how to write a book that holds your reader’s attention

This article appeared in modified form on Boing Boing.


User experience design is a holistic field that touches on every aspect of the experience the user has with your product, all the way down to opening the box. As a book editor, I’ve found it useful to apply the principles of UX to crafting books that grab and hold a reader’s attention.

Reader experience design (or ReadX) is about building a book beginning with the experience you want the reader to have and working backward from there.

Obviously, crafting the reader’s experience is something we writers, editors, and publishers have struggled with since the heady days of the Egyptian papyrus industry, a time with remarkable similarities to our own (the primary difference, in fact, was that using your “mouse” to “scroll” down when reading an article wouldn’t have been any fun for you or for the mouse). Problem is, we often prioritize other goals above the reader’s experience, like proving another expert wrong or impressing our peers.

In my experience, people who write books to share their domain knowledge with others usually suck at ReadX. It’s next to impossible to un-know something, to think like someone who knows less about your subject than you do (or simply sees it differently). You must constantly remind yourself that your reader is both smarter and less knowledgeable than you assume. (The smarter bit is important. You don’t talk down to your reader. You just explain your topic like you would to an intelligent friend in a totally different line of work.)

To get this right, this means going to the other side of the table and putting yourself in the mind of your reader over and over again, to make sure you’ve dropped your assumptions and that you’re actually getting through.

Remember, learning material in an entirely new area, without previous context or a professor or a study group (as readers of general nonfiction are often asked to do) is incredibly difficult. Have you ever tried to learn a little computer programming? Smart folks—like Doug Rushkoff in Program or Be Programmed—often counsel that all of us, regardless of role, should pick up a least a little code.

I think it’s great advice, but what happens when you try?

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