I know that I’m reading a great book when it makes me forget that I’m reading. I become so engaged, I don’t even notice the book in my hand, or the turn of a page. I’m in it, and I can’t put it down.
On the other hand, to read some books feels like such a slog, I can’t even make it through the first chapter before I feel like I have to put it down, or I’ll want to scratch my eyes out.
Can you relate?
Of course, all of us who write know it’s easier to accept this fact as a reader than it is to confront as an author. After all, no one wants to think that reading their book would cause anyone to scratch their eyes out, or to put it down and never pick it up again.
While there are infinite reasons people decide to stop reading a book, I’ve pinpointed three that you actually can control: 1) Confusion, 2) Boredom, and 3) Feeling Disconnected.
In general, people read for two reasons: to unwind and unplug from their day-to-day reality, or to learn. The last thing anyone wants to feel while they are unwinding is that it’s work. And the last thing anyone wants when their learning is to feel confused. So, it’s the authors job to take the reader on a fun journey that’s easy to navigate.
This doesn’t mean you have to dumb it down. Humans are generally okay with being intellectually engaged, even when they’re unwinding. It just means that the way you write mustn’t feel like work to read. Your content can be on the headiest subject in the world – that’s fine – it’s how you present the material that will make the difference as to how well your reader sticks with it.
The antidote to confusion is clarity.
If you want your reader to stay with you, be clear. When I’m editing a manuscript, I know that if I have to read a sentence twice to get the meaning, it’s a poorly written sentence. It may be grammatically perfect, but as soon as I have to go back and read it again, I know that if we don’t make that one sentence clear, the end reader (your book buyer) is going to lose a little bit of faith in you as their guide. Do that enough times, and you’ve lost them for good.
I get bored when books are too wordy, too repetitive, and too mundane. As a reader, I want to read a book that moves and flows like a swift stream, I want to read interesting stories and anecdotes, I want to see vivid images in my mind. Assume your reader has the same standard.
So many things can go wrong to cause your reader to become bored, but one that’s easy to avoid is the bad habit of constantly reminding them that they’re reading. When you say things like, “In this chapter I will…” Or, “like I explained in Chapter 4…” and so on, you pull them out of the moment. I know that at times, these kinds of phrases can be useful, but I often see them grossly overused.
The antidote to boredom is to entertain.
While there are many factors at play, you can use several tactics to make sure your reader remains entertained, such as use active language and avoid passive voice, avoid redundancy, avoid generalizing, and use words that create a picture in your reader’s mind. (For more details, see my book How to Write A Book That Sells YOU, specifically the section called “Top 10 Writing Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them.”)
#3 Feeling Disconnected
I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning authors degrade the power of their content by making the one mistake of coming across as if they think of their audience as “readers” rather than one individual with whom they share a connection and have a deep desire to help.
When you use terminology like, “Some of you may be having this experience…” or “A lot of you might find…” etc., you’re taking at the reader, not to them. This makes the reader feel as if they’re sitting in a lecture, when they should feel like the two of you are in an intimate conversation.
Empathize for a moment and picture yourself in each of those situations. Do you stay completely focused and engaged during an hour-long lecture? Or does your mind drift off now and again—even when the subject is interesting?
Now compare the lecture experience to being engaged in a one-on-one conversation with someone who cares about you. Not only will you give it your full attention, you’ll likely lose track of time.
The antidote to disconnection is intimacy.
Probably the greatest leverage point of authoring a book is that it facilitates intimacy. People read books in their most intimate spaces: in bed, in the bathtub, in their favorite chair, wherever.
Even though you are writing a book for the masses, your relationship with your reader is one-on-one. So, my advice is: write to one reader. Create the feeling that you and your reader are in an intimate conversation.
The simple way to do this is to address your reader directly as “you.”
Don’t (and I mean never) use the royal “we,” or refer to them as “readers,” or “you all,” or “many of you.” Those phrases make the reader feel like you see them not as a person, but as a commodity. Ouch.
This is all to say that the best writing makes your reader forget that they’re reading, and the three best ways to do that are: to be clear, keep them entertained, and foster intimacy.