Recently I was lucky enough to be the technical reviewer for a new accessibility book - Beyond Accessibility Compliance by the very talented Sukriti Chadha. It was a wonderful chance to help, in a small way, bring another valuable book to the discourse of such an important topic.
It was a wholly different experience to writing a book from scratch (something I’ve already written about), and overall very rewarding. Because of this, I thought I’d write a little about what it asks of you, but also what it gives back, because I think the latter is far greater. Here’s why I think nearly everyone could benefit from giving it a go…
How it works
For this one I was approached by the publisher to review the book, having written a book with them before on a similar topic. However publishers are always on the lookout for technical reviewers, so reaching out to a few will always be welcomed. It goes without saying that if you’re reaching out, showcasing your expertise is a must - how you’re qualified to review a book on this topic. There are some traditional methods of proof:
- ✍️ Books or articles you’ve written yourself
- 📚 Other books you’ve reviewed
- 💬 Talks/interviews you’ve given
But if you don’t have any of these, don’t be deterred! A lot of attention is also paid to:
- 👩💻 Industry experience (years, companies)
- 📝 Personal publications on the topic (blogs etc.)
- 🤝 Proof of engagement in the space (meet-ups, hackathons, initiatives within your company)
- 🥳 General enthusiasm in the topic (books read, courses taken etc.)
The last point is a big one - proof you’re fascinated by the topic is proof that you’ll put the work in around fact-checking and be curious enough to ask the right questions for clarification.
It’s far less hassle than writing a book
Once you’ve been asked to review one (🎉) the first, and most obvious point to make, is that the effort involved in technically reviewing a book is significantly less than actually writing one, so don’t fret. How it works is that you’re provided with the book chapter by chapter. Each one will arrive in a state where the author is happy with it, and so everything should be on the table for discussion. A few typical things are:
- Wording, phrasing, grammar, and spelling
- Checking whether sources are reputable, and whether there are better alternatives
- Stats or quotes that have been taken out of context
- Strong counter-arguments to points that the author may not have heard of or thought about
- Technical points that are incorrect or inaccurate
- Points that are vague or unclear
You’re usually paid by the page, and so your compensation is always relative to your effort. You sometimes have a situation where you’re asked to review chapters when they’re first put up for review, and then the completed manuscript to review how it flows as a whole book, so double pay!
Importantly, you’re also not being paid to find X amount of issues or areas of improvement per chapter, which makes the process feel less stressful - you don’t need to root out issues where there aren’t any, or feel compelled to add pedantic comments simply for the sake of ensuring that you get paid. If anything, adding a comment to say that something is especially great will only make the process feel nicer from both sides as the author goes through your feedback.
It’s a easier first step towards engaging with a field
Through this, you’ve dipped your toe into a new field, received a credit in a book, and gotten your foot in the door with a publisher, all of which makes future reviewing opportunities easier to get, as well as a book deal yourself if it ends up interesting you.
I didn’t review a book until after I’d written mine and, if I had the time again, I probably would have preferred to review one first. If I’m being honest, I felt attacked at points as the author, which certainly wasn’t the intention of my wonderful technical reviewer. She was simply pointing out issues and trying to help make the book as good as it could be. I think it’s difficult to see that when you’re so attached to the work, but it’s certainly made harder when you haven’t given those comments yourself, knowing the intention you had behind it.
You learn a crazy amount
In order to corroborate everything that’s in what you’re asked to review, you have to do a fair bit of research! This can range from a simple search to ensure a stat is right, to forming a clear counter-argument backed up by relevant examples. In either scenario, you come away with a much stronger grasp of the subject you’re a part of - essentially, you’re being paid to learn.
Even in the situations where you’re reading something that turns out to be accurate, you’ve come away learning something. It won’t feel like just reading a book in this sense, more like being part reader, part marker, part editor, and part researcher. Just think of all the newly discovered and honed skills!
It’s a confidence builder
People often worry about imposter syndrome, or doubts about how much they really know about an area. Never have I found that to be truer than when I decided to be involved in making books. You really are putting yourself out there.
However, being the one to catch an incorrect approach or assumption in a chapter, and suggesting an alternative, reminds you that you do know what you’re talking about. The more chapters you review, the more your confidence grows. It ceases to be this great unknown, fearful experience and transforms into something challenging but enriching. By the end of it, I was ready to go again! (after a little rest).
From doing this, I became more confident both writing and speaking publicly on the topic. There is of course published material that now backs up your credentials, but I certainly found the biggest change to be internally. I suddenly believed I could speak on the topic - to offer my advice and my opinion, whilst knowing that I didn’t know everything thanks to what I’d learned whilst writing and reviewing. It’s a quite a gift it gives you.
You learn to question everything
I found this to be an interesting outcome of all of the exploration that came with reviewing. My critical thinking when it came to reading or reviewing anything afterwards was so much better. I was able to get to the heart of a written issue quicker, could clear away excess words or redundant sentences easier, and developed a heightened clarity for my own writing so others didn’t need to do the same for my written words.
With so much communication happening over Slack, Discord, and Email thanks to the advent of remote or hybrid working, we rely more than ever on our ability to convey what we mean to a high standard when writing. Being able to do this well likely saves a business countless hours, and reviewing long-form text like a book really improved this for me.
You get to make a book better
Now everyone that grabs a copy can learn the things you’ve learnt, and you know that it’s gone out into the world in far better shape than when you first found it.
We pick up books to learn things - accurate and truthful things - about a subject that we don’t know but are interested in. Very rarely will a reader research themselves (unless in a scathing review) and aren’t expected to. Your good work ensures that nobody has to.
You get to decide if you’d like the writing process
It’s not quite the same as writing it, but doing this provides you with a much closer look than you otherwise would get at what goes into making a book. If you’re critiquing a chapter and find yourself thinking “jeez, I would not want to be the person dealing with all of these changes” you may want to reconsider writing a book! Still, it’s better to learn it this way than after you’ve agreed to write one! On the other hand, you may find the fear factor behind writing one disappear chapter by chapter, as you realise that you can break it down into sensible chunks, and have talented people all around you to ensure that it can be a success.
So there you have it! I genuinely believe it’s a challenge that anyone could benefit from in some, if not many ways, and I’m very glad I took the chance to do it. If you’re interested, start speculatively reaching out to publishers. Even if there isn’t a book right now that relates to your interests and expertise, they’ll keep you on record and can reach out if it ever changes. A few emails in a few minutes, and who knows what might have your name on it in the years to come…