I mentioned earlier in the week that I was playing with my book reviews, and at the time, I wasn’t entirely sure what that would mean. Let me do a quick recap to show where I started from this week.
Generally, I wrote my reviews in … dun dun dun … Microsoft Excel. Huh? I know, it doesn’t sound like it would make much sense to write in a spreadsheet. But here’s the thing. I was sharing the reviews i.e., publishing the reviews on multiple websites and accounts. And each website I shared it with had a slightly different format and layout. Some separated the “one line review” aka summary from the main text; others just had one box; others had a spot for tags or categories or genres, oh my. Some had the same boxes, but in relatively different order. So I could write it in a normal word processor program of some type, and then play “paste the text” all over the place each time. Or I could put MS Excel to work for me.
I set this up and tweaked it over the last 20 years, with the current version divided the review into several fields, like a flat-file database. There was a field for:
- Review number;
- Author(s) or Editor(s);
- The Plot or Premise of the book/story;
- What I Liked;
- What I Didn’t Like;
- Relevant disclosures, if applicable;
- The Bottom Line;
- Year of Publication;
- Date of the Review; and,
- Tags, combining any particular special tags (like a reading challenge), the websites it was being posted to, whether it was standalone or series, the number if it was a series, format for paper or ebook or audio, the source of where I got it, what format I was keeping it in if I had a copy, etc.;
The advantage of having it in different fields was that I could then generate four different layouts in subsequent pages, and then copy / paste from there to the relevant “groupings” of reviews:
- My website layout to make it easy to copy and paste into the webpage editor in the exact order I wanted it to appear for the final page…this version was the most detailed, and had the most categories separated out;
- My Good Reads layout which dropped a few things from the list, and combined others into one box for pasting;
- My “Main Multi” layout, suitable for Amazon, Chapters, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and the Nook sites, mainly as it had a box for a “title/summary” of the review, for which I used my “The Bottom Line” field; and,
- My “Ancillary Multi” layout, suitable for just about everything else, including the Ottawa Public Library, Google Reviews, and Library Thing, with most of the content going all in one box.
Easy peasy, lemon squeazy. It sounds anal, but once I set up the main review page, and added the cross-refs, all the layouts self-populated for me. After that, it was just copying and pasting large chunks instead of small chunks. It was still time-consuming though, and as I noted earlier in my musings in recent weeks, very little of it was generating any sort of interaction. I was posting into the abyss with virtually no feedback.
Which means I decided to stop pasting “everywhere”. I’ll keep my website, of course, and I’ll share it with Good Reads I guess too. Maybe I’ll post links to my reviews as part of FB discussions. But I don’t need to keep multiple separate fields and layouts. Which means maybe Excel isn’t the best tool anymore for helping me manage my reviews.
A new set of tools
I confess, when I set my Book Reviews up on PolyWogg.ca a little over two years ago, and rebuilt them last year, I said it was the last time. Which is mostly true. I am not, surprisingly perhaps, doing anything whatsoever to change the format or layout. The reviews are in the format I want for the future, and if I ever tweak that, well, it will be “going forward”. I will not go back to change these 200 reviews just to be anally-retentive in my “consistency”.
However, I was also using Excel in a slightly different way for something else, and it wasn’t particularly great, to be honest. After I entered all the review information, I would then copy / paste / transpose it into a spreadsheet so that all the info was retained in the spreadsheet. While the “review writing” happened basically on page 2 in a normal vertical layout for ease of writing, that didn’t “save” the info anywhere, nor did I want hundreds of spreadsheet “tabs” to have separate reviews on them. Instead, I copied it all into page 1, pasted it into a simple horizontal flat-file layout, and voila, one page of all my book review information in a simple little spreadsheet. My list of all my reviews.
Awesome, right? Well, no, not really, as I wasn’t really using it for anything. I could copy it back to page 2 if I needed to recreate an original copy of the review for some sort of editing, perhaps, but the file wasn’t very user-friendly, and certainly not web- or mobile-friendly. 200 reviews, 200 lines by 12-15 columns of info. It was useful for being able to do a bit of statistical analysis, sure. But what I’ve really wanted for a long time is a simple copy of the review on my phone. A way to SEE the review, without having to go to the website and use my data. Just a viewable copy.
But I needed Excel to make my life easier for publishing multiple formats, and it wasn’t worth creating a whole bunch of extra files, right? Why have a third version? I had the web, I had Excel, that was good enough. Except if I don’t really HAVE to use Excel to generate all those different layouts, and the only versions I need are web or Good Reads, and the web version is virtually the same as what I want on my portable device, what if I write and store it in some other app?
Like One Note. I’ve been putting more and more info into One Note, including our vaccination records for COVID. I just created a simple page, pasted in the PDFs for the three of us, and any time I want the info, I can just open the page, double-tap and voila, one record. It’s been working PERFECTLY for me, and no need to create shortcuts on the phone, etc. I’ve already converted my entire approach to To-Do lists into One Note as well, representing some 30+ years of keeping a long-term and short-term set of To-Do lists, i.e., a very ROBUST approach that very few tools work for me to manage, so if I was successful with THAT converstion, maybe I could use One Note for this too?
I created a blank template in my One Note, and decided to upgrade to something else I have wanted for a very long time but have not done in almost 7 years or so, and really if I’m totally harsh in my assessment, almost 15. I want a list of not only the book reviews that I have written, I want the list of all books by those authors if I’m “collecting” them, so to speak. Not physically, but if I’m trying to read, say, everything by Agatha Christie, then I want the full list of books by her — her bibliography of all books published — merged with my list of books reviewed.
