Book Reviewing: A Tool To Improve Your Writing

Last week I reviewed Stephen B. Heard’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing on the Canadian Science Publishing blog.

“Scientific writing help has now arrived, in the form of Stephen Heard’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. An evolutionary ecologist and entomologist at the University of New Brunswick, Heard has written an engaging and comprehensive guide to writing for scientists. He applies his 25 years of academic experience in writing, editing, and reviewing to advocate for more readable, accessible, and understandable scientific writing.

You may worry that a book about scientific writing will be too long and technical to wade through. That’s far from the case, however, and this book is well worth taking the time to read. Heard writes in a conversational tone, sprinkling anecdotes and historical notes throughout the text that relate to the practice of both science and scientific writing. Each chapter is short and to the point, and ends with a summary of key ideas, plus a series of applied exercises to put Heard’s advice into action.”

I really enjoyed reviewing this book – not just because it was well-written, but because reading a book for the purpose of reviewing requires a much different approach than just reading for personal information and/or pleasure. I found I paid more attention to the overall book structure, in particular, as well as to how ideas were developed within each chapter and then linked between chapters. I observed the use of language, and the resulting accessibility of the text. I made notes in the back of the book as I read – things I knew I wanted to include in the review for the benefit of people who were considering reading it. I felt I got much more out of the book by reading it so closely.

At the same time, I’ve been reading Startle and Illuminate, Carol Shields’ must-read posthumous book about writing collated by her daughter, Anne Giardini, and grandson, Nicholas Giardini. I find I’m absorbing her writing advice and then measuring the books I read against that advice. How is each book broken into sections? What narrative arc is applied, particularly in nonfiction books? How are scenes developed to build a chapter and draw the reader in? How does dialogue keep the story moving forward?

I feel I’ve crossed a threshold in both my reading and my writing. A veil has been drawn back, allowing me to see the behind-the-scenes workings of how a book comes together. It’s like starting with a skeleton and slowly putting flesh on it, until you finally clad it with skin to create a complete human being. Reading Shields’ book about writing, plus reading a book for review, has given me loads of insight into how to put a book together, to sculpt a coherent text from a mass of unrelated ideas.

As luck would have it, I’ve also just joined NetGalley, where you can obtain pre-prints of books to read and review. On my shelf at NetGalley are John Fleck’s upcoming book, Water is For Fighting Over; Ed Struzik’s Future Arctic; Cornelia Mutel’s A Sugar Creek Chronicle; and Estelle Leopold’s Stories from the Leopold Shack. I’ve finished one book already: Mythical River, by Melissa Sevigny.

Given my new perspective on book structure, function, and form, I plan to do more book reviews on my blog. I’ll start with Mythical River, and add more books as I go. Hopefully this close reading will help my own writing, too, as the threads of a book-length manuscript slowly coalesce both in my mind and on paper.

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