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Writing Book Reviews

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All good and serious writers are readers too, and writing reviews of good books is one way to gain experience, contribute to the writing community, be a good literary citizen, and begin establishing yourself as a writer. Even if you don’t yet have links to published writing on your website, you can include links to your published book reviews to begin building a writing portfolio and to give readers and prospective publishers a glimpse into the way you think and the way you write.

How Do I Write a Book Review?

Before you start writing your first book review, and ideally before you even start reading the first book you plan to review, do your homework.

I suggest you start by educating yourself about how to write a book review. John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism is a great place to start learning “[h]ow to assess other people’s work graciously and fairly.” Especially important is to include at least one extended passage from the book to give readers a sense of the author’s style, but be careful not to quote from the book too much. Fair use allows reviewers to quote from books because it’s for educational purposes, but limits the amount a reviewer can pull from the book. Also important: Don’t review your friends’ books. Maintain some distance and objectivity.

Equally important is to learn How Not To Write a Book Review. Writing for Slate, Robert Pinsky dissects two early 19th century reviews of John Keats’s work. He notes that the reviewers were not objective and were more interested in looking smart or irreverent than they were in providing an honest review of Keats’s work. But their failings went beyond those things: “[B]oth reviewers are undone not simply by their own meanness or eagerness to shine or unfairness or social or political prejudices—nor by blindness to the genius of Keats. Their self-wounding failure is more fundamental than that: Both reviewers fail to fulfill the three golden requirements for book reviews.”

Pinsky then goes on to discuss what those three golden requirements are:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Some things to keep in mind: Book reviews are not synopses or summaries. Readers want your analysis of the book. They want to know what you think about it. They want to know what recommends the book and the writing so they can decide if they want to read it. Don’t give away the story. A good rule of thumb is never to include any plot or details that are more than halfway through the book. Sometimes, you don’t want to go even that far–use your judgment. You can write about the ending in a vague way that doesn’t spoil the book for readers, e.g., was the ending satisfying to you as a reader?

Here’s an example from my review of Kristin Arnett’s novel Mostly Dead Things for The Coachella Review. Notice that I write about the ending without telling readers anything about how the book ends:

Arnett writes about a landscape and people she clearly knows and loves. She gives readers the gift of letting us see them too. Mostly Dead Things is insightful and is full of the beauty of the commonplace, even the ugly. The ending is hopeful, but not overly so. It doesn’t give away the realism that Arnett successfully worked so hard at crafting throughout the book, and it leaves room for the reader to imagine what comes next, which is something I always appreciate in a story.

Next, read book reviews. Read a lot of them from different but good sources.

Here are some of my favorite places to read book reviews:

The Los Angeles Review of Books (literature section)

The Los Angeles Times (books section)

The Rumpus (book reviews section)

The Coachella Review (book reviews section) (note: this is where I got my start reviewing books)

GXRL (books section) (note: I am the books editor for GXRL–pitch me!)

How Do I Find Books To Review?

Literary journals, magazines, and newspapers are all markets looking for reviews of books coming out in the future. You’ll want to pitch reviews of books that are coming out in several months in order to give the market time to approve your pitch, to give yourself time to read the book and write the review, and then to allow time for you to work with the publication’s editor to polish the review. Look at the websites of the markets you want to pitch to see what they have to say about the kinds of books they would like to see reviewed.

Sign up for NetGalley to not only browse books that are coming out in the next several months, but to request copies for review. Do internet searches for lists of the most anticipated books coming out soon, like Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2022Vulture’s 49 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2022, Bookriot’s Most Anticipated Books of 2022, and Oprah Daily’s The 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2022.

How Do I Get Copies of Books To Review?

NetGalley: NetGalley is a great place for new reviewers to get started. Their whole thing is to connect readers with e-copies of books to review. Once you have a few reviews under your belt, you’ll find it easier to be approved for more high-profile books. Be sure to review every book you request and receive in order to establish your credibility. (So be careful not to request more than you can review within a reasonable time frame, hopefully by the book’s publication date.)

