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Harley D. Palmer & The Art of Reviewing

March 19, 2010

Today’s guest blogger is Harley D. Palmer, founder of the Writer’s Academy on Writing.com (better known as WDC). She is also founder of the blog Labotomy of a Writer.

She is going to tell us about her experience with reviewing for the Writer’s Academy. As founder and primary professor, she has read and reviewed dozens of books and poems (and probably hundreds of chapters). She has seen the excellent, the good, the bad, the ugly and the very ugly. Today, she offers insights to her reviewing techniques that have benefited dozens of aspiring authors and poets. My hope is that her words will benefit readers, up-and-coming writers and even a few veteran authors.

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First of all I’d like to say a huge thank you to Greg for honoring me with being a guest writer! I will admit I jumped up and down with delight! Second, I’d like to apologize ahead of time for a long article. I will try my best to keep it short, but book reviewing has so much involved with it!

My Background

My real name is Anastasia Pergakis, but many people online know me as Harley D. Palmer. I started writing and storytelling, well as soon as I could write. I didn’t get into novel writing (or reviewing) until I was an adult but it has become an obsession! I am on the computer every day researching writing in some form or another.

What really started me reviewing novels was when I was invited to join a reviewing workshop on WDC. During that time, I realized that novels were not getting reviewed that often and, even if they were, I rarely saw reviews past chapter one. So, I have tried to focus my efforts on just reviewing novels.

Doing all of that research and learning through experience, spurred me to start the Writer’s Academy. I started the Academy because I wanted to share my knowledge with other writers. I have been researching all aspects of writing for many, many years. It is a hard and, I’ll admit, sometimes a boring process. I hoped that with the Academy, writers could have a place to come to that was fun and informative – with all the information in one place.

I’ve been running the Academy for a little over a year now and I have learned a lot about reviewing from the experience. I was able to apply things that I learned in the workshop and through reviews I had received for my own work.

What I Look for when Reviewing

Regardless of whether I am reviewing for fun or a workshop, or grading assignments in the Academy, I always focus on the same things. I’ll break this down for you to give you an understanding of what I look for when I read a novel.

I read a chapter many times in the process of reviewing it. I try to start a review with my impression or feelings about it after the first read. The first read-through should be simple without taking notes of any mistakes or inconsistencies just yet. Yes, some things are glaring but I try to simply enjoy the read, instead of looking to edit or critique.

During the second, third, and even fifteenth read-through, I ask myself the following questions:

Title: Does the title of the book fit? Did the chapter title match with the chapter? Why or why not?

Hook: Was the catch or hook at the beginning enough to keep the reader reading? Why or why not? Was I constantly hooked, even in chapter 20?

Plot: Is the plot clear and concise? Is it unique or has it been done before? Do the subplots help the story or slow it down?

Style & Voice: Is the sentence structure the same throughout the story or does it vary? Does the voice work for the theme or genre of the story? Is the story full of passive verbs instead of aggressive?

Referencing: Are there Harley Davidson motorcycles in 15th century England? Does a female character set in the early 1900s follow the ‘rules’ of that time? Would an alien race talk or have the exact same culture we do on Earth?

Scene/Setting: Can I clearly see the scenery? Can I tell where everything is at any given moment? Do I know where the characters are at all times?

Characters: Are the characters consistent throughout the book? Do they grow and develop in a logical time frame? Do they each have their own voice and mannerisms (Can I tell them apart from each other?) Is there enough detail to give me a mental image of what they look like, act like, talk like?

Grammar/Spelling/Punctuation: Are there any long, run-on sentences or sentence fragments? Any spelling mistakes or typos? Are all the punctuation marks used correctly?

I close the review with my personal opinion of the story or chapter. I tell the author what I liked or didn’t like. I always give them a few words of encouragement.

Do I look for every single one of these aspects when reviewing? Yes. Do I mention all of these points in the review every single time? No.

How to Talk in a Review

Each writer and story is different, so they require their own unique review. Greg can tell you that his reviews usually consisted of a few sentences as I rarely had comments, suggestions or corrections for him. But other students may have had longer reviews with suggestions and advice.

I look for the same points when reading any novel, but to a friend I might present it in a different way. Reading a friend’s work, I could get away with saying “This scene is awesome!” but in a professional type of relationship, I would phrase it differently – “This scene was written very well. It was clear and concise. Great job!”

As I am nearing the end of Greg’s book for the Academy, I am getting a little more ‘friendly’ with the reviews. He ended a chapter with a HUGE cliff hanger and I started the review with “How dare you do that to me!” (I was going to have a wait a whole week to read more!) He and I had built up a relationship of sorts for me to get away with saying that – at the beginning, I never would have presented my shock in that manner. I would have said “A shocking ending! I can’t wait to read more!” instead.

With the Academy specifically, I try to relate the review to the lesson. If the lesson was about setting and scenery, then I center the review on that. If I am reviewing for some other reason, it’ll depend on what the author is looking for and what I feel are the more important things to mention.

Common Mistakes

There are many common mistakes that I find time and time again when reviewing a novel. They can be frustrating when I review, but then I remember that I make the exact same mistakes all the time too!

