How to Write an Engaging Discussion Post

how to write an engaging discussion post

Read a Lot

Excellent writing typically does not occur in a vacuum.  Most often, excellent writing is a conversation with someone else.  This does not mean that you have to flat out agree or disagree with something that you read.  You might be expanding upon someone else’s point, applying it to a new situation, or looking at it from a different angle.  But, to do that, something needs to have sparked an idea.  Often that idea comes from reading widely.  My own discussion posts do not only come from reading other blogs.  They also come from reading literary criticism, perusing a magazine, or reading the newspaper.  They might even stem from conversations I have with other readers.  Inspiration is everywhere, if you know where to look.

This approach can also help you to be timely.  For instance, when discussion posts picked up years ago, people started noticing that they have a tendency to get more traffic than reviews and some considered dropping reviews altogether.   This raised the question of whether it was feasible to run a book blog without book reviews.  And every now and then discussions of plagiarism rock the book community.  So we’ve written several posts clarifying where the boundaries are.

Identify a Need

By reading widely, you might also notice a need that no one is directly speaking about.  For instance, Briana noticed that bloggers were feeling stressed by the increased number of things they are expected to do (not just blogging anymore–also social media, web design, graphic design, etc.).  This allowed her to write a post about the possibility of cutting down your workload by co-blogging.

On the other hand, I noticed something because people weren’t talking about it.  Realizing that the book blog community focuses primarily on YA, I wrote posts discussing the joys of reading other types of books such as middle grade and picture books.

Bring Something New

Discussion posts that really catch my attention are ones that bring something new to the table.  If everyone is talking about Topic X, once I’ve read two posts on it, sadly, I’m pretty much done clicking on any other post addressing it–unless there’s a spin.  If everyone is talking about why they hate X, I’d like to see someone write why they love X.  Or, if everyone is talking about how they hate X for the same five reasons, I’d like to see a post about why someone hates X for five different reasons.

Do Research

Doing research is one way that enables you to bring something new to a conversation.  For instance, I still see bloggers worrying that YA isn’t a respected genre.  And yet, its incredible popularity, its inclusion in college courses, its presence in academic journals and panels, all suggested to me that literary establishments have accepted YA.  (What your aunt or BFF says to you personally is a different story.)  So I did some research and I concluded that the debate over YA is over.  Generally speaking, not many people are arguing adults should not read YA–actually, few people ever did!  I still have not seen another blogger write about this, suggesting to me that doing the research really did bring something fresh to the conversation.

Write about Literature

I don’t often see discussion posts about the actual content of books, just about the reading or buying of books.  However, I would enjoy seeing more literary analyses.  We’ve done some here in the past, such as this post about whether Eowyn is a feminist character and this one on whether Cath is an unlikable protagonist in Heartless. We also ran Classic Remarks for a time, encouraging people to discuss a literary question each week (and people are still joining in the conversation!).  Adding more literary analysis would be to do something radically different–and different is often engaging.

What are your tips for writing engaging discussion posts?

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Don’t Stress about How Many Books You’ve Read This Year

Don't Stress about Your Reading-min

It’s December, which means a lot of readers are getting their Goodreads challenges and making note of how much they’ve read this year. Some of us are checking quietly, and some of us are celebrating with large wrap-up posts on our blogs, Youtube channels, or Bookstagram accounts.  Personally, I love seeing wrap-ups and getting an overview of how other bookworms spent their reading year.  However, the downside of this sharing is that sometimes other readers feel discouraged by how much (or, rather, how little) they’ve read in comparison to others.  Hopefully we can find ways to turn this around and focus on our love of reading and what we have accomplished instead.

I admit, I always get a bit wide-eyed when I see other readers proclaiming they’ve read 300, 400, even 500 books in the past calendar year.  Who, I wonder, has time to read more than one book per day?  Is it real?  Were they all picture books?  Do these people have jobs or any responsibilities at all? Are they actually reading the books or just skimming them?  Basically, I vacillate between being impressed, jealous, and slightly skeptical.  (My apologies if you are someone who has truly read 400 books this year; I don’t mean to doubt you.)  After experiencing this roller coaster of emotions, I try to refocus on what I’ve read this year, how, and why.

