By Kristy McCaffrey
Writing is an inherently private endeavor, despite any support group an author might have. As such, it can be exceedingly difficult to gain perspective on one’s own work. And while the input of other writer’s opinions should be sought, along with editorial advice, the feedback can sometimes prove to be confusing. As such, we must learn to be our own best guides in our writing life. Reviewing books and judging writing contests can offer a unique avenue to improving your own writing.
For two years I worked on the book review team for Women’s Adventure magazine. Book solicitations were forwarded to us and we were each allowed to choose (or not choose) any of the selections. And while most of the books submitted (via authors, publishers, and publicists) were adventurous memoirs, we also received fiction books and even a few romances. This selection process showed me several things: each reviewer (there were four of us) had her own personal likes and dislikes, the presentation of a review query was so very important (explain your book and why we would want to read it but keep it short, and include relevant links to a website, book page, etc.—don’t make a reviewer hunt for them), and finally there’s an element of serendipity to getting your book read and reviewed.
Some books I requested I dove into and loved immediately. Some books, while well-written, didn’t contain subject matter terribly interesting to me, but by reading a little every day I could reach the end. Then there were other books, ones that I’d requested but once they arrived I couldn’t seem to muster up any enthusiasm to read. There were also a few that, once begun, were badly written. I always gave a book at least three chapters before giving up. But if I couldn’t in good conscience recommend a story, I would pass on the review. Issues with these books ranged from rambling, incoherent chapters with bad transitions to shallow storylines (adventure memoirs require a certain amount of digging deep emotionally) to too much telling and not letting the story simply unfold. Sometimes an author would interject with a 20/20 vision of hindsight from page one and never stop, which can be a huge impediment in narration (and, to be honest, is annoying to read).
Book reviewing helped me understand how my own writing might be lacking in both presentation and depth. It also expanded my reading repertoire and this can have a profound impact on your own writing curiosities.
Judging a writing contest is a wonderful way to give back to the community in which you make a living (or hope to). Many authors are asked to judge unpublished writers and I’ve always done my best to offer constructive feedback and not just return a scoresheet with a number on it. But what really opened my eyes about the subjectivity of writing was judging a published writer’s contest. In each instance, I was given polished and excellent works. It was a huge challenge to score such a contest, because there was very little to critique. It really came down to my own attachment to the story and the characters. I really felt bad for the stories that didn’t win because in most instances, they all deserved to win. So, if your books aren’t claiming awards, it may have nothing to do with the quality or your abilities as a writer but everything to do with how your tale connected with the reader/judge.
By reviewing and judging other writers, critical skills can be sharpened, serving as a catalyst to improve writing skills even if one is a seasoned author. It can help you identify what styles and tropes resonate, and which ones don’t. Even better, you’ll understand where your work falls along the writing spectrum.