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?
Look anywhere online for a primer for “beginning” programmers. You’ll quickly find that programmers consider you to have reached beginner status once you’re a third-year comp sci student familiar with all the opaque conventions of the command line. The number of assumptions made about your starting knowledge as a “beginner” can be mind-boggling. I’ve read “beginner” guides written by computer programmers that begin by calling out this very problem (!) in other guides before jumping to “step 1: log in to your git repo and sudo your stack exchange. Beep boop beep boop.”
As a reader approaching a new subject, it doesn’t feel good to encounter this blithe disregard for what “beginner” really constitutes. And we like our readers happy and engaged. So, how do we design for an improved reader experience?
- Explain your topic to a smart friend unfamiliar with it, record what you say, and transcribe the recording
- Instead of building your book from an outline, build it from an FAQ, so that you can never stray far from addressing an actual, concrete question
- Outline the book’s arc and each chapter’s arc not by the logic and organization of your subject but by the journey you want the reader to take, from what (you think) they currently know or believe to what you want them to know or believe. (This means you need to look closely at what your intended readers actually know and actually believe.)
- Work with an experienced developmental editor (like me) who will flag all your false assumptions—I see the heart of the editor’s role as playing the part of an intelligent but uninformed reader
I frequently encounter the following logical fallacy in experts: “Idiots (people who know less about my area of expertise than I do) write successful books about my area of expertise, ergo any idiot can write a successful book.”
Writing a successful book—figuring out what many people want to read, writing a book that will satisfy that desire, and marketing it properly—is an area of expertise, completely separate from the one you’re writing about.
If someone’s a bestselling author, it’s entirely possible they don’t know the first thing about their subject; meanwhile, being a genuine expert does not mean you know the first thing about sharing your expertise effectively in the form of a book.
So, when next you sit down to write, let go of your assumptions and begin to intentionally design the experience you want your readers to have.