Book Publishers: You can request an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), which is just what it sounds like–an advanced copy of a not-yet-published book to be read by readers who wish to write a review. You can request an ARC from the marketing department of any publishing house. Go to the publisher’s website and find the appropriate person. For example, if I wanted to request a review copy of The Pink Hotel by Liska Jacobs, coming out on July 19, 2022, I’d do a search to find out which publisher is publishing her book, I’d end up at the MacMillan Publishers website, and I’d dig around and find, under contact info, the company’s instructions for requesting review copies. If you’ve already received approval to review the book for a specific market, be sure to include that information in your email, as well as some information about you and links to any book reviews you’ve already written.

Markets That Publish Book Reviews: Some markets already have particular books in mind that they’d like to have reviewed for their publication. If you’ve already established yourself with a market or have links to other reviews you’ve written, you can ask that they assign a book to you to review. Some markets will add you to an email list of prospective reviewers and let you know when opportunities to review books arise.

How Do I Read for a Book Review?

Depending on where you get the ARC, you may get an ebook version, which you can read on an app like Kindle. If you request a book from NetGalley, you’ll get an ebook and have several options for how and where to read it. If you get a book directly from the publisher, you will likely get a .PDF emailed to you or a paperback ARC sent to you in the mail.

Make notes as you read. I used to highlight, which you can do in the physical ARC or with tools in an ebook or .PDF. I no longer highlight. Instead, I’ve started keeping soft-bound reading journals to record my thoughts as I read, write down short quotes with the page numbers, and write down the page numbers where I can find longer quotes. I find this works better for me–once I’m done reading, I refer to the notes in my reading journal, and the bulk of the review writes itself.

What kind of notes do you make? We all have thoughts as we read.

  • Ooh, this is a beautiful sentence!
  • I really love the way the author does this.
  • I’m not sure I like the way the author does that.
  • I like the way the author incorporated this idea into the book, or describes places, or lets us inside the characters’ heads.
  • I was expecting something different at the end of the book, but the ending was a pleasant surprise.
  • I was expecting something different at the end of the book, and I felt cheated.
  • I’m seeing a specific theme emerge here.
  • I think I see what the author was trying to accomplish here.
  • I think I see what the author was trying to do here, but I’m not sure it works well.
  • This section of the book is really evoking some specific feelings or memories.

We have these thoughts as we read, but when we’re reading to write a review,  or keeping a journal for any other reason, we write these thoughts down. Readers want to know what you think about the book, what you think about what the author is trying to accomplish, and whether you think the author was successful.

Where Do I Publish My Book Reviews?

There are endless markets looking for quality reviews of upcoming books. You can use services like Duotrope and Submittable to find literary journals and magazines that publish book reviews.

Most markets will ask that you pitch them first, rather than send a completed review. Some markets accept complete reviews. Read the market’s guidelines carefully and follow them.

As I mentioned above, NetGalley is a good place for a beginning reviewer to get started. You can publish a review on NetGalley even if you aren’t going to publish it anywhere else and get some credits. If you are going to pubish the review elsewhere, I suggest you include an excerpt of a line or two on NetGalley with a link to the full review. That way, you get credit with NetGalley for posting the review and also promote the review, but you don’t plagiarize yourself and create duplicate internet content that competes with the market that published your review.

IMPORTANT: Consumer reviews on Goodreads and bookselling websites are helpful to authors if done in the right way, but can cause authors harm too, if not done with care. No, it isn’t your job as a reviewer to boost an author’s career, but neither is it your job to show off or be snarky and tank a book’s Goodreads score. Approach those reviews with the same professionalism and respect as you would for any book review, as set out below. As a writer yourself, you know how much work, blood, sweat, and tears go into writing a book. Don’t give a book a poor rating because it’s not the kind of book you enjoy or because it’s too many pages long or because you don’t like the author or because the book arrived with a damaged cover. Write the review with the same respect and consideration you’d like reviewers to give to your books.

More Book Reviews!

I learned most of what I know about reviewing books from Heather Scott Partington, who is also on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics’ Circle, an organization you may want to join if you are serious about reviewing books. Heather is my go-to person when I want to see how it’s done right, so be sure to read some of her reviews.

