Does Content Matter?

by Amy Middleton

What convinces a reader to pick up a book? As writers, we are told that the opening line, in particular, is meant to pull them in and hopefully convince them to stay for a while. Being that it is the first thing any reader would read, it seems obvious that the opening line is the answer, but if you ask a graphic designer, you would probably get a very different answer. As both a writer and a designer, I am, of course, often in a stalemate when it comes to this question. The designer says that without a beautiful cover no one will even be willing to read the actual words. The writer says that if the words are beautiful even poor design wouldn’t dissuade a reader.

So what exactly is poor design? This might seem an intimidating question for people with little formal knowledge of graphic design practices, but really we all know poor design when we see it. In the example below, “Citilife St.Petersburg,” anyone can see that the cover is unreadable and overwhelming. The title of the magazine, for example, uses three different typefaces against a background of bright yellow and red, making the words even more difficult to read. The words of the heading are also distorted, or stretched. While it’s possible to distort words and use different types or bright colors on their own, the text is visually overwhelming when these elements are piled on top of one another. It is an essential skill of a graphic designer to know when a little bit of funky design crosses the line.


In the example “Billboard,” we can see how a good designer pays attention to where they employ different typefaces and distortions. Using a large, distinct typeface for the title of the magazine ensures it’s recognizable and readable. Variations in typeface are used for creating categories of subtitles and pull quotes, conveying a hierarchy of information. Distortion is used not to make the words on the page look any different from their original typeface, but to work with the cover photo. Just by that slight tilt, the words are cleanly working with the photo to create a more alluring and interesting design than if they were straight.


Subtle and clean cover design doesn’t mean boring, as many people worry. It is simply a good practice for readability. A good designer knows how to create a cover that is both interesting and polished, the perfect balance to convince a reader to actually pick up the book and open to the first page.

When it comes to enticing a reader to pick up a book or magazine, we will always judge it by its cover. Unless a reader is looking for a specific writer, the cover has to be visually interesting enough to get the reader’s attention. Obviously, content does matter, but good design is what inspires a reader browsing in the bookstore to pick up a book in the first place. There is no opening line good enough to convince a reader to read without a well designed cover because they need to open the book first.

Mapping Your Way to Complex Characters

By Cerissa DiValentino

Cerissa picture

The disorienting feeling you experience after finishing a novel wherein the characters feel like someone you know in real life demonstrates the power complex characters have over our emotions. As writers, we aim to immerse our readers so completely into the world we’ve created that they’re hesitant to leave it. Most importantly, we want our readers to feel an emotional bond to our characters because it means we did our job right. Written effectively, complex characters have the ability to sustain narrative urgency and continue to impress upon the reader long after they’ve finished the book.

To that end, the best plots are character-driven, and it’s through the tension between a character’s desires and their internal and external obstacles that the reader latches onto the story, aiming to figure out how this character is going to obtain what they so badly want. The reader loves to root for the underdog rather than the perfect cheerleader who has won Prom Queen three years in a row. Readers empathize with flawed characters living outside the limelight in hopes that eventually, through struggle, they’ll achieve their desires and shine.

As a helpful tool in crafting complex characters, I suggest character mapping. Start by looking at your central character and asking the question: what is it that my character really wants? After you have come up with an answer, ask yourself: what are the obstacles in my character’s path (both internal and external). Next: what are some ways my character can achieve their desires despite these obstacles? Once you have an outline of what your character desires, what obstacles they face and how they are going to persevere, you already have a plot in the making and you’re ready to start writing.

For example, in Courtney Maum’s Costalegre, the novel follows Lara, a fifteen-year-old girl who is constantly neglected by her mother, but deeply desires to be cherished by her. Lara is a developing artist living on the island of Costalegre with a group of outcast artists her mother has rescued from Europe at the start of Hitler’s regime. Throughout the novel, it’s obvious to the reader that Lara wants her mother to appreciate her artwork as she does the work of the artists she has rescued. Lara’s perseverance to become a skilled artist, thinking that her mother might pay her more attention if she is more talented, breaks my heart and makes me feel closer to her. As the reader, I am instantly drawn to Lara’s inner conflict and feel her desire for motherly love as if it is my own. As the character who is dismissed by others throughout the novel, she becomes the reader’s entire focus because we wish for her to achieve her desires as much as she does.

People are constantly searching for something that will make them feel more alive, more aware, or in other words, simply more human. We fall in love with characters that emulate all human behavior, including flaws. Characters that desire more than what they have and go against the general grain of society to achieve it, make us root for them. When Lara takes off on a horse despite the oncoming storm because she wants to prove to the adult artists that she has her own agency, we are rooting for her with our fists high in the air. If your characters are as multifaceted as you are human, the reader will find those characters more enticing than any typical, popular cheerleader.