Tag Archive: Writers Digest


reviewpyramid I’ll start this review by saying that ‘pyramid’ just refers to the format I’ve decided to use for this, and all future book reviews on my blog. I’ll be dividing into three parts, represented by the levels of the pyramid seen here. The foundation will discuss what I perceive to be the core of the book, the most important part(s). The body is the stuff that’s important but not quite as important as the foundation, and the tip will be all the nit-picking for stuff that may or may not have added something a little extra to the book, but wouldn’t necessarily have been missed had they been left out.

Each section will have a rating: Strong, Adequate, or Weak. The terms are fairly self explanatory but if you’re the kind of person who likes a star system, you can think of Strong as 3 stars out of 3, Adequate as 2 out of 3, and Weak as 1.

One last word before diving in the review: I don’t enjoy slamming people’s work, so I generally don’t spend time giving attention to things I don’t enjoy. As a result, the majority of reviews on here are probably going to be on the positive side. It’s not that I’m an easy mark and just love everything I read, it’s just that I don’t want to talk much about the stuff I don’t love. Every now and then if I manage to find some silver lining I deem worthy of sharing, or on the rare occasion I think something is so bad that I feel it’s my civic duty to warn the general public, I’ll share it via my reviews. A basic rule of thumb though is that if I’m featuring it on my blog, I’d recommend you to read it. Ok, with all that out of the way, on with the show.

Title: The Writer’s Little Helper
Author: James V. Smith Jr.
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books

The Foundation – STRONG

The core strength of this book is far and away its formatting and how the information is presented. This is a reference book meant to be taken off the shelf again and again as your reach different stages in the writing process and is set up in a way that allows you to find what you’re looking for quickly and easily. Everything is classified as either a Tool (a tip or trick you can use, often accompanied by a physical chart or something of that nature you’re meant to photocopy and physically use while writing), a Checklist (there are A LOT of checklists in this book, all of them designed to help you stay on point so  you don’t miss something along the way), or a Q&A (a collection of FAQs of writing advice). It makes everything really easy to follow and find when you’re looking for that one specific bit of information.

It also makes the information easy to digest. I can’t recall any specific tip or section lasting for more than 4 pages, most of them lasting for just two, and always on facing pages so you don’t have to spend time flipping through. This kind of design is to help you stay writing, which is critical for success. 

I also have to mention the content itself, because without strong content, it doesn’t really matter how it’s formatted. The advice in this book is top notch, easy to understand, and gets you excited to try it in your own writing. The side of each page has a colored tab that clearly tells you what aspect of writing is being discussed. Character, point of view, editing, getting your book published, and pacing are just a few of the myriad of topics covered. It isn’t a book that’s going to take you down to the depths of one specific area, it’s a water-bug that skims across the entire lake.

The Body – STRONG

Supporting the content is the author’s voice. Mr. Smith manages to deliver technical/text-book like advice in an easy, entertaining manner. I often found myself laughing out loud at parts, which doesn’t happen all that often in writing how-to books. One of my favorite parts was his guaranteed advice on how-to write a best-seller. “Copy your favorite best-selling author’s novel word-for-word. By hand. Longhand that is.” This kind of tongue in cheek humor ran throughout the book and I found it highly amusing. I also found it quite amazing when he turned his humor into sound advice. He was serious about copying that best-seller word for word. You’ll have to check the book out to find out why (and no, he’s not part of a dark cult of writers who secretly advocate plagiarism…at least I don’t think he is). Overall, it made it an entertaining read, and gave it a kind of ‘page-turning’ appeal usually found in good stories.

The Tip – STRONG

This book didn’t have all that many nits to pick for me. It’s obvious that the author and publisher had a clear idea of what they wanted this book to be, and they took all the steps necessary to hit that goal. Outside of the content and how it was structured though, this is just a pretty book to look at. I admit that I have a bit of ADOS (Attention Deficit OOOH Shiny!) and it doesn’t take much to make me happy in artistic terms. This book had a lot of color and I love color. Bright colors make me happy, and The Writer’s Little Helper had them in abundance, without being too garish or looking like a clown threw up on the pages. The design and overall look of the pages drew me in and kept my attention, and you really can’t ask for more from a design than that.

I’ve read dozens of books of writing advice and this one will forever rank as one of my favorites. The only slight caveat I have to offer is that this book touts itself as one that can help any writer from the seasoned professional to the beginning writer. While I do agree that the advice contained within can help absolutely anyway, it still FEELS like a book that’s geared towards the beginner. But, everyone can do with a refresher of the basics, or a fresh take on the things they already know, so this book would be a valuable asset for any writer to have on their shelves.

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Buy the Book: Amazon, B&N, Writer’s Digest Store

Follow the Author on Twitter: @aVeteranWriter

Follow Writer’s Digest on Twitter: @WritersDigest

Follow me on Twitter: @thewritepursuit

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After taking a look at Kay Honeyman’s (kayhoneyman.com) guest post on Chuck Sambuchino’s (Guide To Literary Agents) blog about how to deal with critiques (something every writer needs to know), my mind started working on just what makes a helpful critique.

If you haven’t developed a thick enough skin, receiving critiques can be the most damaging part of the writing process. It’s up to you as a writer to develop that skin because not everyone is going to love everything you write. Reviewers have a responsibility as well though. Taking a bit of care with your delivery can be just enough to save a writer from hurling themselves onto the tip of their favorite fountain pen.

