The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Reviewing in ELT publishing

Over the past few weeks, I've been reviewing materials – it's one of those jobs within ELT publishing that doesn't get talked about much, but which can be surprisingly satisfying and useful for career development … whatever stage of your career you're at.

By reviewing, I'm not talking about writing book reviews of already published materials, I'm referring to work that goes on before publication.  Draft materials are sent out to reviewers to get feedback on as part of the process of development. Exactly who, how and when will vary depending on the type of title and also depending on the publisher and publishing schedule. I can only talk about the reviewing I've experienced both as a reviewer and as a writer on the receiving end of reviewers' feedback.

What is the job of a reviewer?
The first thing to say is that reviewers are not editors. Editors work closely with writers to help develop the content, the format, the style and then along the line, to nit-pick the details and polish up the manuscript. Reviewers, on the other hand, are much more at arm's length and provide an outside perspective on the material.

Often in ELT, reviewers will be practising teachers working in the target market(s) for the book who are ideally placed to comment on how well the materials are likely to work with their students. They may pick up on issues that would never have occurred to the writers or editorial staff. Reviewers can also be specialists in a particular area brought in to assess the material from a specific angle. I've acted as a specialist reviewer looking at vocabulary using my corpus skills, at content designed to teach academic skills or at whether material hits the mark preparing students for a particular exam. From a slightly different angle, I've also written reviews of published material for publishers who are planning new editions and thinking about what to change.

The number and type of reviewers will vary as will the stage at which they review the material and how much they're asked to look at. Reviewing may be a one-off process or it may be repeated. And how much of what the reviewer says will reach the authors will vary too. As a writer, I've had instances where the full reviewer's report was sent to me directly, but more often it's been filtered through an editor.  And of course, the feedback that comes from different reviewers is often wildly contradictory, but that's a subject for another day!

What makes a good reviewer?
When a publisher asks someone to review material, they will typically provide a fairly detailed brief, often a set of specific questions that they'd like the reviewer to answer. They're not looking for a long rambling report on what you think of the material in general and what they definitely don't want is a list of typos and suggestions for better wording! A good reviewer addresses the specific issues they've been asked to look at, giving clear explanations, reasons and examples to back up the points they make – including, if possible, both positive and negative points. Of course, the writer/publisher wants to know about any potential problems with the material, but they also want feedback on what you like, what you think your students will like or what will work well in the classroom. There will often be space for extra comments outside of the target questions, but here the key is to be selective. Comment on those things that really stand out and seem significant, don't get caught up in minor details – which, after all, might change anyway in the edit.

Why review?
Reviewing may not be the glamorous end of the publishing process – if you're lucky, you'll get your name in a tiny credit on the back page – but it can be surprisingly rewarding.

For teachers hoping to get into ELT writing, it's one way to get a foot in the publishing door. It's a way to build up contacts and being seen to produce a professional, well-informed report, to brief and on time is a good starting point for putting yourself forward for other work. More importantly, though, I think it's a good way to gain insight into the publishing process. The kind of questions that the publisher asks can give you an insight into the concerns and considerations around published ELT materials that may not be the same as those for materials you create for your own classes.

For me though, the most useful part of being a reviewer, whether you’re a newbie or have been writing for 20 years, is the process of reading someone else's material and really thinking about how it works. You don't just look for what works and what doesn't on an intuitive level, but you have to think about why and how you're going to explain that. It makes you realize just how many different balls an ELT writer is trying to juggle all at the same time … how language works, how learners learn language, skills, vocab, grammar, pronunciation, what's interesting and engaging, what's motivating, what works in the classroom, in one context or across different contexts, authenticity, consistency, adaptability, level, age, education systems, learners' aims, exams and testing, diversity and inclusivity, what will be approved by ministries of education, what will sell, timing, layout, page fit, different media, permissions … And of course, it's not surprising that sometimes they're going to drop some of those balls!

Recently, I've been lucky enough to be involved in reviewing some new materials on an on-going basis, looking at each unit as it's written. The material is by some very experienced authors for whom I have a lot of respect. Lots of things are pretty much as I'd have done them myself, but I'm always coming across stuff that I wouldn't necessarily have thought of – clever little additions or approaches that work really well to address a particular issue, that I'm mentally filing away to use myself at some point in the future. And of course, there are also the things that don't quite work, or more often, that are just missing, which mean I have to stop and think about how to explain, to justify, to exemplify my feedback. Sometimes I start to add something to my report then delete it because I decide it's not important or that actually something that comes later overrides my point. Sometimes, a point that initially seems quite minor makes me realize there's actually a wider issue to be addressed.

All in all, reviewing can be a fascinating process to be involved in and for me, it's a really valuable part of my working mix.

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Blogger ultraviolet said...

Hi Julie!

Thank you for that. That's a great insight into some work that looks very rewarding and intellectually challenging.

Good, clean writing too.

Glad to be in touch with you.

Best regards,
Charmaine R.

2:56 pm  
Blogger Lucie said...

What a great article, thanks for writing it! I do quite a lot of reviewing and I love it - I don't have the pressure of having to create stuff from scratch but I can still use creativity when making suggestions and I learn so much from analysing what's there and thinking in great detail about how it would work in my context. Reviewing digital materials had also made me think about new things related to material design which I wouldn't otherwise have been aware of.
Thanks also for the advice about selective correction. I know not to correct typos etc. but other than that, I've always commented on every single thing so I'll think more carefully about what to comment on in the future.

10:04 pm  

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