Friday, January 15, 2010


Reading Guides, Part II

I've spent a great deal of time thinking about how to present my strategies for writing reading guides. Writing a really good guide--one that helps readers deepen their understanding of and connection to a book--seems to me to be much more than simply writing up a list of questions and activities. In fact, the more I considered how I approach the writing of guides, the more I realized that I treat each book entrusted to me as if it were something on a grad school literature course reading list. I'm going to explain what I mean with one caveat: If you are writing guides for your own titles, some of my suggestions may be impossible to employ but, for now, we're going to start by assuming you are writing materials for a book that is not your own and double-back to by-the-author guides a bit later. Read it either way because there is still some useful stuff here (I hope) as well as a bit of insight into how a marketing professional approaches a book.

I generally divide the task of writing a reading guide into two steps:
(1) The format of the guide

(2) The content of the guide

We'll begin with format. I have found that having a sense of the "shape" of the guide before you begin to read and analyze the book/manuscript is both helpful and effective for producing a high-quality and timely piece.

THE SHAPE OF THE PROJECT. If you've been hired to write a guide, you want to clearly establish a word count or page length for the entire piece; determine the function of the guide (bookstore shelf-talker; promotional piece for educational conferences; website content); confirm that you will be responsible for content only (not design or visual materials, unless this is your preference); and set a deadline for your work.

Here, for example, is a link to content I wrote for the back of a poster promoting
 WIND FLYERS by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Loren Long.

GUIDE COMPONENTS.You may want to consider whether your guide will include some or all of the following components:

1. a book summary (note that if the guide is being used in an educational setting, it may be preferable to design the summary so it does not function as "Cliff Notes" for young readers but more as a teaser to read the whole book).

2. author biography and/or bibliography (often publishers have this material available and you can simply edit to suit your needs--ask if this is the case)

3. discussion questions (how many)

4. activities, such as research projects or ways to tie the content to multiple curriculum areas (how many)

5. literature based activities/prompts for writing

6. website or additional reading resources

After I have established what the editor, author or marketing staff has in mind for the guide, I like to make a sort of template, providing a heading for each type of material that has been requested along with some notes on length or number of questions/activities. I put this at the very back of my mind as I give the manuscript its first read, but it is good to have it there in some form.

THE FIRST READ. The first time I read any book, I try to ENJOY it as if I'd just taken it from the library for pleasure. I want to let the story sink in, to hook into the author's prose style, and to feel happy, sad, excited, informed, etc. Even though reading guides are written on deadline, I think it is very important to appreciate the author's work first as his or her carefully crafted, beloved book. Remember that you are writing a guide to promote this book--to produce something that will get it into the hands of more readers--so it is important to connect with it first!

I loved David Lubar's HIDDEN TALENTS and was thrilled that, after the first read,
I was going to be able to write and think more about this great story.

Must get back to my own ms right now. I've been under a lot of writing deadlines and got a bit behind on blogging this past week. More by Tuesday, no later, I promise! Have a happy weekend.

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