Many of these ideas blend together and could probably be condensed down into a smaller number than six, but I thought that each one was important and merited its own focus.

Be respectful – There is no need to attack the writer for what they’ve written. Even if it’s the most abominable thing you’ve ever read and you never want to read another word written by that author again, telling people they should be ashamed, or kill themselves for ever having written such tripe is completely unnecessary, and unwarranted. This rule goes double if it’s someone you actually know and who has trusted you to provide feedback. There are ways to deliver the bad news without calling a person’s sanity into question. Find them.

Limit Yourself to What The Author Asks For – If you’re being asked to provide feedback, and the author specifically asks you to comment on a particular area… be it theme, pacing, character names, that scene with the purple alien who only eats guacamole, then do your best to keep your comments confined to those areas. For every author the writing process is different, and if they’re asking about a specific area, then that’s where their focus is at that moment in time. Some don’t go searching for typos until the very end, so telling them of the 2,003 spelling errors in the first three chapters is not going to be helpful. By offering feedback on what they ask about it will help them get to those other areas faster. If you’re the kind of reader a writer comes to repeatedly for advice on their work (congratulations, you’re a trusted associate!) it’s okay to make notes on other areas you see that need improving, but hang on to those for later. If an author doesn’t specify, it’s helpful to ask if there’s anything specific they want you to look at. Failing that, keep your comments broad and don’t zero in on one area too much. Point out one or two larger problems, then move on with a comment like “I did notice a few other things like that and would be happy to go over them with you later if you want me to.”

Be Honest – This can be tough if you’re close to the writer, and also ties heavily into being respectful. If you don’t like something, then by all means tell them directly. Every reader has their own preferences and an author needs to know what doesn’t work for a certain type of reader. If they have multiple readers (and every writer SHOULD have MULTIPLE readers) then they’ll be able to take the feedback and evaluate if it’s a problem with the overall writing or just a problem for a small subsection of readers, in which case changes may or may not be needed. Lying because you’re afraid of hurting a friend, or because you want to get laid by the hot, successful, soon to be globally known writer… it’s understandable, but completely not helpful. It also leads right into the next point.

Be Specific – One of my favorite writing quotes of all time is: “I would rather be damned precisely, then praised generically.” Who said it? Me. I stand by this statement even when a review makes me want to curl up into a ball and ride a boat down my river of tears into oncoming traffic. Comments like “That was great!” and “Loved it!” DO NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER WRITER. They feel good for sure, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to tell someone to never say such things to me, but when I give a work in progress to someone and I’m looking to improve it, those kinds of things are not what I need to here. If you loved it, tell them what you loved, in great detail if at all possible. You loved the characters? What about them? Their actions? Their words? The fact that all of them shared the same name as you for some unknown reason? That’s the stuff a writer needs to know. What’s working and what’s not. If something struck you as off and you can’t put into words what it is… TRY. This is where you call upon your high school essay writing skills: If you say something, back it up with facts. Details, details, details.

Be Thoughtful – What I mean by thoughtful, aside from the thought put into the other areas mentioned here, is to try to remember that nothing is completely good, and nothing is completely bad. When giving feedback, find the silver linings, and find the nits to pick. Even if I absolutely love a piece as is, I feel obligated to point out SOMETHING that could have been better in my eyes. Even if it’s something as trivial as not liking the font chosen. Something as ludicrous as that reminds a smart writer not to fall too much in love with their own work. They may not do anything about the nits you’re picking, and depending on what they are, they probably shouldn’t do anything with them, but it’s a kind of protection against themselves. The reason to find the silver lining in a work is a bit more obvious, and a lot more kind. Silver linings are what keep writers going when the rejection slips pile up. They’re the “Person Who Tries Hardest” trophies when you’re working towards the giant 1st place one. In essence, it’s motivation. Motivation is lifeblood to a writer, and a review with no silver lining is unnecessarily crushing out that spirit. I try to pay attention to how I format my critiques to other writers. I often start with the biggest problem (I’m a ‘what’s the bad news first?’ type), then go into the biggest success. Then I pick the nits, and I wrap up with the silver linings. May not be right for everyone, but no one I’ve reviewed has jumped off a cliff or come at me with a shotgun… yet. Which goes right into my final thought…

Be Prepared for a Fight – No matter how respectful, honest, specific, and good at following directions you are; it doesn’t matter if your silver linings are pure sterling coming out of cotton candy clouds with rainbow pooping unicorns flying above them, at some point a writer is bound to take offense at something you said about their work. That’s their baby. Privately, they might think that Junior is one stroke short of a masterpiece, but heaven help the person outside the family who points that out. This is the danger of critiquing and why all the bad habits of reluctant reviewers were formed in the first place. As a writer, I’m sorry to say that this behavior isn’t going away. It’s up to you, dear reviewer, to take the high road. Defend yourself and your comments, which we will privately admit are spot on (in about 30 years and 2,000 rewrites), but please do not attack back. We plea temporary insanity and throw ourselves upon your mercy, because you, trusted and valued friend, are the only one still willing to read what we wrote… and we appreciate you more than even a genius wordsmith like ourselves, can say.

So there you go… if you can hit those six points, you’re well on your way to being immortalized in the Acknowledgments page of an International Best-Seller. Or, being forced into a lifetime of reading every single piece of crap we come up with. Either way it’s a win, right?……………. Right?

So what’s the least helpful review/critique you’ve ever gotten? Let me know in the comments… or feel free to test my resolve regarding my own critiquing philosophy. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good cry.