If you’re a regular reader of book reviews you’ll have noticed that certain phrases and expressions crop up regularly.
Reviews of crime novels and thrillers will frequently tell you that the book is “full of suspense” or “a page turner” that “kept me guessing”. Among reviewers of contemporary and literary fiction, ” compelling” and “intriguing” feature prominently as does ” characters that linger long in the mind. “
I’m not being sniffy about this. It’s hard work trying to come up with new ways to express an opinion or to convey the essence of a book. There’s an art to reviewing with the best practitioners able to produce an article that in itself is a fine piece of writing. One that entertains as well as informs. I’m in awe of the people (usually those who write for the high-brow, serious outlets) who can sustain high quality and a level of freshness time and time again.
I’d love to have even half their level of skill. Writing reviews is a painful process for me, trying to balance the need to give readers a sense of the book’s style and themes without getting bogged down in details about the plot. With every piece I tackle, I’m conscious that I might have used the same (or similar) form of words only a few weeks earlier.
If I have a tough enough time with roughly 50 reviews a year, imagine the challenges faced by magazines which, over the course of a year, must publish hundreds of reviews.
The Times Literary Supplement has squared up to this issue with a strong line on phrases and words they deem unacceptable or inappropriate.
Here is their list of 20 words and phrases that reviewers must be sure to remove before submitting their articles.
I’m sure a number of these will be familiar. I bet you’ve all seen literary classics described as “baggy monsters” or humorous novels that made the reviewer “laugh out loud.”
I plead guilty to using some of these terms myself. I know I’ve used the phrase “these are minor quibbles” or variants of it, many times. Ditto “searing indictment of …” Often it’s just laziness on my part, opting for the easy approach rather than investing time to re-phrase or do a thesaurus look up.
The rationale for the TLS’ inclusion of most of these phrases is clear. When you read them without context they can come across as silly. “Writes like an angel” strikes me as particularly ridiculous. Others are just over-worn (“rich tapestry”) or outdated (like “curate’s egg”)
But what’s wrong with “eponymous hero”? I’m even more baffled by the guidance to avoid saying an author “reminds one of Martin Amis”. Is the problem the use of the impersonal pronoun or just the reference to Martin Amis? Why, out of the hundreds of thousands of authors in existence is he the one to be singled out?
The TLS’ editorial team must have invested considerable time and effort to select just 20 words and phrases. It would be interesting to see what didn’t make it onto the list.
I’m wondering which words/phrases I would have included. “Awesome” would definitely be on my list though I can’t honestly see TLS reviewers using that word. “Life-affirming” would be in contention, as would “unmissable.”
But generally I’m not keen on the idea of prohibiting words en bloc just because they are cliched or ubiquitous. Sometimes you use a well-worn phase because there is no other expression that so perfectly captures your ideas about a book.
I’m curious what you think of the TLS’ selection. Any surprises about the inclusions or omissions? Those of you who write way more reviews than I do, how do you avoid using the same expressions over and over again? Any tips and tricks to share?
If you’ve had a book blog for several years you might be thinking it’s time to freshen up the way it appears to readers.
One obvious solution is to change the theme. But it takes time to sift through the hundreds of design options to find the one offering the right layout and functionality. And if you use plug ins, you could find that some of these won’t work any longer so you’ll have to find replacements.
There’s another – and simpler – solution: just change the colour of your text. You can change the text colour across the whole site. Or you can just change the colour of headings and a few words. You might decide for example that you want to use colour to draw attention to the title of the book you’re reviewing.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on three ways to change text colour in a WordPress site. Let’s do the two easiest ones first!
Method #1. Change Text Colour Using WordPress Classic Editor
WordPress editor gives you the ability to put individual words, sentences, paragraphs, or subheadings in a different colour from your main text. The method you’ll follow will vary slightly between WordPress classic editor and WordPress Gutenburg editor
1.First you need to create a new post or a page and add your text (or you can edit an existing piece of content).
2. Click on the toolbar toggle icon on the far right. You’ll see a second row of icons which give you additional formatting functions.
3. Select the text whose colour you want to change. Click on the arrow to the right of the A symbol to access the dropdown menu.