It turns out that, once I reflect on the matter, I don’t want to read 350+ books a year.  I love reading, but I also love doing other things.  (And I also have to do plenty of things I don’t really want to, like clean my apartment or go to work.)  If I read a book or more a day, I don’t think I would have time for much else in my life.  Frankly, I also think I would get bored.  I read a lot of books each year as it is, and I’m happy with the amount. I don’t need to double my reading consumption just to feel “on par” with other people.

The reality is that if you read books and like reading, you are a reader.  It doesn’t matter if you read 12 books this year or 120 books or more.  In fact, you should probably keep in mind that polls over the past few years seem to consistently indicate that about 25% of American adults do not read any books at all each year. (Here’s an article, for instance, from 2014.) If you read one book this year, you’ve read more than about one quarter of of the US population.  And in 2015, Iris noted that:

The average number of books each person read over the course of a year was 12…but that number is inflated by the most avid readers. The most frequently reported number was 4 books per year.

So if you read 5 books this year, you’re above average.  You’re basically a super bookworm.

(Do keep in mind, however, that reading correlates pretty consistently with education level and household income–the more you have, the more you probably read. Also, people in countries besides the United States frequently read more than Americans.  So the average number of books that people in your exact demographic read may be different than the average for American adults.)

The point is, I hope we can all find joy in the books we have read this year and try to refrain from comparing ourselves too much to others.  Reading is a very personal experience, and you should always feel confident about having read books you like in an amount that fit into your lifestyle (not that we all probably wouldn’t like at least a little more time to read….).  However, if you’re really worried about tackling that towering TBR pile, you can always check out this chart that purports to predict how many books you’ll have time to read before you die. Plan carefully, friends.

Briana

What Is the Content of English Classes? Do They Only Teach Critical Thinking?

Discussion Post

I have written before about how English classes should be valued for their content and not only for the skills they provide.  After all, literacy, composition, and even higher-level skills like creativity and critical thinking can be taught in a number of disciplines including history, philosophy, religion, math, and science.  (We read, write, and think in all these disciplines!  There is no need to relegate the teaching of reading, writing, and analysis to English classes alone.)  What literature classes offer that is different is, of course, literature.

However, in the U.S.’s high-stakes testing culture, literature itself seems hard to justify.  Its outcomes can’t be measured by numbers. So English departments and English classes try to fight for funding and for relevancy by arguing that they teach things like how to communicate and how to think.  This is true.  English classes tend to do this and they tend to do it effectively. And yet, by focusing only on these arguments, proponents of English are forgetting to argue for what sets English apart–the texts that comprise the discipline, the works that are what we read, write about, and think about.

Interestingly, the GRE (an exam taken for graduate school admittance in the U.S.) attempts to give a numerical value to what goes on in English classes.  And looking at what the GRE tests can give us a general idea of what the content of an English class is.   It is not just the critical thinking–critical thinking is what we do with the content.  It is the texts themselves.  English–or literary studies as I like to call it, to distinguish it from composition–is comprised of texts that are considered important and influential.  These are the books, short stories, poems, etc. that inspired genres, historical movements, and other authors.  English is the study of what these texts are, how they adhere to or break away from generic forms, how they intersect with history or with social movements, and how people have thought, written, and taught about them.  Generally we call these works the canon, though the GRE also tests students on other classic works, fiction and nonfiction.

The canon, of course, is ever-changing and there are (valid) arguments that the canon unfairly emphasizes white male authors.  Still, the canon is the current yardstick by which experts in literary studies tend measure their expertise.  The idea is that you can’t understand later works and later movements if you don’t understand their roots–what they are alluding to, imitating, satirizing, or breaking away from.  Not knowing classical authors like Virgil, never having read the Bible, and not being familiar with Shakespeare will all hinder the aspiring student of literary studies.  Not having read Dante or Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison will make an aspiring English student a source of bewilderment to their peers.  It would be like an art student never having seen Picasso or a math student admitting they are trying to learn calculus but do not know algebra.  You cannot be considered an expert in your field if you do not know the content.

