I just wasted 10 minutes listening to a guru talk about the importance of having a professional-looking cover on a self-published book. Throughout the podcast, I kept waiting for substance:
- What makes a cover professional?
- How can I make my book cover stand out?
- How can I find someone to help me create a great book cover?
The speaker shared general principles I already knew. However, he provided no guidelines or recommendations that would help me translate general principles into specific actions. Without those specifics, his advice was simply empty platitudes.
Granted, it’s possible to provide too much information. If you’re writing a recipe, you generally don’t need to define salt or explain how to beat an egg. However, you should anticipate questions or problems a typical reader might have: for example, Scrambled eggs are done when they are firm and the sheen disappears.
How can you judge how much information your reader needs? One of the best ways is to test your writing with actual readers. What questions do they have? Where do they have trouble following instructions? In most situations, however, that’s overkill. Generally it’s more practical to imagine a typical reader and write for that person.
Writing with a specific person in mind works for Warren Buffett, who is renowned for his ability to write about finance in simple, direct language: “When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them…..No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with ‘Dear Doris and Bertie.'”
How would writing for a specific reader have helped the guru provide more substance? For one thing, he would have realized the need to define professional and provide criteria that distinguish professional covers from amateur designs. For another, he would have helped nonexperts find ways to use his expert insights. He might have listed characteristics of effective covers and explained how to use the list to judge ideas for listeners’ own cover designs. He could have recommended resources to help people find good cover designers.
For an example of how to do how-to right, see Kenn Schroder’s article on the “Chicken Scratch Testimonial Model.” The Before-During-After structure is clear, the action steps are straightforward, and tips guide you through executing the steps correctly. You’ll find an example of the results you get when you follow the process, along with a gentle nudge to action. And if you think the title is funny, be sure to read the copyright line.
When you’re sharing how-t0 information, you’ll probably write first from an expert’s perspective. That’s fine, as long as you review what you’ve written from a readers’ perspective. Ask yourself
- What terms might confuse Doris or Bertie (or my typical reader)?
- What do I expect readers to do with this information?
- Have I anticipated readers’ questions?
- Have I given readers the information and resources they need to act on this information?
Keep revising until the answer to the last question is yes, readers have everything they need to understand and use what I have written. With this reader-centered approach, you can turn general principles into substantive, actionable advice.
“Preface” to A Plain English Handbook (1996) by Warren Buffett: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whyPL/testimonials/buffet.cfm
For great how-to advice about book covers, visit Joel Friedlander’s site: http://www.thebookdesigner.com/
Kenn Schroder’s “Chicken Scratch Testimonial Method for Selling Coaching” is an October 5, 2012, post to CoachingSitesThatWork: http://www.coachingsitesthatwork.com/chicken-scratch-testimonial-model-for-selling-coaching/