When is a question a ‘good’ question?

When is a question a ‘good’ question?

New Zealand author Tina Shaw is one of 22 Book Discussion Scheme notewriters who are faced with crafting ‘good’ questions and informative material for discussion booklets for the 60-plus new titles that are incorporated into the scheme each year.  

“The main thing is that a question is open-ended,” explains Tina. “The idea is to spark some discussion and get people thinking about things. I try to draw our readers’ personal responses to a book and how they might have related to a book in a personal way.”

Tina enjoys doing research and includes in her discussion notes information that she anticipates will assist readers’ understanding and appreciation of the book.

“It’s an exploratory process,” says the former Creative New Zealand writer in residence and current convenor of a BDS book group in Taupo.

“I like to add extra material. I make intensive notes as I go through the book. I’m reading quite slowly, note-taking and more note-taking as I go,” she says.

“I’m thinking ‘if it was me sitting in a book group with these book notes, I’d like to know about such-and-such’. If it’s an area I don’t know anything about … well maybe New Zealand readers won’t know much either,” she explains.

In some instances this might mean Tina includes a broad overview of a topic relating to the book, such as outlining the political context of the time. In other cases she has given details about a specific reference in a book, such as explaining what haiku is (a form of poetry).  

Notewriters are contracted by BDS and are given the choice of which new title to the scheme they would like to write material for. Tina is a professional writer and manuscript assessor; other contractors include journalists and teachers.

The usual format for discussion notes includes an author bio, some background to the story or topic covered by the book, and up to a dozen questions for groups to choose from to jump-start discussion.

“I’ve done heaps and heaps of discussion notes. I allow 4 to 5 days, maybe a week, to write them,” says Tina.

“Once I've finished reading the book I like to jump straight into writing them ‘cos it’s fresh in my mind!” she says.

The completed notes are then submitted to BDS Booknotes Organiser, Shelagh, who oversees the process of note production. All notes are double-checked for accuracy (for example, that page references are correct) and for conformity to BDS style.

The next step is to print the discussion notes in-house. They are given a laminated cover, to ensure longevity and enable them to be cleaned. The whole process, from contracting a note-writer to having the completed discussion notes available to book groups can take up to 3 months.

As to what makes a ‘good’ book, Tina and her Taupo group prefer to get their literary teeth into something complex, whether it be fiction or non-fiction.

“We really love reading complex, sophisticated books - something that you can get really engrossed in and that makes you think. That’s the ideal combination.”

“Mind you, I also like reading crime novels,” she says, laughing.

Tina Shaw is one of 22 people contracted to BDS to write discussion notes for titles in the scheme.  A sample of one is shown above.


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Scheme is a member of the Federation of Workers Educational Associations in Aotearoa New Zealand
BDS is a member of the Federation of Workers Educational Associations