Persuading readers of nonfiction that a book merits attention depends on its outreach. The least convincing narrative expresses only opinions of the author. That amounts to a thesis with no proof. Depending on the book, other personal opinions may be elicited, through a survey or through a client base. Quotations featuring research provided by experts represent another type of proof. A third variety consists of data provided by the government or polls. 

When each is considered by itself, it reveals shortcomings. Personal opinions may be limited by how much the people interviewed know. If a book has 10 chapters on different topics, an author’s interviewees or clients may range only as far as half or three-quarters of them. The remaining topics end up being filled in by a very limited number—to the point that they seem like the author's select club.

Quotations from experts are the most satisfying source. If the reader learns that professor so-and-so teaches at Harvard and the quote comes from a published book, that is impressive enough to be convincing. An interview with an expert can leave a similar glow of professionalism. The downside is that such statements may start to feel distant: pronouncements on the general state of affairs as seen from on high. 

This problem is exacerbated in the field of data. Statistics by their very nature are cold and gray. While 78% of the respondents may show a trend is likely true, too many of these citations can leave the reader wanting to meet just one of those 78% and find out a little more about why they feel that way. 

The most successful nonfiction books combine all three of these layers. In a typical example, an author may state a new observation, e.g., most people do not feel TikTok is racist. That can be followed by results of a survey run by Wired magazine or the like. An expert on social media then weighs in with a long quotation. Yet the deal isn’t sealed with the reader until several of the people actually making videos weigh on on the medium they are watching every day.

That’s because you need both a sense of sweep—everybody’s doing it, I tell you—and local actors that anchor the high-flown views to the ground. As a reader, I believe the data, respect the experts, but I want to meet people like me. That’s your perfect trifecta.

Exercise: Go through your manuscript and color-code the different types of examples. When you’re done, now review the manuscript quickly, looking for the colors. If you see that green—the personal examples—are missing for a stretch of pages, that is your signal to get more of those examples for that chapter.

“A bad book is the worse that it cannot repent. It has not been the devil's policy to keep the masses of mankind in ignorance; but finding that they will read, he is doing all in his power to poison their books.” —John Kenneth Galbraith

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.