Who to Write for and What to Keep and What to Remove
A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.
This is an excerpt of the upcoming Writing Better Books, the Agile Way.
If I ask you to go to Starbucks to bring me a coffee, you might end up buying me the wrong drink. But when I later tell you that I will not need a coffee after all, you can no longer make the mistake of choosing the wrong thing between, say, a soy latte and an iced coffee. Similarly, in software programming, there is a saying that the best piece of computer code is the one that is not necessary: you can simply remove it and the program will still run perfectly and flawlessly. While your readers are no machines, and while it is OK to repeat yourself to make a certain point, this saying also applies to your book. If you do not write it or remove a certain passage before editing, it needs no editing, and it makes your book shorter and more to the point.
Another way of looking at it is to ask yourself what the specific goal of a certain chapter, section, or even paragraph is. What specifically are you accomplishing with this passage? If you cannot answer that question, your readers will not be able to answer it either, and no matter how well researched and written that part of your book is, it is superfluous and should be removed. Shorter is always better: it saves you, your editor, and your reader time and elevates the other parts of your book that have a reason to be there. This applies both to fiction and non-fiction books. Introducing random characters you later will never use again is just as problematic as explaining something that does not serve the point you want to make.
Now, what is a method you could integrate in your writing process to ensure that you are not writing more than needed?
To come up with a method, let us first examine the reason it is easy to fall victim to writing superfluous text as an author. The problem you are facing is that you are not only the person coming up with ideas for what to write about, you are also the person “implementing” those ideas by doing research and writing them down. In addition, you are looking at a computer screen or piece of paper; you are not speaking directly to another person. Both issues can lead to you just writing to yourself and going off on a tangent.
So, before writing a piece of text, we first have to address these questions:
- To whom are you writing?
- What does that person want to know?
- Why does that person want to know it?
Once you have written down your answers to these questions, you can then switch your “hat” from idea-person to writer. You will no longer go off on a tangent, you are now tasked with implementing the answers to those questions in a paragraph or section.
And the one trait of a writer in this context is that he or she is following the instruction to the letter and will only write as much to implement those answers but no more. Once you are done with writing, you can put on your “idea hat” again and think about what need by your reader to address next.
This split between the idea-person and writer can also take place on a larger scale. You can prepare a whole series of points you want to make in your text, noting down whom you are talking to, what the person wants to know, and why he or she wants to know it, and then switch roles and do nothing but implement those answers for a while.
This focused approach will not only help you to write only as much as is needed (and not talk down to the reader by explaining obvious ideas), but it will also speed up your writing process as you no longer have to constantly switch back and forth between writer and idea person.
In project management, this approach is also called ‘a ‘user story.” You start out by defining your audience (“personas”), brainstorm what your audience wants to read about and why, and list all those “user stories” in a ToDo list. Next, you rearrange those user stories so that their sequence makes sense. Once that is finalized, you can start writing without interruption.
While working on a story, you might come up with new ideas. It is best to double check if writing a new story is better. For example, in this book, I discuss fiction and non-fiction books sometimes side by side, sometimes in separate chapters. When I do the latter, I have usually started with the former, and then divided the chapter into two. A better approach is to split chapters as soon as you see that what you are writing might address two different personas (or deal with actually two distinct user stories). If you see this pattern repeating with other user stories, too, you might want to move the new user stories into your next book.
When writing a book for an audience, it helps to imagine members of that audience reading the book or specific parts of it. This process of reflection helps to stay on track and check whether you have not missed something (or have written too much, as discussed in the last Chapter 4).
As you will not have time to think about hundreds or thousands of people reading and reacting to your book, you have to come up with representative examples. Apply names like Peter, Bob, Mary, etc. and write a short biography and a list of interests related to your book. While this stereotyping is not necessarily politically correct (by definition you want to simplify the diversity your audience into archetypes), remember that you are not really using those names anywhere in your book. Instead, it is to help you focus and improve communication with your editor or other people working on the project. If everyone involved in the project keeps those stereotypical representation of your readership in their mind, brief statements like “Mary will not understand this paragraph,” “Peter would like to know more about the protagonist’s background,” or “Bob wants to know more detailed information and references about the topic” will speed up the discussion.
