Reading doesn’t only give you a sense of story and a familiarity with written language, it also stimulates your imagination, and it’s imagination that gives birth to an idea for your own story, but book reviewing takes the benefit of reading one step further.
The benefits of book reviewing for authors
Taking the step from reading to evaluating what you read turns the reading into a learning experience, and the more you learn about writing, the better able you are to evaluate what you read. The better you are at evaluating others’ books, the better you will be at evaluating your own books, particularly if you take a step from what you like, to what you consider good writing. What you like is personal, but what you consider good writing is more objective, and if you can develop a degree of objectivity in evaluating others’ books, you can also apply that objectivity to evaluating your own books.
The ability to evaluate your own work objectively and in comparison to quality works in the same genre is enormously helpful for an author who wants to write a quality book. It is a skill well worth developing, and the process of considering what you would write in a book review (even if you don’t actually publish that review) is an excellent way, and probably the fastest way, to develop the ability to evaluate your own work objectively.
The reason I kept re-writing my first novels was because I was able to be objective about what I’d written. I found it hard to admit that my writing was still not as good as the other books I was reading, but I was determined to write the best book I could, and so I did admit it. That and the ability to stick at it until I was completely sure that my work stood up well alongside books such as the Harry Potter Series was what enabled me to get an agent for Lethal Inheritance. Had I not been so objective about my own work and so determined to produce a quality product, I would never have achieved that much or found a publisher for the whole series.
The part application plays in learning
After beginning my study of the writing craft and writing the first few drafts of my first book, I began book reviewing, and I wrote well over 200 reviews in a couple of years. Through reviewing books, I became not only more objective about my own work but also familiar with the elements that made a well-crafted book.
Unless you consider and apply what you read or hear about a subject you won’t learn it very well. That’s why courses involve exercises. Reviewing how well a book meets standards of craftsmanship helps you understand the craft of writing. Book reviewing is like an ongoing exercise for our writing study.
How to approach reviewing as a learning tool
No matter what you read, you probably have an opinion about it, even if it’s just whether you like it or don’t like it, but in order to help you learn the craft of writing, you need to be more objective that that.
Even if you only consider why a novel works or why you couldn’t read past chapter two, it will help you to know what to do and what not to do in your own writing. It’s good to read other readers’ reviews as well, so if you see a lot of people complaining about cliff-hangers or very short books you’ll know it’s a good idea to avoid them. I figure it’s best not to annoy readers if you want them to read your next book.
But if you’re to evaluate craftsmanship, you need to have a clear idea of exactly what that entails, and the wonderful thing about coming up with a criteria for evaluation is that it gives you a list of the kinds of things you, as an author, need to study.
A criteria for book reviewing
I set up the Awesome Indies Book Awards which gave ‘badges of approval’ to books that met the same standards of craftsmanship as mainstream books and ‘seals of excellence’ for those we considered outstanding. I and a group of experienced reviewers (most who had editing or formal writing qualifications) set about evaluating not whether or not we liked a book but whether or not it was well written. In order to do this we had to have a set of criteria on which to base our evaluation. The criteria lists the same things we need in our own books if they are to be considered well-written and engaging. Here the list of criteria for evaluation that we used. I still use points 3-7 as the criteria of evaluation for deciding whether or not to accept a book for publication for AIA Publishing.
- The book is correctly formatted for fiction;
- The cover looks professional;
- The plot is well-structured, well-paced, conceptually sound and engaging;
- The characters are well-developed and their dialogue and interactions with others are believable;
- The book is not overwritten or unnecessarily wordy; for instance; no obvious dumps of information, unnecessary repetition or irrelevant scenes;
- Changes in point of view are clear. No head-hopping;
- The prose is well-written and engaging. Where appropriate for the genre, voice and intention, the story is shown rather than told and the writing active rather than passive;
- The book has been line edited, copy edited and proofread, and the grammar, spelling and punctuation usage is consistent throughout.
The points in my Novel Revision Checklist give a deeper perspective on points 3 to 7, and the questions listed there for you to ask yourself about your own book are questions you can equally ask about others’ books. My book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine includes has tips for writing reviews and evaluating books.
To publish or not to publish
Some authors do not want to appear critical of other authors’ books, so there is no need to feel that you should publish your book reviews. You can simply do book reviewing as an exercise. Of course, a good review helps authors to sell their books, and it’s nice to support authors whose work we consider good, but whether you publish your review or not is not important in terms of your learning. The process of evaluation is where the learning happens.
Do you review the books you read? All of them? Some of them?
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You’ll also find my book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: WritingTips to Make Your Prose Shine, very helpful.
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