The colour palette gives you 39 colour options. The small “x” in the bottom right corner will activate “no colour”, meaning the text colour will automatically adjust to the default colour.
A word of caution about some of these colours. The yellow, teal and peach might look pretty but text in those shades will be hard to read. As a general rule, avoid the pale tints. Dark and solid colours work best against a white background.
4. If you don’t like these colour choices, you can get more flexibility by clicking the word “custom” underneath the colour squares.
5. Now all you need do is click the small circle and drag it within the colour rectangle to find the shade you want. As you move around you’ll see a corresponding change in colour square in the bottom right corner.
You should also notice that the numbers shown in the text boxes labelled “R” “G” “B” and “#” also change. The RGB numbers indicate the specific composition of your colour (the proportion of red, green and blue). The “#” figure is called a Hex code and is a shorthand formula for each colour.
It’s well worth making a note of these numbers so you can be sure to use the exact same shade across all your site.
6. When you’re happy with your choice, just click on “OK”. Your custom colour will now be saved in the colour palette.
Method #2. Change Text Colour Using WordPress Gutenburg Editor
1. Create your text using the paragraph block or heading block.
2. To change the colour of the entire block, simply click on the block. You should see the block settings panel on the right side of your screen.
3. The visual editor will show you some options based on your theme. Just click on one of these to change your text colour. Or choose a custom colour by following the same steps as in the classic editor. If you also want to change the colour background for a text block, you can do that here.
To change the colour of just a few words, or a sentence, you need to use a slightly different technique.
4. First highlight the word(s) you want to change. Then, click the small downward arrow on the content editor toolbar to reveal a drop down menu of formatting options. Why the Gutenburg developers thought it a good idea to hide these behind the arrow, is a mystery but that’s where you’ll find the ‘Text Colour’ link.
5 Click on that to see the same colour options you had when changing the text within the whole block. This includes picking one of the default options or selecting any colour you want by using the custom colour link.
A few extra things worth knowing:
- If you change your mind about a custom colour you selected, just go back to the colour palette and hit the “X” – it will restore the default. .
- You can also change the text colour of a bulleted list but only by highlighting each line in the list. the colour of a whole list block. Nor can you change . Very irritating.
- You can’t change the colour of the bullet point in a list. Any colour changes affect the whole line
- You can change the colour of individual words in a heading. But you cannot change the background colour of a heading.
Method #3. Change Text Colour Across
The Whole Site
Every WordPress website has default font colours depending on which theme you selected. Some work better than others. Light grey body text, for example, is difficult to read when set against a white background.
Can you change these default colours?
Yes you can but only if your selected theme allows customisation. Mine does but it’s very limited. I can change only the colours of the blog header and the background colour. If my selected theme was more compatible with Gutenburg block editor I would be able to do a lot more colour customisation.
Your theme may give you more flexibility. So here’s what you need to do.
1.Open your WordPress dashboard, select Appearance – then Customize to open up the Theme Customizer.
2. Once in the Theme Customiser look for an option such as ‘Typography’. The name of the option will vary depending on your theme. If you don’t find anything like this, you’re out of luck unfortunately.
But if you do find something like typography, you should get another menu which looks similar to this:
3. Click on “Body” You need to click on this to get the colour palette. Choose your colour just as you did when changing the colour of individual words and headings. The choice you make here however will change the text colour in all your posts and pages.
If you want to change colours of all headings across your site, this is also the place to do just that – you just click on each heading size and select the colour.
Didn’t work for you? If you’re prepared to put effort into it, there is an alternative method you could use to change the default font colour. I warn you though that it’s rather more fiddly and technical and is available only if you have WordPress.com Premium or Business plans. It involves the use of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) code.
I’ve had a peek at some of the instructions and decided it’s far too complicated. Even WordPress says it can occasionally be complex. I don’t have the enthusiasm to battle with coding, especially when it looks as if I have to change themes anyway to overcome some compatibility issues with my current theme.
If any of you are feeling emboldened however and want to have a go at the CSS method, just leave a comment here and I’ll get you the instructions.