If you search for lists of works to study for the English GRE (including novels, short stories, drama, poetry, and literary fiction), you will find some that easily have 200 or 300 suggested works.  Of course, the average test taker is not likely to have read all of them.  However, they will want to have read as many as possible.  Not only because some of the test questions will ask them to identify the title and author of a literary work but also because increased reading will give them a better basis at recognizing trends.  That is, even if they have not read a specific Romantic poet, they should be able to recognize a Romantic poem when they see one.  Even if they have not read every Dickens novel, they should be able to distinguish his work from another author’s.  Even if they have no idea who they are reading, they should be able to date it to a general time period and to name its genre.

There are plenty of calls to do away with the canon and the classics (here’s the difference) in favor of classes that allow students to pick what they read.  I support a classroom model in which students can pick some of their own books (even if they are from a list of recommendations).  However, allowing students to choose all the content of an English class could very well be doing them a disservice.  When you are expected (in theory) to have read 200-300 books in your discipline in order to be admitted to grad school, you need all the help you can from your teachers in order to prepare.  Spending years with popular YA books instead of the classics means that you will have to play catch-up while others are merely trying to fill in their gaps.

I am not a fan of the GRE or of high-stakes testing in general.  I am not convinced that the test actually tells us who is adept at literary studies, rather than who is adept at taking the GRE.  However, because the U.S. places such importance on test scores and what they supposedly tell us, I think it is worth looking at what a test like the GRE supposes competency in the discipline of English is–and thus by extension what the experts in grad school departments think competency is.  That competency assumes not only that students can think critically and do literary analysis, but also they they have read specific texts.  Not any text that got them reading or that inspired them or that they enjoyed.  Texts that are widely considered influential or important.  English classes do have real content.  And we should be teaching it.

Why I’m Not Interested in Requesting ARCs

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Cool Color Books

I have never understood the drama surrounding ARCs.  From what I can tell, book bloggers feel like they are in competition with each other in order to get more views so they can get more ARCs.  The purpose of the ARCs is to get more views.  Which, in turn, will presumably get them…more ARCs?  There is no money in book blogging.  We have too few views, when compared to the millions a food or fashion blogger might receive, for anyone to want to sponsor or endorse us.  Therefore, the competition must solely be in order to cyclically gain more views to get more ARCs until suddenly we book bloggers are buried in volumes and wondering how we will ever stop panicking long enough to write the reviews we promised.

Interestingly, however, my own experience tells me that ARC reviews do not get noticeably more views than other reviews. In fact, publishing a review of a very popular book the same day it is released has not proven a very successful view-generating strategy for me in the past.  I believe that this is because the purpose of ARCs conflicts with the purpose of book blogs.  ARCs are marketing tools.  Book blogs are sites that build community and foster discussion.  Our readers do not seem invested in reading reviews of popular books before they have read the same book themselves.  They do not want to be spoiled.  They want to wait to read the book themselves, then perhaps return to share their thoughts.

Requesting ARCs in order to compete with other bloggers thus seems an inherently flawed strategy.  There are no benefits to requesting ARCs you do not want to read or do not have time to read.  But there are plenty of downsides, such as having to read a book you are not really interested in or even dislike, having to read to a schedule that stresses you out, and having to deal with feelings of guilt that you entered into an agreement you may not be able to fulfill.  All to write a review that might not generate much traffic anyway!  I see no problem with requesting ARCs for books that seem exciting or with wanting to spread the word about a talented author or a delightful story.  However, requesting ARCS in order to “compete” with others seems like a strategy with no clear winners.

Five Ways To Support Authors When You Have No Money

Discussion Post

Autumn Books

Patronize your local library.