Here are a few of my favorite writers and friends who also happen to write book reviews:

Amy Reardon

Jackie DesForges

Matt Ellis (click on “Literary Reviews” in the top menu)

Ioannis Argiris

Trey Burnette

Laurie Rockenbeck

Collin Mitchell

I also write book reviews. You can find a list of mine here:

Leanne Phillips (scroll down to “Book Reviews”)

WRITER TIP: I’m going to repeat something I already said because it bears repeating and is usually ignored by readers who come to me asking how to write a book review. If you want to write a book review, read good book reviews. Read lots of book reviews from lots of sources to see how they are structured and what kinds of things they include and don’t include. The reviews you read will all be different from one another, and as you develop your own style, yours will be different too. But do your homework before you dive in. Learn the basics, and think about what kinds of books you want to review and what kind of reviewer you want to be.

Reading Journals

During the month of December, I saw a great many social media posts about the number of books people read during 2021, as well as posts about how many books people planned to read in 2022. Last week, as 2021 wound to a close, I watched a video of a woman setting up a beautiful reading journal. It was gorgeous, really—she got creative and decorated the pages and different “spreads,” a scrapbooking or bullet journaling term for sets of pages intended for specific purposes. I was enthralled. She started with decorating the inside cover—it was lovely, and I considered whether I might do something like that myself for 2022. She then created a cover page and a quote page–okay, very nice. Next, she created spreads for an index, a 2022 reading tracker with a goal of reading 115 books, a spread of books she especially wants to read in 2022 with space to rate them–I found anxiety begin to creep in. Finally, she created a “book bracket” to help her pick her favorite book of the year–whew!

“Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.” —David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time

At this point, I was on the verge of a panic attack. First, I have to admit, part of my reaction was due to the fact that, outside of writing, I am in no way artistic or crafty. But the biggest part of my reaction was due to where I am at in my life right now. To be fair to this woman and her absolutely delightful reading journal, I just came out of five straight years of college filled with reading lists where much of my reading material was decided for me. Even the books I chose for myself the past five years were selected with a purpose in mind–to help me learn to write a closer point-of-view or how to begin a story or how to add subtext. I kept reading journals the whole five years—as I read, I filled the journals with my thoughts, favorite quotes, notes on the way an author did a particular thing, or passages that would support what I intended to write about for the critical papers I was required to write. I read so many great books for school, and I was thrilled to read them, but still, it wasn’t quite the same as grabbing a promising-looking book from a shelf and diving into the unknown.

Reading has always been a big part of my life, but it was a major part of my life while I finished college, and it’s nice having a record of my reading experiences. But right now, racing through books to try to reach a number goal doesn’t feel the least bit enjoyable. I have a lot going on, and I tend to make everything in my life a big project with detailed lists and goals. So, for me, the thought of tracking my reading in this particular way at this particular time in my life feels overwhelming. For the record, I actually love the reading-journal-making video, and when I step back and look at it from the point of view of not having to do it myself, it is not overwhelming at all.

My 2022 reading journal: isn’t she lovely?

During school, I kept my reading journals in plain notebooks. This year, I did treat myself to a fancy reading journal in which I likely will not create any spreads. I’m just planning to note the titles and authors of the books I read throughout the year. I just want a space to note anything that comes to mind while I’m reading the book. I especially love writing down favorite passages. So it will be similar to the journals I’ve been keeping, but only with a fancy cover to celebrate beginning a new journey–reading not as a student, but as a working writer who will always be a student of the work I am reading.

But I will not be setting a number goal of books to be read by the end of the year. Instead, my reading goals this year are both more abstract and more focused. I plan to make space in my life for reading in a way that adds more to my life as a human being and as a writer, for example, reading before bed rather than watching television. (Too much screen time for work and social media has been a killer lately.) I also plan to read more books by Latinx writers and other BIPOC writers. I plan to buy my books from brick-and-mortar stores this year, but I also plan to make use of our local lending library and to read books that are already waiting for me on my shelves or in my TBR stacks. Finally, I plan to be especially choosy about the books I write reviews for this year and to give those books my best–I want my book reviews to matter.

I started the year off with a palate cleanser, a book designed to clear my head and reaffirm my intentions for reading books. It’s a book that’s helping me find my way back into reading for myself and myself alone: The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time by David L. Ulin. As I write this, I’m finding that the book is already helping me re-decide for myself what reading means to me, what it gives me, and how it makes me better in ways that count. If you’re interested, you can get a taste by reading “The Lost Art of Reading,” Ulin’s Los Angeles Times essay that inspired the book.