If you have a go at any of these methods, let me know about your experience. Don’t forget to check out the other articles in the A2ZofBookBlogging series page.
A new version of WordPress was released with a big fanfare this week, heralding upgrades to existing features and introducing some new elements.
I’ve been playing around with a few of the new and revised tools, trying to work out whether the advertised benefits stack up in reality.
I ignored all the features that are really aimed at people who are using a blog to support a commercial operation, like a restaurant or a photographic studio. As a “hobby” blogger if you will, I’m interested mainly in two things:
- will WordPress 5.5 make it quicker or easier for me to run my blog and
- will it give my readers a better experience.
Many of the changes I tested relate only to what is called the block editor (also known as the Gutenburg editor). This is where WordPress is putting all its focus and where any new developments will take place.
Now I know some book bloggers are using block editor and loving it. But there are many of you who much prefer to stick with the classic editor. Maybe you haven’t tried block editor yet or you did, and didn’t enjoy the experience. found it too complicated. Right now you still have a choice which to use but I’m hoping that hearing about these changes will persuade you to either give the new editor a go, or to give it a second chance.
When you create a post or a page using the the block editor, you get a pretty good idea of how this content will look to your readers. Incidentally I think this is one of the major advantages of block editor. I got so frustrated when using the classic editor. I’d “publish” only to discover that all my efforts to align my text and images, had been wasted. The images were all over the place. You don’t get that issue with block Editor!
Even so, it’s still a good idea to do a content preview check before you publish or when you have updated some content. The new WordPress version gives the ability to preview your content on desktop, tablet and mobile screen sizes. So you can make sure your content is more accessible and readable for everyone visiting your site. With more and more people accessing web content via mobile devices, this is becoming increasingly important.
I found the preview function really simple to use. Not only can you see different preview versions you can open them in a new window, making it easy to flick back to your editing page.
Verdict: Thumbs up
The editing process has been tweaked as part of the 5.5 version.
- The toolbox, which is how you change the format of text or insert links, or change the size of a heading, has been enhanced. Formatting options for subscript and superscript text are now available.
- It’s now easier to move blocks of text around using drag and drop
- More ability to control the size of the text within each box
- There are now more options to change the background colour of text blocks. In the earlier version you were restricted to a solid colour background, as in this example:
One Moonlit Night was written in the Welsh language and published in 1961 under the title Un Nos Ola Leuad. The first English translation was issued in 1995, followed by a BBC radio broadcast in English the following year.
But with a few of the content blocks, you can now opt for a gradient. Here’s how it looks if you choose the “Media & Text’ block.
One Moonlit Night was written in the Welsh language and published in 1961 under the title Un Nos Ola Leuad. The first English translation was issued in 1995, followed by a BBC radio broadcast in English the following year.
Some of those upgrades, like the text size controls, are good news. But I’m not all that wowed by the new options to add a gradient background. The colour palette is limited and the option is restricted to only a few special blocks. I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to put in a code (which I always forget) to get the exact shade of blue I’ve selected for my site. I could not get the drag and drop to work.
Verdict: Thumbs Down (I was expecting more)
I was more excited about the new inline image function (or as I prefer to call it “on page editing”. This means we can now more easily and quickly edit photos and graphics as we build the page
As of WordPress 5.5, you can crop, rotate, zoom and adjust image positions without the need to launch the Media Library.
Just to give you a flavour of what’ possible, take this image which I’ve used on an earlier post.
In the older version of WordPress, if I’d wanted to edit this image, I’d have to either do that in my photo editing programme or open media library. I usually do the former because it gives me more control.
But with the new version, in 2 clicks I can change the image proportions and the orientation. I can also rotate the picture with a third click to give an image that is far more impactful.
If your book blog is predominantly devoted to reviews and the only images you use are book covers, then these image editing tools probably won’t have much appeal. But if you write other types of content, like discussion topics or list posts, and you want some appealing images to illustrate your point, no doubt you’ll enjoy this feature.
Verdict: Thumbs Up
Most of the time when I’m creating a new post or a page I use the basic content blocks of:
If I wanted to go further and create a professional looking layout, I could take advantage of an extensive library of other blocks. I could create tables, put text into columns, have galleries of images for example.
