What’s in It for Me?

One primary concern of a nonfiction author should be the motivation of the person buying the book. In most areas of nonfiction, he does not want to be entertained. He wants practical information on the art of negotiation, for instance, or how to calm a colicky baby. The primary question in his mind when opening the book is: What’s in it for me?

Many writers I have worked with, particularly those from scholarly backgrounds, don’t answer that question squarely. They are experts in their field, and they assume that any knowledge they impart will benefit the beetle-browed crowd. The first chapter might wander off into esoterica that the author personally finds interesting—because she is bored by the basic knowledge she has espoused so many times in other venues.

That’s a cardinal mistake. The author is viewing the book from her own perspective. She’s not considering what the reader wants. That’s one of the primary reasons a browser will close the book. He enters the first chapter actively looking for advice that directly addresses the problem he is experiencing. If he feels that the material is too personal or he can’t see the point of the opening discussion, he’ll put the book back. Usually, there are 3-4 other books on the same subject right next to yours on the shelf.

What’s in it for me? You have to keep that question in mind with every page you write. Yes, you are an expert, but writing is the art of communication. Before you start, write down a list of the most common questions you are asked about your subject. Those are the ones the reader wants answered too. Is the subject complicated enough to constitute a chapter by itself? If so, how would you go about starting to answer it and where would you conclude? The reader will want to follow that same logical progression.

Exercise: Examples used to illustrate a point are a principal area of wandering. Take a hard look at the examples you are using. Does the one on social media marketing, for instance, really prove the point you just made? Or it is a “war story” from your personal experience that you’ve always found amusing? If you didn’t know the people in the example, would you care? More important, would you be able to put yourself in that person’s shoes, and after the story is over, you say, “You know, I see what the author means by that point”?

“Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure.”
—Oliver Herford

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Hands Off

I have a guideline I follow when I am line editing that may prove useful to you. I’ll call it my hands-off rule. I first read ahead. I might read the next chapter or maybe the next 50 pages. While I am reading, I’ll likely see numerous places where a wrong word is used, a sentence’s meaning is vague, and all sorts of other editing considerations. I feel frequent urges to stop and suggest an alternative. But I don’t. I keep reading onward, letting the momentary impulse drain away. The purpose of the review is to gather my overall impression of what the chapter or section contains.

I have not forgotten all those twinges, however. When I go back to where I left off and start editing, I see all of the places I wanted to correct. Yet the rewrite work dovetails better with the writing because I first have scanned the lie of the land ahead. If I were to edit as I read, I would resemble a gopher, digging up what is directly in front of me, attacking individual obstacles but not integrating my approach with the larger aims of what the author is trying to accomplish.

Now consider your own writing. When you are reviewing your story, what is really your motive behind the editing? If you are like many writers, a common reason is because you’re not in the right mood to write new work. You want to feel inspiration from what you’ve already created. Yet what happens when you have your pen ready at hand? You can always find words that can be improved. You find gaps in story logic and insert a bridge sentence. Pretty soon you find that, rather than reading a few chapters to sense where you want to go next, you’ve barely gotten beyond a few pages.

Now, let’s go to the next day. Lo and behold, upon a second review you find that most of the corrections you made the day before are terrible. What you wrote the first time around was much stronger. What have you done to yourself?

You need to employ the hands-off rule. You cannot make any corrections for X number of pages. None. You will keep reading, amid your growing neurotic misery that what you have written is terrible. And you know what? By the time you reach the end of the chapter, you may find yourself saying, “Hey, that’s not so bad, after all.” Now you’re ready to edit.

Exercise: If you simply cannot avoid your urges, then give in a little. If you see a word you have misspelled, go ahead and correct the spelling. If you see a comma you left out, make that correction. These are momentary pauses that do not interrupt the overall flow of your reading experience. But if the correction takes more than a few seconds? Hands off!

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.”
—Gustave Flaubert

Copyright @2017, John Paine


Setting Cues

Economy of expression is sometimes more prized by the reader than the writer. An author who enjoys creating mellifluous sentences can be carried away by describing every sumptuous appurtenance in a kitchen, to give an example. By the time she has reached the steel Braun coffee maker, I’m already skipping over all the other select items.

That’s because, as a reader, I am not a passive drone. I’m actively looking to identify what type of kitchen it is. Two characters could be standing around a kitchen island, and I already have an inkling of what the place is like. If the wife reaches for one of a row of copper pans, I have the place fairly well pegged. I can fill in the Viking stove, 20-cup Cuisinart food processor, etc. A few passing mentions will suffice, so spare me the shopping list.

Setting is still important. If you do not describe where we are, the effect is similar to watching a play without scenery. Yet how long does it take to describe a moribund dentist’s office off Ninth Avenue? A rusty ring in the bowl where you spit out can lead right into the entrance of the seventy-year-old cadaver with the truly awful breath. A bedroom can be mined for several key prompts that tell us what a character is like. If everything, from the bed covers to the curtains, is done in shades of pink, we know the husband is not the master of that domain. Of course, his willing participation in such decorating opens the door to other possibilities.

Setting details can be sprinkled throughout a scene as the characters use them incidentally. If you are selective, you can carefully insert these touches in a way that does not obstruct the ongoing action. They supply continuous mood enhancement while remaining in their proper place: in the background.

Setting, above all, controls mood. It can influence how a character feels, primarily. Yet you can also use setting to sway how the reader feels, as any reader of Edgar Allan Poe is aware. If we already know that a forest is dark and forbidding, the character does not have to comment on the setting at all. We read a passage of dialogue, for instance, tinged with the consciousness that the characters must be glancing over their shoulders for creepy surprises. Precisely because they are not talking about the setting, I am more aware of it.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for descriptions. If you have laid out a full paragraph of a rich person’s library, see if you can break it up into constituent pieces. Could the walnut bookcase be mentioned when the owner reaches for a book? Could the plush carpet calm the nervous feet of a visitor? Notice, too, that such smaller pieces allow for the point-of-view character to make a remark about them, bringing the reader still further inside your spell.

“It is not necessary to understand things in order to argue about them.”
—Pierre Beaumarchais

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.