Here is my Kidlitcon 2014 talk -- Finding Your Voice, Finding Your Passion- Blogging With Conviction

Here, more or less, is the talk I just gave at Kidlitcon 2014: "Finding Your Voice, Finding Your Passion- Blogging With Conviction."  It was better in person, because I made faces (and snarky asides) and varied my tone of voice, and because there were good, insightful, provocative comments from audience members, so this is basically a pale, cold shadow of the live version.  Which also had more pictures.

This session exists because I wanted there to be an offering on the program for newer bloggers, folks still finding their feet or looking for ideas on how to make blogging more interesting for themselves and their readers, and I wanted something that talked about Reviewing Books, because that is what we do.   It also exists because Voice and Authenticity and Conviction are things I often ponder with regard to my own blogging...
There are two parts to it--the first about voice, the second about conviction--but the transition is so beautifully fluid you might miss it.  I have put "THIS IS THE INTERESTING PART" when I get to conviction, so that if you are in a hurry, you can scroll down and find it.


The Talk:

Blogging is weird, especially when you are starting out.  Unless you are using your blog as a reading diary for purely personal reasons, you type in hope that there is an audience, with little hard evidence to support this.  And there is your blog, your own little voice chirping in the wilderness. The point of this session, in my mind, is how to make that chirping more interesting both to you and to your audience.  Because if it’s not interesting there’s no point in writing it or reading it.
And I think the two things that makes blogs interesting, attracting lots of readers, are
--a distinctive voice,  one that conveys conviction and personality
--passionate intensity about either specific books, or about a larger category of books that fall into whatever category it is that you care about (like some aspect of diversity).
Keep in mind throughout that there is absolutely no need to have a single voice for every post, because different books call out different responses.  After all, you don’t want to take every book to bed with you.  Just a few of the most special ones.

Let us assume that we (mostly) review books so that other readers can find them, and that we want the voice we use to keep readers reading to the ends of our posts, so that they can decide if they should seek the book out themselves.  But keep in mind that different people have different needs with regard to book seeking.

--Sometimes there are people who don’t have 300 plus books on their tbr shelves, and they are looking for books they want to read for their own pleasure.  And sometimes there are sick addicts who have more than 300 books but who want more anyway (cough).

--Sometimes the target audience of your blog post is a gatekeeper—a grown-up with purchasing power who is going to give the book to others, with the “others” ranging from one child to a whole library system.

--Sometimes your target audience is the whole wide world, because you have Something to Say that needs to be said.
The type of reader you have in mind for your review is going to have an effect on the voice you use--such as friendly, knowledgeable, or full of emotional intensity.
In my mind there are two ways to approach how you might express your opinion about a book. 
There's the sort that results in a dispassionate, critical, review 
"This book is a good pick for the fan of Rick Riordan’s books who also enjoys taming small mammals."
and the sort that is more a personal response:
“This is a book that I plan to shove into the face of all the children I meet because the combination of  Greek mythology and squirrel taming broke my heart in the best sort of way."

The first is more “professional” – this sort of voice, I find, comes most easily when I am reviewing a book for which I am not a good fit.   It allows you to calmly and collectedly point out the strengths of a book that maybe repulses you, or simply doesn’t appeal, on a personal level; it allows you to identify the sorts of readers who might like it, and to assess how well it succeeds in what it sets out to do.

The second more emotional review example doesn’t work at all as it stands (unless you already know and trust the blogger who wrote it).  But if whoever wrote something like that goes on to support the emotional response with references to the text, and reasons for their emotions, it can work just fine.  Some people go entirely with the former, and it works beautifully.  Most people mix it up.

"Squirrel taming was frequently part of the story, but it was not essential to either the plot or the characters’ development.  It felt emotionally manipulative, put in to advance the author's agenda, and it really pushed the book over the edge for me.  Or possibly pushed me over the edge."

Allow yourself to realize that different books, different moods, different amounts of time available to blog, and different subjects that call out different emotional/logical responses will all result in different voices in your writing.  This is just fine, perhaps even more than fine.

Some people allow themselves to talk about other things on their blog, make their voice more a believable whole person.   Sharing personal things doesn’t make a stronger voice, but it can be fun to write!  And when you are finding the writing fun, that will show, and make it fun to read.   Personal doesn't have to mean information about your cat; it can also be book related things- going to author signings, a trip to a book store, organizing your shelves--that make you, the blogger, a living, breathing protagonist on a book journey (thanks to Kim of Dead Houseplants, who gave me the "book blogger as protagonist" phrase in a comment, and who has a great blogging voice).   And if you are real, that makes you appeal more to those who like real bloggers (as opposed to those who are just in the market for real book reviews).

