(Excerpted from The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living, by Peter Bowerman. Fanove, 2006. www.wellfedsp.com).
How many best sellers have you ever read that were dry, boring, or uninspired? Not many, I’d wager. Write an interesting, compelling book, and you’ll be ahead of the pack out of the gate. Sure, some people are inherently gifted when it comes to wordsmithing, but anyone can improve their skills by following a few simple guidelines. And remember what’s at stake – nothing less than the success of your book.
The suggestions that follow are all about making your writing more clear, concise, conversational, coherent, and compelling – all of which, incidentally, is about considering your audience.
Write like you talk (at your best…)
For some inexplicable reason, many verbally articulate people often seem to be taken over by some alien power that compels them to adopt an awkward, stilted, wooden tone when it comes to writing. When people read anything, I say there’s a voice in their mind narrating those words to them. As such, read everything you write out loud, and make sure it has an engaging, conversational tone (within reason, depending on the subject matter). If it doesn’t, work on it until it does.
I keep this rule front and center when I write, which is probably why my books have earned such high marks for their readability. And don’t be afraid to use plenty of contractions; they’ll make your copy infinitely lighter and more conversational. It’s true. You’ll see.
Give your audience credit
Don’t overwrite. We all know the good feeling we get when someone we respect highly for his or her intelligence assumes we’re just as smart. Want to win over readers? Assume they’re bright enough to catch on without spelling it all out like you would to a 10-year-old. It’ll flatter them, and a flattered reader is an interested reader.
Sure, there are times when you have to write to a lowest common denominator, and yes, clarity is next to godliness, but don’t overdo it. If you’re writing a how-to guide, talk to your readers as “you,” not “them.”
Make every word pull its weight
I once heard an exceptionally useful writing tip: If a word doesn’t move the story forward, cut it. Words should not be used to showcase your ability to fill up white space, or as a forum for flexing your linguistic muscles. Words are the building blocks of a story. Don’t just have them parading around, impressed with themselves, leaning on their shovels watching other words work, or taking up space in some other way (like I’m probably doing here…).
We could learn a lot from public signage. “Not Responsible For Lost or Stolen Articles.” The “We’re…” upfront is understood. “Keep Off Grass.” Not “You Need to…” “Yield.” Not “Yield to Oncoming Traffic.”
Make your writing disappear
When you write something, your goal should be to disappear from the process. Readers should just get the idea, without even noticing the words. Words should be the vehicle of a thought or an idea, not a distraction. It’s like two workers. One quietly and effectively does his job right the first time, without drawing attention to himself. The other makes a big show of what he’s doing, and being more concerned with having everyone know what he’s up to, ends up doing a mediocre job.
Cadence is everything
What’s wrong with this paragraph?
The first step of our business process is to understand your goals. We follow that by determining the best avenue to get there. Our solutions always end up being simple, direct and effective. And the feedback we’ve received has been uniformly positive.
All the sentences are roughly the same length. Big problem. It’s too mechanical. This is NOT a good example of “Write Like You Talk!” Mix it up. Short and long. Like I’ve done in this paragraph.
Start in the middle
You may have noticed that I start off many of the chapters in this book with a story that drops the reader right in the middle of things. It just makes for more compelling reading. This device has become second nature to me, and given how easy a way it is to make writing more interesting, I’m not sure why it’s not used more. Once you’ve grabbed the reader’s attention, you can continue on with a more conventional approach. It’s more effective, it’s more engaging, and it’s a heckuva lot more fun to write (and doesn’t that sound suspiciously like benefits before features again?).
Focus on the Reading, Not the Writing
Two meanings: 1) Focus on the sound and flow of the piece as it’s being read so it reads naturally, free of excess words, awkward syntax or robotic rhythm, and 2) (more global) Always write with the reader in mind, and try to appeal to that particular reader; don’t just focus on the words for their own sake.
Succeeding with your self-published book is a lot of work, but it’s far easier if you write that book with a more interesting, engaging voice – one that draws readers in and keeps them reading.