Thought Readership #6: The Curse of the Fledgling Author: “Textbook Creep.”

by Liz Alexander on May 21, 2012

Think back to your days in college or high school. You’re sitting in a lecture hall or classroom. The speaker is droning on and on using confusing vocabulary. Your mind drifts. You know you should be paying attention but you can’t.

Remember what that was like?

Then hold that experience in mind next time you write. Especially when you sit down to write a book. Because you can’t mandate that your readers will, like dutiful students, force their way through to the end like they had to in those interminably dull college lectures. They’ll shut your book and be done with it.

How do you avoid what I call “textbook creep” – the tendency of new authors, especially, to write incredibly worthy but dull prose?

For a start, you could study a book like Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization (Pearson Education Inc., 2011).

A quick bit of “back story,” first. This was not a book I had intended to review. I bought it only because I was developing a program that covered the metrics of strategic communications and thought it would be especially interesting to my participants to learn about how to measure social media effectiveness.

Thinking that this was going to be a painful but necessary exercise on my part, I dove in to the book – and was pleasantly surprised.

What does author Olivier Blanchard do that so many folks, writing these kinds of instructive books, don’t? Three things.

Before I tell you what they are, however, look at these examples from Chapter One:

“Building a social media program for an organization is hard. I won’t try to convince you otherwise.”

“What do people do on social media all day?… At its core, what people do on the social web is communicate and interact.”

“Now that we have touched upon what a social media program is, let’s discuss what a social media program does.

In the first example, I feel like Blanchard is talking to me — human being to human being. Not expert to novice or lecturer to student. That endeared me to him straight away (remember Know, Like, and Trust from Thought Readership #2?).

A line like “I won’t try to convince you otherwise,” is very conversational. When you read that you already get a sense of Blanchard as a down-to-earth guy who isn’t going to try and pull the wool over your eyes.

In the second example, the author anticipates the kind of questions that his readers will be asking as they read the book. I mean, what do people do on social media all day, for crying out loud? Again, this is a conversational sentence that also conveys that Blanchard is having a two-way dialog with his readers, not offering a soliloquy.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I chose the word “soliloquy” and not “monologue,” it’s because a monologue is where one person dominates or monopolizes the conversation, and a soliloquy is where they are talking solely to themselves.

Neither are good ways to write a compelling book. Never forget that there is a person reading your words that might not agree with you or have questions of their own. If you can anticipate and address these, as Blanchard does skillfully throughout Social Media ROI, then you’ll score major Brownie points with them.

Thirdly, like all good presenters of information, Blanchard throws in lines that move us deftly from one set of information to the next. Again, that third example above is very conversational and natural – the kind of thing you would say if the person you are writing for were sitting down with you.

So how do you develop a more conversational tone in your writing, if this is something that doesn’t come naturally? One tip that was useful to a client of mine – let’s call her Brenda – was to speak and record.

It was the oddest thing. When I’d ask Brenda a question about her subject matter expertise during our sessions, she was incredibly articulate and natural. But ask her to write something by herself and it was a whole other ball game. Her prose was stiff, full of jargon, and read like it was coming from a textbook.

What we ended up doing most of the time was for me to ask her questions that I believed her readers would want answered and to record her responses. Now that Brenda is working on her second book, she’s doing this for herself.   

Even if you’re not planning to write a book, bear in mind how tortuous it is when “experts” start pontificating about their material, almost forgetting that there is a human being on the other side of the interaction. You don’t want your book (or any business communication) to have the same reputation as the Medicare legislation – over-written gobbledegook – do you?

Make sure your book is as “user-friendly” as Olivier Blanchard’s Social Media ROI. Otherwise, guess what? You’re likely to find you don’t have any users!

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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