Libraries buy books, but they can only do this if they have money.  Libraries can make stronger cases for increased funding if they can demonstrate strong use.  Many of them collect stats on how many people enter the door, how many people check out items, how many people use the online databases, how many people ask questions at the desk, and so forth.  Every time you go to the library, you add to their statistics and thus (hopefully) their purchasing power.  (Here are some more ways to support your library.)

Suggest purchases at your library.

Many libraries allow patrons to suggest materials for purchase (though they may have rules that the book can only have been published in the past few years).  If you have a favorite author or a favorite book that  you think others would love, too, see if your library can get it.

Buy books as gifts.

I don’t have enough money to buy myself books.  However, I still buy gifts for friends and family.  This is the perfect opportunity to support authors if you have readers on your list.  You’re not going over budget if gift giving was already in your budget.

Donate books.

Again, I don’t have room in my budget to buy myself things that are not necessities.  However, I always set aside some money to give to others.  Some places to donate books could be a local school, a women’s shelter, or a literacy program.  I have also donated books as raffle prizes at local charities.  (Check out our other suggestions about where to donate gently used books here.)

Tell your friends, family, and teachers about the book.

Even if you don’t have money to buy books as gifts or books to donate, you can still encourage others to read and maybe buy the book.  Tell all your friends about your latest reads.  Let your aunt know you read something perfect for your cousins. Chat with your teacher after school.  You may inspire them to check it out of the library, buy it as a gift for someone else, or get a copy for the classroom.  After all, if you’re passionate about a book, others might be, too!

5 Reasons I Struggle to Listen to Audiobooks

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Audiobook Discussion

Credit: Sai Kiran Anagani – Unsplash

Audiobooks are currently experiencing huge growth, and as ebook sales stabilize, publishers are looking at audiobooks as the future. In June 2017, Publishers Weekly noted that “A study by Edison Research found that 24% of Americans listened to at least one audiobook in 2016, an increase of 22% over 2015” and “Total sales rose 18.2% over 2015, to an estimated $2.1 billion, while unit sales did even better. According to the report, unit sales rose 33.9%, to 89.5 million.”

Yet, in spite of this popularity and ever-increasing options for titles, I just cannot get onto the audiobook bandwagon, no matter how much I try. Here are five reasons I’m likely to stay a print reader:

I Hate the Narrator

I’ve tried listening to several audiobooks thus far, and the fact is that a good narrator can make a book, while a bad one can break it. I listened to half of Divergent before giving up and getting a print copy because the narrator sounded overly wishy-washy and made me despise Tris. I DNF’ed Wonder entirely because I disliked the narrator so much, and to this day I wonder if I would have had a higher opinion of the novel if I had just read it myself. Narrators are so hit or miss that I often hesitate to pick up an audiobook in the first place.

The Book Takes Too Long to Finish

I’m a fairly quick reader and can probably finish an average YA book in about 5-6 hours. So when I look at the run-time for an audiobook and see that I’m expected to spend 20+ hours to listening to the thing, I balk. It’s an enormous time commitment for something I can achieve efficiently by just reading the print book.

Speeding Up the Narrator Makes Them Sound Like a Chipmunk

Sure, technically you can change how fast the narrator reads on a lot of audiobooks, but the result often leaves something to be desired. I’ve had some success with marginal speed increases (like changing to 1.2x the speed), but if I speed up the book enough to make an actual difference in the overall run time, usually the narrator sounds like an incomprehensible chipmunk, and I have to abort the whole plan and go back to normal reading speed anyway.

I Can’t Multitask

Some people like to listen to audiobooks while they do something else, like commute to work or do the dishes or fold their laundry. Interestingly, however, polls have suggested that fewer people do this than publishers suspected. A lot of people just sit down and listen to the book, and I am one of those people. I can either concentrate on washing my dishes, or I can listen to my book, but I cannot do both at once. Usually this results in my missing part of the book and having to choose between rewinding or just dealing with it. The problem only gets compounded if I’m doing something noisy and can’t hear the book without cranking the volume up unreasonably high.

