Judging Jane: What scoring student essays can teach us about book quality (image of Jane Austen)

I’m in the midst of judging the student essay contest for the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). When you read a lot of one thing at a time—essays, grant applications, poetry—you quickly start to see the differences. (Teachers know this!) I use a scoring rubric to test my impressions objectively, but the essays stratify by quality very quickly. This year I realized the criteria I use for judging essays are really the same criteria I use in assessing book quality—with self-published/indie books in particular because, frankly, that’s where I see the most quality issues.

My essay and book quality criteria fall into four main categories: content, structure, craft (writing), and design (format).

Strong Content

My first and most important quality criterion is strong content. In judging an essay I ask:

  • Does the thesis show insight or originality?
  • Does the author offer significant support for the thesis?

The same metric applies to book quality. Many of the nonfiction books I work on are experiential in nature, that is, offering insights and advice based on the author’s life and career; others are more research-based. Within either context, we can still ask:

  • What is the strength of the thinking?
  • Does the author present ideas that are fresh in some way?
  • Is there adequate support for the ideas?

Without solid ideas to work with, the other quality criteria become meaningless.

Clear Structure

My next criterion is related to the first: structure and organization. In an essay, I consider:

  • Does the opening set the stage?
  • Is the body of the work organized and easy to follow?
  • Does the conclusion move beyond simple restatement to end the discussion with a flourish?

The same questions apply to books, at a chapter level and at a whole-book level.

  • Are the ideas presented in a way the audience will understand?
  • Are they presented in context?
  • Do they follow a logical order?
  • Does the structure guide the readers where the author wants them to go?

Clear structure reinforces (or undermines) strong content.

Engaging Writing (Craft)

Intertwined with the first two categories is the writing itself. In an essay, I look specifically for:

  • Style and mechanics – Is the flow of the writing smooth, clear, and free of errors?
  • Voice – Is the voice, or tone, engaging and distinct?

Likewise, in books we can ask:

  • Does the author understand the craft of writing? (Yup, that’s a big question.)
  • Does the author’s personality show?

While I’m saying the least on this category, it may be the most complex.

Appropriate Format (Design)

When considering format in an essay, we look at what I would call technical requirements:

  • Is the document formatted correctly?
  • Are sources cited appropriately?

I find this the least important aspect of an essay. Most students can figure out how to double-space, indent, and insert an endnote. Most readers won’t know the difference in MLA vs CMOS citation styles; if it is clear what the source is, I don’t care if you have the “correct” format.

HOWEVER, the format of a book is an entirely different matter.

Inappropriate formatting can damage all the fine work you may have done in the content, organization, and writing. In addition to citing sources, consider:

  • Does your book cover look professional?
  • Is the book’s interior formatted appropriately (easily read font, adequate line spacing, correct paragraph styles, large enough margins, page numbers in the right places)?
  • Does the design fit the purpose? (A casual self-help book should look and feel different from a more formal business leadership book.)
  • Is it proofread for both typos and formatting flaws?

Book design is somewhat subjective, but core standards exist; if you don’t follow them, your book can look amateurish—regardless of the content’s quality.

How’s your book quality?

Consider these four elements—content, structure, craft, and design—as you develop your book. Pay attention to them in other books; learn from example.

The high school students truly impress me with their Jane essays. I don’t think I was nearly as cogent at that age. One of my top-rated first-round essays contained outstanding thinking and had solid but not exemplary writing skills: the language was overwrought at times, the diction imprecise in places, but gosh those ideas were spot on. I wrote nearly a page of craft notes to share with the author afterwards so she could continue to grow. I saw her brilliance and wanted it to shine brighter.

If you have great ideas and need help polishing them into a high-quality book, give me a call. I want your brilliance to shine too.