The next book I’m going to read this year is …. Actually, I have no clue which book I’m going to read next, and that’s part of the fun. I’ll make that decision when the time comes. Whether I read a dozen books or fifty books or one hundred books this year, my biggest goal is to enjoy reading.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not averse to more complex and goal-oriented reading journals. They’re just not for me right now, coming off several years of goal-oriented reading. It’s something I may try in the future, when my life is a little less complex.

If you’re into creating a reading journal, here are a few articles with creative and beautiful ideas for spreads:

My Bullet Journal Makes Me a Better Reader

8 Creative Ways to Track Books in Your Bullet Journal

Bullet Journal Spreads and Ideas for Book Readers and Bloggers

You can also find lots of ideas on Pinterest, as well as reading journal tutorials on YouTube. Here’s the lovely video I watched last month and again, in a less-panicked mode, this morning, before I wrote this post:

What are your reading goals for 2022? I’d love to hear about them–please chime in on Twitter or Instagram.

READER TIP: Whether it’s simple or complex, I really do recommend that all writers keep a reading journal. I started doing so five years ago, and it’s been life-changing. Overall, it’s added to my love of reading, and it’s nice to be able to go back and find things like a particular quote you loved, a thought the reading inspired, or an idea that informs your work-in-progress.

The Reading Writer

Here in no particular order are five of my favorite books on the writing craft and the writing life:

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

I love the structure of this book, as well as its wisdom. The book is organized into four sections which are fairly self-explanatory:

  1. The Shape of Fiction. This section is a guide to the various forms a story can take.
  2. A Cautionary Interlude. This section consists of two subsections: Write What You Know and Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.
  3. From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction. This section is an encyclopedia of literary terms and devices, such as point of view, voice, and narrator. It’s more detailed than a glossary, providing subterms and examples.
  4. Readables: Where to Learn More. This is a great resource listing some of the better craft books.

“Reading about writing isn’t writing…. [N]o book on fishing will bring home a trout, and no book on fiction will write your story.” –Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This book offers a little bit of everything for writers. Stephen King provides suggestions that will improve your writing, but he also inspires and motivates. He shares the story of his writing career, the beginnings of which may not be too unlike your own. He also shares what writing means to him.

The book is structured in the following sections:

  1. C.V. In this section, King details his life and journey as a writer. I don’t know about you, but I always find it inspiring to read about someone who succeeded at the things I want to succeed at and to learn they had beginnings as humble and faced challenges as difficult as my own.
  2. Toolbox. In this section, King discusses the tools all writers need to have available to them.
  3. On Writing. Here, King discusses the craft of writing and offers tips based on his own experiences.
  4. On Living: A Postscript. In this section, King writes about the accident that nearly took his life a little over 20 years ago and the happiness he found when he returned to writing during his recovery.
  5. And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open. This section offers a glimpse into King’s revision/rewriting process.
  6. And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist. A list of about 100 of King’s favorite books as of On Writing‘s publication in 2000.
  7. And Furthermore, Part III. An updated list of about 80 more books that became King’s favorites in the ensuing 10 years, before the 2010 edition was published.

“[Y]ou can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” –Stephen King, On Writing

Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction by John McNalley

This relatively thin 147-page book may be my favorite book on the craft of writing. It’s basic in the best way–it’s written simply, it’s engaging, and it covers the topics many of us have questions about when we start writing, things like, What makes a good story? What makes a good beginning? How do we create tension? What should our title be?

Each section of the book has exercises at the end, and the book concludes with a list of recommended reading organized by category: books cited in Vivid and Continuous, books on the writing craft, books on the writing life, and some of the author’s favorites. This book could easily be read in one or two sittings, and readers will come away having learned concrete ways to improve their writing, like this:

“Whenever possible, crunch time. If you have an idea for a short story that takes place over many years, ask yourself if it will work over the course of a month or a week. If it takes place over a week, can it happen in a day? If it takes place over twenty-four hours, would it work having it take place over an hour? Crunching time is one of the most effective ways to make a piece of prose more immediate.
–John McNally, Vivid and Continuous

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book should be on your bookshelf.