If I Don’t Move, I Fall Asleep

The obvious solution to problem #4 would be that I just sit down on my couch and listen to the book. Unfortunately, about 60% of the time that I try this, I fall asleep. It doesn’t matter if I wasn’t even tired before I sat down; if I listen to an audiobook for any reasonable length of time, I end up taking a nap. Then the book moves on without me, I miss everything, and I have no idea where I am or how to get back to where I was at the point I stopped listening. It’s a dilemma.

Conclusion

Audiobooks can be a great format, and, in theory, I understand why a lot of other people like them. They just don’t seem to work out for me, however, no matter how many times I try. It’s unlikely you’ll be seeing a lot of audiobook reviews from me on the blog anytime soon!

Briana

Picture Books Aren’t Just for Children

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Defining picture books is a tricky business once you start to try.  Do they need words and pictures?  What about just pictures?  What makes them different from comics?  Despite the difficulty of defining them, however, society at large seems to have a shared idea of what they are.  Part of that shared idea is that picture books are for children.  They are first to be shared by adults teaching children to read.  They are then to be used as beginner books for new readers.  Like most art forms associated with children, the reputation and prestige of picture books has suffered as a consequence.

Adults and older children often do not want to be seen reading picture books because of the assumptions that surround them. There is the assumption that pictures are less sophisticated than words.  The assumption that short works cannot be complex or deep.  The assumption that picture books do not have complex vocabulary.  The assumption that reading is all about vocabulary and one should never read “below grade level.”  These assumptions are all false.  Text is not inherently better than pictures and a short quote can say something more profound than an entire novel.  Plus, picture books often have quite complex vocabularies because they are meant to be read and shared.  And reading is not only about learning new words and sentence structures.  Reading is so much more!

Perhaps some artists are starting to challenge the idea that picture books are so simplistic only children would want to read them.  Lately, I have seen a few picture books that seem to me to be written more for adults than for children.  However, because we tend to think of picture books as primarily for children these books are typically shelved in the children’s section of every school, library, and bookstore.  Adults without small children are, quite simply, not going to come across them.  And, when they do, they are likely to be perplexed, much like readers of wordless picture books.  After all, if you are trying to teach your child to read, what do you do with a book with no words?

Rethinking the way we categorize and shelve books might help.  Simply placing some in other sections might begin to destigmatize them.  At the same time, however, we do not want to begin to assume all over again that more complex works are only for adults and not for children.  That is, there is no need to remove certain picture books from the children’s room and say that they are now for “sophisticated” readers only!  Rather, I propose that we begin dissociating children’s literature from assumptions of inferiority.  Cross-shelving books might help us to begin to do so, as it will suggest to consumers that these books are meant for all of us and are not supposed to be grown out of.

Some Picture Books Adults Might Like

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas and Erin E. Stead

This book, with its dreamy illustrations, tells the story of a man delivers the messages in ocean bottles to the intended recipients.  The theme of loneliness and longing for a friend could appeal to children who have also felt isolated.  However, because the focus is on adults, older readers may be able to relate on a different level.  (Being a lonely single man at the age of 30 is different from not yet having found a friend at school.)

 

The Fog by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak

This is the kind of book adults like because its ambiguity is apparently supposed to make it deep.  A mysterious fog begins to cover an island and goes away only when a bird and a human work together.  Exactly what they do is unclear and may be allegorical.  Again, the type of book adults like, though the beautiful illustrations and the friendship between the bird and the girl may appeal to younger readers, as well.

The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski

This picture book has a lot of words and is probably not suitable for reading aloud at storytime.  Furthermore, it would be difficult to read aloud because each page begins with an introduction not related to the action of the book: an except of various stories the main character imagines in her head.  This narration might be confusing to younger children, but the book is about the magic of words and the power of story–just the type of thing book-loving adults (teachers, librarians, and parents) would want to buy.