, and have full-time jobs, families and a lot of experience under their belts. Other PhD students I know are in their late 20s, unattached and still working on getting that experience. The point is not to compare your voice (or apparent lack thereof) with others, but to look to your trusted peers and supervisor for guidance in finding, expressing and finally claiming your own doctoral voice. As my supervisor said to me: ‘Trust the process’. 🙂