Writing about books: 25 prompts

Categories On Reading, Writing

I’ve been trying to brainstorm some writing prompts to help me engage with my reading without falling into ruts or formulas. In fact, I think I’m going to do away with “book reviews” altogether, and switch to “book engagements.” Most of the time, my responses are complex and hard to “score” in the way a book review seems to require.

Anyway, here are some ideas for writing. It’s a compilation of ideas, many of them picked up along the way from sources I no longer remember. Any other suggestions are welcome.

    • Write out some questions for the author.
    • Write out some questions about the historical context, and search for answers.
    • Do some digging, and learn about the author, or how the work’s evolved. (At one time it was fashionable to regard the work as an isolated entity with nothing to do with the author. To me this fails the common sense test.)
    • What were your expectations of the book, and how did it measure up?
    • What are some strengths of the writing — description, allusive language, vocabulary, simplicity… ?
    • What are some weaknesses of the writing — stock imagery, cliches or stereotypes, language that calls attention to itself…?
    • Write about the work in comparison with other works by the same author. Where does it fall in the timeline of the author’s work? How does it reflect change or growth in treatment of a theme? How does it do something new?
    • How does the work compare with another work by a different author?
    • How does the book open your eyes to something in yourself or your circumstances?
    • How does this work reflect the sensibility of the culture it grows out of?
    • Focus on words or phrases that seem striking. Why do they seem significant?
    • Focus on one place in the book where your responses to the writing changed suddenly. How and why did this happen?
    • Look for patterns – of events, images or metaphors. How do they make up a pattern and what does it suggest about the work as a whole?
    • Respond to (or argue with) the voice of a character or the narrator.
    • What are the traits of certain characters, and what does the author achieve through those characterizations?
    • How is the work structured — according to chapters, sections, stanzas, settings, or characters? How do these divisions shape meanings?
    • Discuss how time is managed. How is the work paced? How is this important?
    • Comment on the spatial environment of the book: is it inside or outside, natural or artificial, realistic or idealistic? Does this become significant?
    • Is there anything you dislike? Are you supposed to feel this reaction? Does it reveal something about the work — or about the reader?
    • How does the title relate to the content?
    • How do you respond to what someone else says about the work?
    • How does the genre shape the meaning?
    • Where does the energy come from — characterization? Spatial movement? Temporal movement?
    • What’s the unique contribution of this book to the world of books?
    • What does this work reveal that’s universal to human experience? What does it reveal that’s confined to the world of the book, or its era?