Top Ten Ways Reviewing Books Improved My Writing
By: Nico Bell
In my years as a book reviewer, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the cringeworthy. Writing is hard work, and anyone who takes that for granted might be unpleasantly surprised when a review of their work gets published. But as I’ve spent time both as a writer and reviewer, I’ve realized that reading and critiquing piles of books has given me insight into what works and doesn’t work in my own writing. Here is a list of ten things I’ve learned as a reviewer that helped make me a better author.
Invest in Cover Art. It might seem odd that the first thing I learned about writing as a reviewer has nothing to do with writing, but I can’t stress enough the importance of a professional cover. It may not seem like a big deal, but the cover is the first impression. For self-published authors who have complete control of their art, it’s vital the cover be a high-quality visual representation of the novel. Of course, cover art is expensive. It’s tempting to take a photo and add your own font and text, or try your hand at watercolors and oil pastels, but unless you’re artistic and you have a natural eye for the visual arts, I highly suggest seeking the help of a pro.
Hire an Editor. As a writer, I understand the desire to have my critique group act as an editor and skip out on hiring a professional, but as a book reviewer, I’m quickly reminded about the absolute necessity to work with an editor to polish a story, not only in terms of grammar, but in terms of story and character development. A developmental editor can turn a good story into an excellent story and an excellent story into an award winner. I’ve reviewed novels with non-realistic characters, plots that drag with no tension, dialogue with no purpose, character names that were accidentally changed and then changed back, and I even reviewed a book containing a sentence that stopped mid-way through. Editors fix this.
Proper Formatting. I recently read a novella with teeny tiny font. No, really. Teeny. Tiny. Font. It took several attempts for me to get through the first chapter because every time I opened the book and saw those microscopic words staring back at me, heat raised in my chest and a fury built in my core. Okay, maybe not that dramatic, but I was pretty annoyed at the self-published author who allowed this book into the world with a font size that literally made me squint. I can understand the desire to keep the page count low, since more pages equals a higher overall publication price, but it must be readable. Also, formatting includes proper margins, appropriate spaces between sentences, and professional and properly placed images before a chapter heading or within the text. Format correctly!
Work with a Sensitivity Reader. This is something that can be done for free (similar to beta readers), and if a book contains sensitive material and trigger warnings, it’s a good idea. Unfortunately, many people have experienced some sort of trauma in life, and it’s important to be respectful when presenting sensitive material in a plot, especially if writing about something you have not personally experienced. Sensitivity readers provide a candid and unique insight that will be valuable to both you and your reader. I can usually spot the books that lacked a sensitivity reader or ignored sage advice, so it’s important not to fall into that category.
Know Where the Plot is and Follow It. This is easier said than done, and it’s something I often struggle with as a writer. It becomes obvious as a reviewer when an author has veered off track. Readers are led down longwinded tangents or made to trudge through backstory to find the action. As writers, we get very possessive of our words, but at some point, it’s important to take out that red marker. Every single scene should move the story forward, whether it’s an action or reaction scene. Every dialogue should reveal something about the characters or plot. Every sentence should have a purpose.
Don’t have Multiple Characters with Similar Names. It’s such a small detail, but it matters to readers. It’s confusing to read a story with a Caleb, Callum, and Chris. Twins with similar or rhyming names become frustrating to follow. I once read a book where the name of the town was only one letter off from the name of the main character. The author may have done it for personal reasons, but it’s important to think about the reading experience. Variety is always a safer option.
Make Dialogue with a Purpose. Talking in real life is different than having realistic dialogue in a book. For example, a real life conversation may go something like this:
Mom: Hey, kiddo. How was school?
Son: Yeah, fine.
Mom: Nothing exciting happened?
Son: No, it was fine.
This is life dialogue and shouldn’t be in a book because it doesn’t move the plot forward, says little to nothing about our characters, and frankly is boring. I’m guilty of adding life dialogue to my books and later taking a red pen and slicing it away to get to the heart of the conversation, but it’s easy to slip back into this sort of everyday language. Beware and remember the reader wants tension, emotion, and action.
Know Where to Start the Book. Oof, this is a big one. Full disclosure, I’m awful at this. My poor critique partners over the years have had the honor of trashing many of my opening chapters in an attempt to find the actual starting point. It’s hard but necessary. Books start around an inciting incident. There’s usually a bit of “normal life” before getting to that big catalyst but knowing how much normal life to put on the page takes practice. Keep at it! It’s important to get it right in order to capture the reader’s attention as quickly as possible.
Become a Wordsmith. When I first started writing about nine years ago, I won a writing contest. The prize was a first chapter critique by a well-know and well-respected author. She kindly marked my work and when it came back, it looked like it had a gnarly case of chicken pox. As a side note, she encouraged me to take time everyday to simply sit and observe the world around me. What did I see? What did I smell? What did I taste? She suggested I keep a journal and explore different areas of my town, writing every little detail during these brief sessions, making sure I include the five senses. She wrote, “With a solid year of practice, you’ll be at a good starting point.” Well, that was humbling. It also was one of the best tips I’ve ever received. So, I did what she said. I still do it. I don’t know if I’m any better. I think that’s for readers to decide, but I have recognized a growth in my adjectives and a diversity in describing the same thing over and over. Authors that put in the work shine on the page. They’re a joy to read, they suck you into their stories, they make you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste a new and fascinating world. They are Wordsmiths, and I’m almost certain if I asked these writers how they got started, they would admit to some form of journaling like I described, because mastering words takes time and practice. Be patient and diligent, and you’ll get there.