WordPress 5.5 gives even more layout options via something called block patterns. which are predefined block layouts allowing users to quickly add complex structures of grouped blocks.
Most of these are of no interest to me but there are one or two which could be interesting. This block for examples enables you to easily show text in two columns, giving more of a magazine look and feel.
The character and pursuits of the famous gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing. An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays, made away with three-quarters of his income.
The rest of it went in a doublet of fine cloth and velvet breeches and shoes to match for holidays, while on week-days he made a brave figure in his best homespun. He had in his house a housekeeper past forty, a niece under twenty, and a lad for the field and market-place, who used to saddle the hack as well as handle the bill-hook. The age of this gentleman of ours was bordering on fifty; he was of a hardy habit, spare, gaunt-featured, a very early riser and a great sportsman.
Exploring these options however was a frustrating experience. So many of them are not compatible with the theme of my blog. Even those that do work, seem very fiddly to use so I think I’ll give them a miss. If I was running a blog to support a business I’d have more interest in getting these blocks to work. But the benefit for me outweighs the considerable effort and time I’d have to invest.
Verdict: Thumbs Down (great potential but not sold on the benefit to me right now)
There are further changes in the wind. Some of them were due to be introduced this month but have been delayed and removed from this version because of technical issues. A case of watch this space.
Only a few months after I declared I would make 2020 a challenge-free year, what have I gone and done but sign up for a challenge.
In my defence, I’m not embarking on a reading challenge. I know from past experience I am abysmal at those and rarely manage to complete them. My new project is more focused on how we share our love of books. It’s a blogging challenge called Blogging From A to Z.
Blogging A-Z is a month long initiative where the idea is to post a new topic every day during (we get Sundays as rest days) using the letters of the alphabet. It’s going to be quite tough to keep up that schedule but I’m going to give it a go.
Of course I can never do things by half. I’m making this task even harder by blogging on a single theme: tips and tricks on book blogging. So starting April 1 you’ll see a series of posts in which I discuss the challenges of book blogging and suggest ways to get around them. I’ll also pass on some best practice recommendations from the blogging gurus.
What You Can Expect
Some of the posts will be answers to problems you’ve told me are your biggest headaches. I asked this question via Twitter recently. Here’s a sample of what you told me:
Some of you talked about pressures of time, others about how to build connections. Some bloggers wrestle with motivation. Others with writing reviews. We may not get to address every one of these but I’ll try my best.
One word of caution. I don’t claim to be an expert or a master. In fact I’m still learning. I try to apply what the experts recommend (though often their advice is more geared to commercially focused sites). But mostly I learn by trial and error and by drawing on the experience of other seasoned bloggers. So don’t be surprised if you find that instead of giving answers and solutions, I’m asking for help myself with some of the challenges I experience.
The one lesson that stands head and shoulders above the rest is that there is a tremendous spirit of camaraderie within the world of book blogging. Social media can often be a very judgemental and hypercritical. space. Book bloggers however are invariably courteous and generous, more than willing to pass on the benefit of their experience. A few of these kind souls will be contributing to my posts for this challenge, giving us a “behind the scenes” perspective on how they run their blogs.
If you’re just starting out as a book blogger, I hope my posts will help make the process a little less daunting. If you’re a seasoned hand, I hope you will still find some new ideas and tips. Let the challenge begin……
Join The Discussion
Are you wrestling with a book blogging problem? Have you found a technique that works for you? Do let me know. You don’t need to sign up to the challenge to take part. You can simply leave a comment on each blog or follow the discussion on Twitter using #A2Zbookblogging
It’s celebration time here at BookerTalk headquarters as we mark another anniversary for the blog.
Eight years ago I came up with the idea of starting a book blog. To be frank, I had only a very sketchy idea of why I wanted to do this. The ‘plan’ , such as it was, came down to this: I would read all the books that won the Booker Prize and would write about them.
It didn’t take very long before I got a big dose of reality.