>>>Yes, typos are a common occurrence as no one is perfect; however with spell check and other tools, it shouldn’t happen quite as often as it does. Reviewing for the Academy can be especially tough. Many of the students type directly into the site when posting their work. The site does have a spell check tool, but not that many people know how to use it. So there are often a lot of mistakes. I find it best to write in Word first, then copy and paste into a site like that. This helps to prevent quite a lot of the spelling and grammar mistakes I find.

>>>Passive verbs show up more often than not. I use a review template and automatically I have a little paragraph that talks about passive vs. aggressive verbs. This prevents me from having to type it up every single time. It is much easier to delete the blurb when it is not needed, than to type it up each time that it is. I struggle with this in my own writing and I think that is why I can pick it up easily in other people’s work.

>>>The amount of detail is a huge issue. Again this is something I struggle with myself, so it is easy to find it in other novels. If there is too little detail, then I can’t really get into the story. I can’t see where the characters are or what they are doing. When there is too much, the story drags and I can lose interest as the plot is bogged down with useless information.

There is SO much more to book reviewing, but I will end this here. I am going to continue this and expand on some of the points I mentioned here, in my own blog at

Labotomy of a Writer.

Harley D. Palmer (Anastasia Pergakis)

* * * * * * * *

Again, I want to thank Harley Palmer (or should I say Anastasia Pergakis) for taking time out from her busy reviewing schedule with the Writer’s Academy. I know my time at the academy is coming to an end this month and I’ve had to submit multiple chapters for review with each lesson so Anastasia can see the rest of my book, meaning that I’ve only added to her workload.

For our faithful readers, I hope you’ve gained some insight into reviewing and perhaps you can use that insight when reviewing items at Writing.com, Goodreads, Authors Den, Amazon.com or any number of other places.

Be sure to return next week for more exciting and informative blogs from CJ Ellisson, W.J. Howard and Supriya Savkoor. Oh and throw me in for good measure, too.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2010 9:32 am

    Good info, Harley, thanks! I know what you mean about finding mistakes in other people’s work that you make too. I’d like to think that helps me catch those mistakes in my own work. Just curious, do you review mostly genre fiction? I’ve been wondering lately how literary fiction gets critiqued these days? Do you know?

  2. March 19, 2010 10:35 am

    Excellent post, Harley! I’m with Supriya. I find that areas where I’m critical of other writer’s novels are usually areas I need to address in my own writing.

    Love the list you provided on areas to critique. I think I’ll have to print them out and keep them on hand the next time I do a review.

    Oh, and thanks so much for guest blogging and dropping by to support us!

  3. Harley D. Palmer permalink*
    March 19, 2010 12:34 pm

    No, Thank YOU for allowing me to be here!

    Supriya – I’ll review anything! (I do prefer full novels over anything else for enjoyment but for reviewing – I’ll read anything! Every writer can use some help and another set of eyes never hurt!)

    And I apply basically the same technique to all forms of writing. When reviewing poetry, it changes a bit but the same basic idea is the same – does it read well? Are their issues with flow? (for poetry this includes meter and rhyme) Is there anything missing? (like did they set up something and forgot) Grammar of course comes into play for ANY written work.

    Literary fiction I use the same basic concepts, although they simply apply in different ways. I put a strong emphasis on character development as well as style and voice whereas with genre fiction, I tend to focus more on plot and the “action” instead. It really depends mostly on what the novel itself is lacking or not. Regardless of what type of fiction (or even non-fiction) if the writer does not have enough detail to keep me interested in reading it or too many grammar mistakes or other issues – then I say so.

    I don’t know how other editors/reviewers review literary fiction. When I wrote that blog, I really thought about how I review (since I never really paid too much attention to my own technique before). I don’t really focus on genre or type. The same basic rules apply to almost any story. Sci-fi may have certain rules to follow as a genre, but I never think “oh that’s a sci-fi thing” specifically. It’s something that needs to be fixed or corrected and that’s that. Same with literary fiction vs genre fiction – if it needs improvement then I give a suggestion, but I don’t conciously think “This is literary so I need to say this..” or “This is a certain genre so I need to say this..”

    I just try to help turn a good story into a great one. Simple as that.

  4. March 19, 2010 9:40 pm

    Thanks a lot for helping us out with the guest blog this week. I am now going to WDC to apply your words (and if the authors object, I’ll just say “I’ve learned from Harley Palmer. Now deal with it”).

    Okay, I won’t, but thanks for the blog. I think I will be a better reviewer after today.

  5. Harley D. Palmer permalink*
    March 20, 2010 11:19 am

    I like that attitude Greg! I’m glad I could help you yet again! Only one more lesson left! *cries* I will surely miss you at the Academy but I’ll keep stopping by here to say hello and check up on you! I can’t wait to see “Land of the Blind” on the shelves! (I get to point to it and say – “I read the original copy!” teehee

    Seriously though, I am really honored that you asked me to be here. It was a real pleasure and probably the highlight of this month!

  6. March 21, 2010 6:57 pm

    Great job on the post Harley and thanks so much for agreeing to blog with us! It’s a small world and all struggling writers need to stick together (to throw rocks at the bad reviewers on WDC if nothing else)!! 😉

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