If you are not happy with Peter, Bob, and Mary, or dislike stereotyping in this way, you can also simply use descriptions like “the expert,” “the thrill-seeker,” or “the sensualist.” To further improve memorization and communication of those archetypes, you could use alliteration. Think of how easy you remember names like Lois Lane, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Mad Max, or Peter Pan. So, maybe you have Bob Babel who is well versed with languages, Emily Expert, a researcher who will use your book as a reference, or Mary Mild who does not like explicit language in your story.
During your writing career, you should keep your audience in mind and refine your personas. Find out more about who is reading your books, learn more about your readers’ backgrounds, and compare what you have drawn up as possible personas with the people actually reading your book. Ultimately, your personas should become as diverse as the characters or topics you write about. Like a puppeteer who can tell a whole variety of stories with his or her selection of puppets, you will be able to write a whole variety of books with your selection of personas (and characters, of course).
The more you know about your audience, the better you can remove parts of your book that will make people put your book away, or expand on points people are most interested in. You might even end up knowing your audience so well, and find a comfortable niche that you have but a single persona to write for.
Likewise, if you end up with two or more groups of personas that do not overlap, you should think about creating two different books focused on those two different types of people rather than trying for a larger audience where both groups dislike half of the book.
Like you might find people interested in history, and people interested in Vampire stories. But putting them together might not necessarily work if done in a serious way. For example, on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics consensus on “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was: “[It] has visual style to spare, but its overly serious tone doesn’t jibe with its decidedly silly central premise, leaving filmgoers with an unfulfilling blend of clashing ingredients.”
And most (good) books are simple tools, not “Swiss army knives.” They deal with a single issue. People have specific needs and look for specific solutions. If you are muddying the water with several topics, you end up with a smaller audience. And if you cannot explain what your book is about in a short paragraph, your readers certainly will not figure it out for themselves. This might be hard to understand, especially if it is your first book. But this is how books work. The book most prone to this mistake is your first book—simply because you have not written for so long that you want to use all of your past ideas in a single story.
Of course, there are books that are “Swiss army knives.” They deliver a whole range of ideas, especially in the field of education. But those books are sold as part of an existing course or training and are seldom stand-alone works. Their “story” is basically how to pass a certain level of education or exam. Other books of this type include reference books for languages, history, natural sciences, and so on. The selling point of those books are—as the name implies—that they act as a reference for other works or study.
In this case of having to address a very broad audience, you might want to categorize your personas by personality types and provide a section for each type. Discussing personality types is beyond the scope of this book, but just to point out two examples:
- Many academic documents follow the four language approach: having an executive summary and a list and maybe description of people (and their status and role) involved in the document, an appendix with the details, tables, raw data, references, etc., a preface explaining why this document is important, and a conclusion with ideas for further research.
- The “Big Five” personality theory (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) describes four major personality types: “Average” (high scores in neuroticism and extraversion, low scores on openness, reserved, most common personality type), “Reserved” (low scores on openness and neuroticism, independent of age and gender, typically extroverted and agreeable), “Role model” (stable, dependable, and open to new ideas, high scores in all traits but neuroticism, overrepresented in group 40 and older), and “Self-centered” (low scores in openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, high score in extraversion, strongly overrepresented in young males).
For writing fiction, you have yet another categorization tool available to you: genres. Genres are basically story and character templates that have proven to be interesting for a certain group of readers. Most novels fit into a single genre, meaning you have basically only a single persona (and user story), but some are a mix of genres which can (if done right) help the book to appeal to larger audiences. For example, there are people who like westerns and there are people who like science fiction. A western-type scenario in space might still appeal to both. With combining two genres, you can actually create a market niche with a very broad appeal, where writing for different personas actually improves rather than lowers the quality of the book.
This was an excerpt of the upcoming Writing Better Books, the Agile Way.