- Blogging was more time consuming than I expected and
- I couldn’t read fast enough to create new content more than once a week. Even with my limited knowledge of blogging, I knew that wasn’t how it was supposed to work! and
- I’d been overly optimistic about the level of interest my blog would generate. The world, it was clear, was not waiting for my thoughts on book XYZ.
This was a project that looked like it wouldn’t even last six months. Fortunately there were plenty of people around who did know how to run a book blog. They were more than generous; sharing their advice and insights and giving me confidence.
So just over 1,100 posts later and amazingly I’m still here. Of course things have changed over the eight years.
The site has gone through more than one design update. I’ve moved away from the initial focus on the Booker Prize in favour of broader topics. And I’ve tried (though not always succeeded) to write in a more personal tone.
I’m still making tweaks however; adding more sub titles to posts for example to improve their readability or looking for more interesting graphics.
I know a lot more about blogging now than I did eight years ago, most of it learned the hard way through trial and error.
Lessons From The Front Line Of Book Blogging
Lesson 1: Blogging Takes Energy
I wasn’t completely naive when I started BookerTalk. I knew I’d have to put effort in to creating content, formatting pages and posts etc. But I never appreciated just how hard it is to come up with something to say every few days.
I also hadn’t figured in the amount of time required to respond to comments from readers and to read other people’s blogs.
Doing all this while working full time and having to travel for my job was exhausting. I’m not surprised that 90% of bloggers quit after a few months. Or that many bloggers that were very active when I started out, suffered burn out and lost their enthusiasm.
Two things have helped me keep going.
One has been to keep a note of possible blog topics.
I learned very early on that just posting reviews wasn’t going to work – I take too long to write them (the curse of perfection!) and I don’t read enough to do more than one review each week. Clearly that wasn’t enough to sustain a blog.
I knew I needed other material. But there’s nothing worse than just looking at a blank screen trying desperately to think of something to write. Now, when I’m struggling for inspiration I take a look at my blog topics list. Some topics are reminders of books I need to review. Some are ideas for list posts and discussion topics. Others might just prompts like “My favourite XXX”. You can find loads of ideas for blog topics online; most are not relevant but others you can easily adapt.
The other thing that’s helped in recent years is to be more disciplined with content creation. Most blogging experts I came across, advised me to have a blogging schedule. where I wrote a new post every day, or once a week or three times a week.
No way can I post every day. I try to have a new piece of content every couple of days. It doesn’t always work out that way because, as we all know, unexpected events in life can throw the best of plans out of the window. No way do I ever want to tell a friend “Sorry, I can’t meet you for lunch, got to write my blog post.”
You have to choose what works for you – only you know how much time you have available and how much you have to say. And – more crucially – how important blogging is to you. If it’s important, then you’ll put the effort into it, just like you would any other hobby or interest.
I don’t claim to have nailed this – but I’m working on it!
Lesson 2: Try, Fail, Try Again
I wish I’d kept a record of all the changes I’ve made to the blog since I started. It’s been a laboratory for experimentation. A place where I tried different approaches, some of which failed miserably, others that I maybe kept going longer than I should have.
But that’s the beauty of blogging. You can use it to test out an idea. It’s not like the traditional media world where everything you have ever written is captured for posterity. If you try something new and it doesn’t work on the blog, you can just delete it or make some upgrades.
Don’t like your post heading? Easy – just change it. Several times if you want to (just be careful not to change the slug or it will create a problem for search engine traffic).
Don’t like the navigation of your site? Easy again – create a new menu or move pages around within the existing menus.
I know my early attempts at reviews were pathetic. So I’ve deleted a lot of them. Others I have re-written so I don’t feel quite so embarrassed when I read them now. At one time I did a weekly post based on literary news/author news but I abandoned it because it was taking me far too long to do the research and I simply wasn’t enjoying it.
The point really is that the blog has evolved as I’ve tried to figure out what works best for me and my readers. It will likely evolve again in the future. The world of social media changes fast. What works today on a blog won’t necessarily work in the future. So I have to keep trying new approaches, failing and trying again. As Cristian Mihai says:
Effective bloggers never stop learningSource: Cristian Mihail, The Art of Blogging
Lesson 3: Don’t Sweat The Figures
There were times early on when I posted what I thought was a great piece of content only to find it generated little reaction. Sure I got a few ‘likes’ but hardly any comments which is the kind of interaction I value most.