In an ideal, anal-retentive world, I’ve love a simple table that would look kind of like this:
I would have the full list in the first column, and as I bought them or collected them, I would move them to column 2. Then when I read them, they would go to column 3, and when I have finally reviewed them, column 4. Makes sense, right?
My list of books I’m looking to find are in column 1, the ones I have in my to be read pile are in column 2, the ones waiting to be reviewed would be column 3, and when I’m done with them, they’d be in column 4 — a whole column showing all my reviews in one column.
Except that table is a pain in the ass to maintain in a decent layout. I could do it on a spreadsheet, sure. Hell, even a simple Word Processor could handle that well enough. There might be some issues with the length of individual lines in individual cells, but the real issue is that when I try to look at it on my phone? Forget about it. The table is just way too wide to keep anything other than the name of the book, and even then it’s tight.
I played with a few alternate formats, tried out a few layouts. I even considered simply putting them vertically such as:
Author name (in big headings)
NEED (in slightly smaller heading and different colour)
But that’s a lot of extra text to throw into a list. Yet that’s how I used to do things when everything was in paper. I would have a list of books, I would get a paper copy (move to column / section 2), read it, and then review it. I have even considered there might be another column in there for ones that I merely borrowed from the library or a friend, or perhaps one to track how I disposed of them. Maybe way back in the old days I might even have thought about tracking books I loaned to people. I lost Harry Potter and Twilight books that way, not keeping track, but I rarely lend books except once I’m done with them. And in the age of the purge, I don’t really care anymore. Once I read it, and perhaps pass it along to Jacob or Andrea, I’m mostly “done” with it.
Plus, if I want a book on the list, I’m likely to get it electronically these days. Or even order it electronically at the most. So do I really “need” those other categories? I don’t.
I did, however, decide that if I’m not trying to “publish” the book reviews in the normal sense, with a view to wide-spread sharing, and instead am really only sharing them with my immediate page followers, then perhaps they shouldn’t be on my PolyWogg site as writing examples. Instead, I decided to move them back to ThePolyBlog where they fit much more cleanly as simply my musings about books. Shorter, cleaner, less muss. Which means I can spend a bit of extra time adding in the other features I do want to the list — my To Be Read list, which is, well, everything ever written by the authors I follow. I will retire sometime, and when I do? I’m hoping to average a minimum of about 200 fiction titles a year. By my current calculation, that means if I live to about 272 years old, I might put a small dent in the TBR pile. 🙂
The new approach
Basically, I will write the reviews in One Note against a simple format that exactly matches my layout for the website. It will have a slight bit of extra text in it for tracking some other details (a short-form version of tags, if you will), but I even made the title of each page in both One Note and WordPress IDENTICAL, with the following format:
BOOK NAME by AUTHOR (Year of Publication) – BOOKREVIEW # (Year of Review) – RATING
It seems silly, but I started off with slightly different formats and layouts, partly because I perhaps was still stuck in an Excel mindset, until I was like, “Why? Why am I complicating my life?”. If it works in one format on the website, why not the same for One Note? And if it looks right in One Note, why not the same for the website? Brain fart or something.
I am allowing for one slight difference between the two, and I worry it might not work out on the website as well. In One Note, I have a single index that lists all Book Reviews with links to them. After that, for the books by each author, I have a separate sub-page that lists only the books for that author. Unfortunately, doing that on the website is a lot more complicated to manage over time. For now, I’m just throwing it into one long list. I’m not sure that’s the best way to go, but I can tweak it later if I need to…I’ve dropped a whole bunch of cross-referencing that I had previously, which makes the layout and design far cleaner.
While I am not editing the reviews, the movement from PolyWogg.ca to ThePolyBlog.ca is taking a bit more work than I would like. The copy from one site to the other was perfect, but almost a little too perfect. A few things I had set in the original kept the same information in the metadata and sub-links…so on each one, because ThePolyBlog uses a slightly different setup, I have to open the book review and note that four images in the review are in slightly different locations (cover, featured image, signature block, and a header, although I’m not using the replacement header in this case). I could do it rather “automatically”, but it could mess up the reviews. I would take the risk and do it anyway, except there’s a side benefit to doing it manually.
I can copy the text in its proper layout from the website preview into One Note, and add a link between the two docs for the future. Soooo, while it is taking a bit longer than I would like, it’s also giving me a lot more info for the REAL list of books I’ve always wanted to have on the site and on my phone. I did some test runs a few different ways, a few different uses for the data, and it all worked flawlessly. I’m missing a small element for when I start writing NEW reviews, but that’s relatively easy to fix as well.
I’ve managed to convert 22 of the existing reviews, and created copies of them in One Note as well. I’m really happy with how it is going, and what it looks like. It’s time-consuming, no doubt, another 177 to go, but it helps to do a few at a time as some obvious flow benefits crop up and I can get in a groove.
I’m also super excited about a few other things where I do something similar, such as movie reviews, music reviews, and TV reviews. I do them in Excel for slightly different reasons, but once I get through the book reviews, I’ll check them out too. I might be able to move all that over as well, albeit without the overhead conversion for images.
In the meantime, working on the book reviews is a bit like digital therapy for myself. And gets me one step closer to taking something off my “book to-do list” that’s been on there for close to 15 years, and even goes back all the way to an original list that I used to have when I was 14.
So 40 years later? I feel like I’ve got a working approach that mostly comes down to the original intent. Tracking authors, and reading and reviewing their books. Everything else just fades into the background. It’s my happy place.