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

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