When that happens over and over again, it’s easy to get despondent. Why bother you think if no-one is paying any attention. I started to doubt myself, especially when I saw other bloggers get scores of comments on their posts.
The lesson I’ve learned is that it takes much longer than we expect to build up a following on a blog. You can do it more quickly if you write lots of click-bait type content but that’s not what interests me.
It’s not just a case of writing ace content. You have to engage with people on their blogs – read what they’re posting, comment on it and share it via social media. The more I did that, the more people paid attention to what I was doing and I started to get more comments.
But here’s the thing. While it’s gratifying to get loads of comments, if you put too much emphasis on the numbers, blogging can get depressing.
Like most new bloggers, I fell into that trap. I regularly checked the traffic to my site, looking at:
- Number of visitors
- Number of comments
- Number of followers
If the visitor count was up, I walked around while a smile; but if it went down and stayed down, I went around with a scowl.
It took five years (I’m a slow learner!) and a health scare to put all this focus on numbers into perspective. I still look at the stats; but not every day.
I pay more attention to the level of interaction I see via comments. Why? Because ultimately what keeps me motivated to blog is the connection to people who share my love of books and reading.
Blogging is a social environment. It’s a platform for you and I to talk to each other even if we are thousands of miles and many time zones apart. We may never meet in person but we can become friends through our mutual love of reading. Without the social element, of blogging, I may as well just write journal entries into a notebook.
The Best Reward
That social interaction more than compensates for all the times I’ve struggled to write a post or had to wrestle with the technical side of WordPress.
So to everyone who has sent me a message or left a comment; given me suggestions for new authors or shared your experience ….
You inspire me. Give me confidence. And make me feel alive.
I know officially we are still in winter in the northern hemisphere so it might be a little premature to think about spring-cleaning. And indeed I’m nowhere ready to throw open all doors and windows into the house to let in the clean air which was my grandmother’s preparation for cleaning the house top to bottom. It’s far too cold right now for that kind of malarkey. But with the fifth anniversary of this blog imminent it feels the right time to do a bit of a dust and polish of the site. I’ve also been goaded into action by some tips shared via a podcast I follow called Pro-Blogger which has some useful advice on how to make your blog more effective.
I’m gradually working my way through all the 100-plus editions of the podcast. Some are not relevant because they are designed for people who want to monetise their site or have a self-hosted domain. But one piece of advice I’ve started to follow is about improving old content.
Darren, the guy behind Pro-Blogger says he has a weekly habit to revisit old posts and assess if they can be improved – maybe redirecting links to more recent content, adding new ones or updating the content with more current information. His point is a few minutes spent on tweaks can mean readers get a better experience of the site. Plus each time you refresh the page, it is crawled by Google so you get more chance your site will be included in search engine results.
I’ve started with my posts from year one of the blog. What an eye-opener that has been. When I started back in 2012 I really didn’t know a) how to blog b)how to write a good review. So the early posts were very insubstantial. No links, no formatting of text to help guide readers around the page more easily, no photos to break up the text. These are all changes I’ve been making over the past week. I’ve also changed categories, tags and headings. Often I’m making small cosmetic changes such as ensuring consistency in the format and colour used for headings and book titles. I don’t want to alter the actual content unless I think a reader would get to the end of it and wonder why they bothered wasting their time. So with a few of them got more of an overhaul – like my first Booker prize title review The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens where I combined the review with some earlier published content about the author.
I’ll finish 2012 by the end of the week and then move onto the next 12 months. It’s something I can do easily in about 20 minutes per post and watch TV at the same time.
One positive thing has come out of this exercise – it’s shown me than in five years though I still consider myself to be still very much a learner, I have definitely improved.
|How are your blogging skills?
Though I’ve learned a lot in the last five years there are still aspects of blogging that mystify me so I’ve been making a conscious effort to learn how to fix issues and some new techniques. What have you learned recently that has made a difference to your own blogging?