Here is something I think weakens a blogger’s voice, especially if you are taking a personal approach and telling me how the book worked for you as an individual reader:  please don’t give me the canned blurb lifted from Amazon.   I’ve probably already read it, and it won’t tell me anything about you; it won’t help me make sense of your response to the book.  Writing your own synopses is the most profound way to get your distinct voice and personality across.  I want to know what YOU found important and interesting in the book, what things YOU picked up on, not what the publisher wants readers to think the book is about.  (That being said, lots of bloggers I like use the given synopses; they go on to talk lots about the book, though, which makes up for it).

So the basic point of finding your voice is that you can use lots of different voices and there is no One Right Voice and what you really need is to find the type or types of writing that make it worthwhile for you to do it, and worthwhile for your readers to read it.


Here are some things you can try at home, to play with your voice and to examine it more closely:

Just for the heck of it, break out of your regular review structure.  You could:

   --Have fun with wild exaggerated metaphors in your description of the book (and then cut them out of the final product.  I like metaphors more than the next person, but I only allow myself to use them every once in a while because it would get old fast.)

  --Write a review in which you break the plot summary up into acts as if it were a play (like my own review of The Forbidden Library) , and critically discuss/ share your reactions to each bit, instead of saving it all to the end.    Or write a review as a menu for a grand dinner.  Or write it with newspaper headlines, like this review of Nancy Drew #12 at Bookshelves of Doom.

--write it about it in a whiney voice throughout, or in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice throughout.  Read what you wrote the next day, and see if you still agree with what you said.

Or you could break away from the types of books you usually review.

Blogging about a beloved book from your childhood is a great way to rediscover how much fun it can be to share a book with an audience.  Post about old books often get lots of comments from others who loved it too, and voila!  New friends!

If you blog mostly fiction for kids, read and review a non-fiction book for adults, or vice versa.  It makes a nice change.

Think “who wouldn’t I give this book to, and why” instead of always searching for the perfect reader.  Or ask if you would give it to your kid self.  Would you want 10 year old you to read it?  Would it help that person be a better, stronger Charlotte, or not? 

Here is ten year old Charlotte, probably not growing as a person as a result of her reading.  Despite that, I now manage to coordinate my outfits with the upholstery in a much more pleasing way.


Search your blog for words or phrases that you sort of nervously think you might be overusing.   This might actually be comforting.   I was pleasantly surprised to find how infrequently I “love” books, and I haven’t said “in a nutshell” since last July.


Check your blog for “we” and ask who the non-we readers might be.  Do you want to exclude them, or is it just thoughtlessness?  If you create an “us” on your blog, it draws lines.  Anytime you are part of a "we" you are assuming there are people who want to be that particular "we” and that there are people who aren’t part of it.

Search your blog for times you “liked” a book.   Did you mean it sincerely, or were your eyebrows slightly raised and your mouth slightly sneering?  Could a reader tell which you meant?   (I know I failed when I didn’t really like a book, and commenters chime in with “glad to see you liked this one so much!).  And check to make sure there’s a reason why you are using such a wishy-washy word as like.


And speaking of wishy-washy, and I think that this maybe is the most important part of finding your voice—look back through your posts and examine the strength of your convictions

Here is a quote from one of my reviews that makes me cringe: “Basically, I did not feel the plot and the characterization were meeting my needs as a reader.”

Why couldn’t I just have said: “The plot and the characterization were not meeting my needs as a reader.” 

Or even just:  "I did not like this book." 

