What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha

Read Like a Writer

Because we are writers ourselves, we pay close attention to the techniques we discover in the writing we read. I call this “reading like a writer.” When we read like this, there are six things we pay attention to:

(1) Ideas. Ideas are the heart of the piece — what the writer is writing about and what the writer chooses to reveal about it. How does the writer reveal the main idea? What types of details does the writer use? How does the writer achieve his or her purpose?

(2) Organization. Organization refers to the order of ideas and the way the writer moves from one to the next. What kinds of leads does the writer use and how do they pull us in and make us want to read more? What kinds of endings does the writer use and how do they work to make the writing feel finished and to give us something important to think about? How does the writer handle transitions? How does the writer control pacing?

(3) Voice. Voice is the expression of the writer’s individual personality through words. How does the writer demonstrate passion for the topic? How does the writer reveal emotions? How does the writer put personality into the piece?

(4) Word Choice. Word Choice refers to writer’s selection of particular words and phrases to express ideas. What techniques (simile, metaphor, strong verbs, etc.) does the writer use to make the word choice more specific, more memorable, and more effective?

(5) Sentence Fluency. Sentence Fluency is the rhythm and flow of the language as we read it aloud. What kinds of sentence constructions does the writer use? How does the writer vary the beginnings and lengths of sentences? How does the writer use “sound” effects like alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm?

(6) Conventions. Conventions are the ways we agree to use punctuation, spelling, grammar, and other things that make writing consistent and easy to read. How does the writer use conventions to make the writing easy to read and more meaningful? Does the author use conventions in unusual ways that are successful?

Reading Like a Writer

Here’s my writerly reading of the first paragraph of a short story called “Eddie Takes Off”:

    Eddie had always been able to fly, but it wasn’t until his fifth birthday party that he realized that it would turn out to be a bit of a social problem. Until that embarrassing day on the Johnsons’ lawn, Eddie’s parents had treated his airborne peculiarity as something of a childish whim. “Boy’s gotta stretch out, learn what he can do,” said his father. “I just worry that he’ll hurt himself, you know, bump into the ceiling or get his eye poked out by a bird, I don’t know...” said his mother. For the young Eddie, flying was just another discovery about his developing body, like learning that he could reach out his arm and ring the bell on his cradle railing, or finding that he loved the taste of peas. The first time his parents came into the nursery and found Eddie hovering a foot or two off the floor it came as a bit of a shock. But, after all, parents are forever discovering special little things about their children. Eddie’s mother thought that perhaps they should take their son to see a specialist, but his father vetoed the idea. “It’s not like anything’s wrong with him, and I don’t want him getting a complex about it.”

— From Eddie Takes Off by Ben Hippen

(1) Ideas. A flying baby boy in an otherwise realistic setting is a curious and compelling idea.

(2) Organization. The opening line makes me want to find out more about Eddie’s flying ability and the embarrassing incident on his fifth birthday.

(3) Voice. The author’s voice is light-hearted and playful, just as one might imagine a flying baby boy to be.

(4) Word Choice. The phrase “airborne peculiarity” seems like the perfect way to describe Eddie’s unique talent as viewed by his parents -- as though it were something just slightly odd or mildly eccentric.

(5) Sentence Fluency. The balance of the two quotes works nicely. And the last sentence, laid out in four pieces, with just a little bit of alliteration near the end, sounds smooth and satisfying.

(6) Conventions. The use of the ellipsis at the end of the mother’s comment makes her seem even more vague than her clichéd words imply.

Getting Started

The beginning of a text is always a great place to take time for a close reading. Take the opening page of any novel you’re interested in and read it like a writer. Respond to the text just like I responded to “Eddie Takes Off” by making a few comments for each of the six activities.