Reading to Review

Over the last few years, I’ve experienced an enormous increase in the number of both book and article manuscripts that I’ve been asked to review. I’m not exactly sure why this is happening. I’m neither more qualified than I was a few years ago or more visible. It must just have to do with the cycles of the moon or something.

This is compounded, of course, with running The Digital Press and having the chance to read manuscripts multiple times as they develop toward a final version. I’ve also had the chance to coordinate peer reviews of these manuscript and have a front row seat when authors found the critiques of a reviewer to be less than constructive. (And, as of this year, I’m also the series editor for the Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, and I anticipate more of this kind of work.) 

In any event, one thing I have become more comfortable doing is trying to distance my own expectations from a manuscript. Some of these expectations are bound up in my disciplinary practice, in my training, and in the scholarship that I’ve read and appreciated over my career , and all this informs my idea of what constitutes quality or rigor. To be clear, I recognize that I can’t entirely shed my perspective on a piece when I review, but I do try to step back and understand what a manuscript is doing on its own terms. 

The point of all this is saying that the more I review, the more I get comfortable reviewing other people’s work and I feel like I’m getting more sympathetic toward an author’s goals (and less likely to be “Reviewer #2” or to critique a manuscript for not being what I would write about). I’ve even started to enjoy finding the unintentional in a manuscript and really enjoying the way in which authors ideas leave behind the little eddies in their stream of thought that have their own character, charm, and utility. After all, sometimes the most significant thing about a manuscript isn’t what it says or argues, but the other ideas or arguments that it makes possible.

I’ve been thinking of creating a little guide for reviewer for my press. I don’t want to presume anything about how other people review. I suspect that most people have their own jam when they sit down with a manuscript and that no one WANTS to be “Reviewer #2”, but also that reviews should help the author see their own argument in a different light and create a pathway toward a better final work. The goal of a reviewer, to my mind, is not to be a gate keeper, but to be a hidden collaborator who encourages an author to accentuate and develop the best parts of their manuscript and minimize oversights, flaws, or problems.   

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