Actually, it doesn't make me cringe (I was setting myself up as a straw man).  I remember typing that, and I was having fun being disingenuous--I was playing on purpose with how to say I hated the book without saying that. But still.  YOUR READERS WILL NOT KNOW THAT YOU ARE DOING THIS!  They cannot see your expression of unholy glee.  They cannot see your snarky mouth twists.  And this is a problem for me, because sometimes people say "I am glad you liked this book" and I am all, uh, no, not so much.
Adding to my own issues with voice is my lamentable tendency not to want to come right out and express my opinions as if they are fact.  I habitually use weak language that privileges subjectivity --I felt, I thought, in my opinion.   But sometimes people just need to come right out there and say things they really truly know to be so.   And when talking about the things you believe, you don’t always have to include the personal pronoun.
Things I might well have said (not having the energy to look for actual examples from my reviews:
“I felt that it was unrealistic that a character in a wheelchair could be swept over a waterfall and suffer no consequences to either wheelchair or self.”
Or “I got the impression that the author does not look favorably on women in leadership roles.
Both are  weak for no good reason.  Both fall into the trap of wanting to be nice, and sometimes some of us have to give ourselves permission not to be nice. Both end up making the authorial voices small, and weaker.  The “I felt” can be edited out in the first, which is easily done.  If I really want to convince anyone that the second statement has validity, I need to argue it, with examples, instead of feebly feeling it.
“Strong” language isn’t always called for.  Not every bad thing merits a rant.  But I need to give myself permission to state as fact those things that are, to me, factual/obvious/unarguable.   And if there is something that really bothers you about a book, give yourself permission to own it.  If you are a naturally diffident person, like me, this will be hard. 

There was a book I read recently, The Queen of the Tearling, that made me furious: the protagonist was raised in an isolated forest home, knowing only the two people who raised her, and the very first night away from the forest home she meets a guy she thinks is handsome, so she doesn't eat much at dinner because --- she doesn't want to seem like a greedy pig because she knows she is overweight.

How could she think this, when all she's known is the two old folks at Forest Home????  Why is she defaulting to an early 21st-century screwed-up body image? She probably is perfectly healthy because she has spent childhood skipping around forest home on a low fat diet.  She’s spent the day on horseback with no snacks—can’t she be allowed to be hungry?  She has never seen herself in a full length mirror and compared herself to other girls.  As far as the reader knows, she has never been told her body is unattractive. How CAN SHE THINK THIS?  Also, how does she know what handsome is, but that's another issue.

So what did I do?  I angrily returned the book to the library.   I did not give myself permission to say anything about the book, because I do not like to review books that I haven't finished, and because there were lots of other things in it that bothered me and I just didn't have the time and energy at that point in my life to deal with it.  It is a fact that sometimes with a full time job and people in your life who need your energy and the impending visit of your mother and concomitant worry about not having a bathroom door to offer her that you do not have time to write strong and impassioned posts.   I do not blame myself, exactly, but I am annoyed at myself.

But at any rate, the first exercise here is to go back through your posts and see if you weakened your voice by being too diffident!   And then the second  --next time a book makes you mad, write about it.  You don't have to write a full review, and you don't have to press send right away, but write it anyway.  And if you still believe what you wrote the next day, press send.

You don't have to have strong opinions every time you write something.  But if you are like me, you might have to remind yourself that you are entitled to them just as much as anyone else is.  

[THIS IS THE STRONG CONCLUSION PART--you have to imagine me saying it with intensity, making eye contact with as many members of the audience as I can]

This is especially important because so many of us are women—it is scary in this internet world to be a woman who has an opinion that is at all controversial, but we shouldn’t default to diffidence out of laziness or apprehension if we want our voices to have conviction.

So then at Kidlitcon I talked about the different passions (book related ones) of different bloggers with lots of examples...but that really worked better in Powerpoint, so I will stop now.

The End.


  1. Thanks for sharing your KidLitCon talk, Charlotte, especially since I couldn't be there with y'all (sniffle).

    I'm in the blogging doldrums right now, so I'll consider your mix-it-up ideas to get the spark back!
    Next year in Baltimore...

  2. Great talk! Thanks for letting us participate vicariously. (Your stage directions made me feel like I was there!)

    (And I have that book in my bed, too. (Gen, how could you be so faithless???) Ahem.)

    1. thanks! And yes, Gen looks good in bed, doesn't he!

  3. The funny thing is that we recognized the house and the conservatory and David said, "Oh, that's Matty!" Um. Not quite.

  4. What a great talk! Lots of awesome things to think about -- I love what you say about eliminating the "I did not feel." I'm super guilty of that myself. :/

  5. Gen in bed! Only a nightshirt could improve that image. :D

    Also, lots to chew on as far as the strong opinions go. Sometimes I am not sure of how I myself feel about a book and use the post as a way to talk about this. But I wonder if there's a different way to go about that.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing, Charlotte! And Gen! In bed! So much good stuff here! (Said as an old blogger who jumped blithely into blogging without any sort of planning.) I do find it so much easier to review books I liked rather than those I loved, and go through nearly every review taking out the qualifying "I think"s. Now I really want to see your list of bloggers with good voices...


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