The Top 10 Elements of a Book People Want to Read
by Helga Schier, PhD
Aim for High ReadabilityPeople enjoy books with a high level of readability—books with a captivating story and memorable characters, books we can’t put down, books that stick with us long after we’ve read the last word.
As an independent editor, I’ve come across my fair share of readable books, and all of them are well crafted on three distinct but intricately connected levels.
- The surface structure of the words on the page, which includes grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
- The level of style and voice, which is defined by the choice of words, the sentence rhythm, the use of literary techniques and images, and the tone or approach
- The content level, where the fictional world comes to life.
Highly readable books are polished, refined, sophisticated, and mature on all three levels. To fulfill the potential of your book, develop and sharpen the following top ten elements.
1. Your Words Are Your tools; Make Sure They Are in Working Order.
Avoid typos, sort out commonly mistaken words such as die/dye or there/their/they’re. Watch your grammar—make sure your nouns agree with your verbs and the personal pronouns fit. If a paragraph begins in the past tense, it likely ought to end in the past tense, too. Figure out where those commas go to help your readers make sense of your sentences. Sounds basic? It is. So run that spell-check and get it right.
2. Check for Inconsistencies.
Writers revise their work constantly. As a result, characters may appear or disappear at random, because chapters were rearranged; subplots remain unresolved, because chapters were cut; and timeline issues may tiptoe in. Looking for inconsistencies and holes in your story is an integral part of polishing your work.
3. Avoid Overwriting.
Your style or voice should step into the background to serve your story. No need for a clever metaphor in every sentence, or for an adjective before every noun. Avoid complicated sentences if a simple sentence will get your point across. Avoid inflated sentences and unnecessary introductory or summarizing phrases. Don’t be verbose—every sentence has a point; get to it.
4. Avoid Underwriting.
Allow your language to adapt to its context. Using the same words and/or sentence structures repeatedly makes a novel repetitive and monotonous. If the teenage girl and the CEO of a multibillion dollar company have the same voice, we’ll learn more about the writer than about the characters and their relationships. Avoid clichés and create your own personal images instead. Or use clichés and stereotypes to your advantage—say, to define a character.
5. Make Sure Your Characters Are More Than a Name.
As a reader, I want to be able to relate to your characters. I don’t have to always like them or agree with their choices, but I want to understand why they say and do whatever it is they say and do. I want to care for them, fear and worry with them. Therefore, your characters need to be recognizable and unique at the same time. They need to be complex rather than cardboard cutouts, and dynamic rather than passive. Even a bad guy deserves a redeeming quality.
The other five recommendations are:
6. Show, Don’t Tell.
7. Sharpen that Dialogue…
8. …And Expose that Subtext.
9. Drive the Plot Towards Your Reader’s Aha-Moment.
10. Build Your World.