I’m currently taking a year-long copyediting course. Last weekend, I read 80 pages on punctuation and hyphens. The night before last, I read 25 pages on numbers. I share this to let you know that English grammar can be a slog.

This is why you will appreciate Dreyer’s English–this beautiful little book is a much more enjoyable option for those who want to brush up on the basics and polish their writing until it shines. The author, Benjamin Dreyer, is the copy chief at Random House, one of the “Big 5” publishing houses. He writes with charm and wit and offers often humorous examples throughout the book. He delves into the rules, to be sure, but he also addresses “nonrules”–traditional rules that are unhelpful to creative writers. Some of my favorites of his observations have to do with writing habits that may be grammatically correct, but are annoying and make writing dull.

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.” –Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer

This last one is for fun, but it’s for motivation, too. This is an anthology–authors writing about the day jobs they once had and quit. The short pieces have titles like “Tote Monkey” (Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I; Never Have I Ever); “My Shit Job” (Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions); “Connie May is Going to Win the Lottery this Week” (Connie May Fowler, Before Women Had Wings; A Million Fragile Bones); and “Why I Worked at the P.O.” (Silas House, Southernmost).

As an emerging writer, it gives me great comfort to know that John Grisham once sold underwear at Sears and that Winston Groom sold encyclopedias and didn’t publish Forrest Gump until he was 43.

I’ll share my favorite: Joshilyn Jackson writes about an office job which she thought would be right up her alley: “The first thing I thought of was Jennifer on WKRP in Cincinnati, laughingly refusing to do everything her boss asks.” Jackson puts her talent for storytelling to work–she makes up a fake boyfriend named Dan to cover for the fact she spends her weekends at home alone, writing and drinking beer. It backfires when the lack of details in her story lead her coworkers to conclude that Dan is married and that Jackson can do better.

“I liked how they all rallied around me and took my side. I began to slant the Dan stories. He cancelled on me a lot at the last minute. He bought me a gym membership for my birthday because he said I was ‘pushing maximum density’–a line I stole directly from The Breakfast Club. He promised to join me at the office Christmas party, but he never showed. I paged him several times, to no avail, then crept theatrically away to pretend to cry in the bathroom.”–Joshilyn Jackson, “Tote Monkey,” Don’t Quit Your Day Job

One last observation: There are some good craft books out there, but if you want to become a better writer, the best two things you can do are (1) write consistently; and (2) become a voracious reader of all kinds of books. Read well–choose excellent, well-written books, contemporary novels and classics, best-sellers and indie gems, critically acclaimed books and books that are recommended by trusted friends. And read widely. Yes, read in the genre in which you are writing, but read outside your genre as well. You will learn a lot.

WRITER TIP: Get a library card.

On Opening Paragraphs

My friend Jackie recently reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the first time since she was in junior high. This is a middle-grade novel written by Elizabeth George Speare. It was originally published in 1958, and I haven’t read it since I was a kid. According to Jackie, it still holds up, so I decided to read it again too.

When I reread the opening paragraph, I was blown away. It made me think about a lecture my MFA advisor Tod Goldberg1 once gave about the opening paragraph of Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter. Between the two, I was inspired to write this post.

Here is the first paragraph of The Witch of Blackbird Pond:

On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor. Kit Tyler had been on the forecastle deck since daybreak, standing close to the rail, staring hungrily at the first sight of land for five weeks.”

This paragraph consists of only two sentences. Two sentences. Reading it carefully, how many pieces of information does it give us? Here are some of the things I came up with:

    1. The story we are about to read begins “in mid-April”–it is springtime.
    2. The story begins in the morning.
    3. The story begins in 1687–it is the late seventeenth century.
    4. The story begins on a ship.
    5. The particular ship is a “brigantine,” a two-masted sailing vessel that navigated the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century.2
    6. The name of the ship is the “Dolphin.”
    7. “Dolphin” is an English word, so we know this is an English ship.
    8. The ship is fast–it sails “briskly.”
    9. The ship is no longer on “the open sea,” but is now sailing along the Connecticut River.
    10. The ship is entering a harbor, so we know it is about to dock.
    11. Based on the name of the river and the time period, we know where the ship is about to dock: in the New England Colonies.
    12. The ship has been sailing for five weeks, so we know the ship’s passengers have undergone a long journey from far away.
    13. This first paragraph introduces the protagonist, Kit Tyler.
    14. We can guess that “Kit” is a nickname, and therefore, even without reading the back cover, we can guess the protagonist is probably young.
    15. This first paragraph gives us the first glimpse inside the protagonist’s point of view–she is so anxious to see land that she has been hugging the ship’s rail since daybreak.
    16. Kit is on the forecastle deck–the uppermost deck and the most forward part of the ship, “standing close to the rail.” She is physically pressed forward, like Kate and Leo in Titanic; she is as close to the action and to land as she can possibly get.
    17. Kit is staring at the shoreline “hungrily”–she is not only anxious to see land, she is hungry for it; she is anxious to be off the ship and wants to be ashore.
    18. Kit is alone in this opening paragraph. Because our protagonist is a young woman traveling alone on a ship in the seventeenth century, we can assume some things about her personality and her character, e.g., that she is brave, independent, and adventurous.
    19. This first paragraph already raises some questions: why has Kit traveled to the Americas and why is she traveling alone?
    20. The first paragraph already arouses tension, too: what will happen to Kit in the New England colonies in the late seventeenth century? The book has the word “witch” in its title, and Kit is arriving in Connecticut about seventeen years after the Connecticut Witch Trials (which lasted twenty-five years) and only five years before the Salem Witch Trials began. I am already anxious!

Anything else?

This seems like such a simple paragraph. Two straightforward lines of prose written with uncomplicated language. It appears effortless, but based on my experience, I am guessing Ms. Speare worked over this opening paragraph many, many times. She used her words economically, made each word earn its keep, and crafted tight prose that gives the reader a great deal of information without resorting to flashbacks or information dumps.

Two sentences. Before the third sentence, Speare has grounded her reader completely in the story. She then takes her reader right into a scene. And not only is she in a scene, she opens that scene with dialogue–a conversation between Kit and the ship’s first mate, Nathaniel Eaton. The opening dialogue immediately propels the narrative of the story forward:

“‘There’s Connecticut Colony,’ a voice spoke in her ear. ‘You’ve come a long way to see it.'”

Again, so understated, but so packed with meaning.

Take a look at a few first paragraphs of classic novels:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. –Jane Austen, first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice

One sentence and we are already drawn in by Austen’s sarcastic sense of humor and have a good idea where the story is headed.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Leo Tolstoy, first paragraph of Anna Karenina

Again, this opening paragraph consists of just one line, but it immediately provokes thought, ignites tension, and again, gives us a clue as to the kind of story we are about to read.

And perhaps my favorite opening paragraph of all time:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodologically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” –Herman Melville, first paragraph of Moby Dick

By the time we’ve read this opening paragraph, we know more about Ishmael than we know about many of our own close friends. He’s broke, he’s depressed, he’s bored. He is over it. People annoy the hell out of him. He sees strangers walking down the street and wants to knock the hats off their heads! He’s alienated from society. He needs to get out of town before he loses his temper. He heads to sea because he finds the ocean calming and healing–the sea centers him. He tells us in the first line that the story he’s about to share happened many years in the past, so we know that, whatever happens on this journey, he will survive to tell the tale. Ishmael has invited us to call him by his first name–we are his friends and his confidantes. And we can relate. One hundred and seventy years after this novel was originally published, we can still relate to what Ishmael is feeling. Eight lines into this story, we are right there with him as he embarks on this epic journey. (Notice, too, the rhythm of Melville’s sentences, the way he alternates short and long sentences, like the ebb and flow of the sea.)

Reading good, well-written books is one of the best things writers can do to improve their own writing. I especially love to study the opening paragraphs of novels. A great writer squeezes a lot of information into a relatively short space in order to ground the reader in time and place, introduce one or more main characters, establish the plot, and create opening tension.

WRITER TIP: Reread the opening paragraphs and opening lines of some of your favorite books. Does the author give you the information you need to dive into the story without using an info dump? How does the author engage you and create tension? Does the author begin to characterize the protagonist within that first paragraph? How does the author make good use of each and every word? Think about ways you can do the same in the opening paragraph(s) of your own novel.