At this time of year, if you are interested in writing a book you published seen the buzz around the #NaNoWriMo “write a novel in a month” global challenge. This is where you have 30 days to write a book in November and the target word count is 50,000 words. But is that sensible for a book you want to be read from cover to cover?

Thick “Thud Factor” books must die!(!!!)

My 1st published book, Social Media Success in 7 Days, ran at around 45,000 words. My latest book, “Launch your book”, is 27,000 words.

Why did I choose to publish a shorter book? People wonder “Isn’t the risk that a thin book = a dumbed down book?” I think not. And here’s why.

My goal when I’m writing a book is to

  • clearly define what my readers need to achieve
  • decide how I give them that information in the best possible format (pictures, words, lists, tables, annotated diagrams)

Clearly, I need to pick the quickest and easiest format I can – else I run the risk of a slow and difficult experience for my readers.

  • This is no good for them – they don’t achieve something that matters to them.
  • It’s no good for me – they decide I am a hopeless teacher!

Your question when planning your book content should always be “How to do I give them the skills and knowledge they need in the fewest words possible.” If you’re not addressing that question, being ruthless with the brevity of your explanation, then sadly, in the mind of your reader, you’re not “adding value” you’re adding “padding and filler”. (ugh!)

  • TIP: Sometimes a picture is the best way to describe something, not words! This is great for communicating clearly, without missing out the essentials.

The well-known bestselling book, “Who Moved my Cheese” has around 16,000 words – that’s it! Reader’s didn’t care about it being short – they cared about it helping them learn something that matters to them.

It’s more like “a special magazine feature” than “a real book”, but it sold well. It explained what readers needed to know in the shortest time, with minimal information and fuss.

Our brains are less focused than that of a goldfish *groan*

Research studies show that people’s attention spans have progressively shrunk over time.

The infamously feeble mind of a goldfish manages an attention span 9 seconds, but according to Microsoft study (on Canadians), people now generally lose concentration after just eight seconds.

This highlights the effects of an increasingly technology-fuelled lifestyle on our brains.

Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (roughly when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.

The researchers also found the ability to maintain prolonged focus during repetitive activities (such as reading) showing roughly half the respondents struggle.

  • 44% of Canadians really have to concentrate hard to stay focused on tasks
  • 45% get side tracked from what they’re doing by unrelated thoughts or day
  • 37% don’t make the best use of their time so sometimes they have to work late

The demographics suggest that the young and the tech-savvy suffer most.

The average person who will be reading your non-fiction book is bombarded with information like

  • emails
  • texts
  • social media
  • podcasts
  • videos
  • phone calls
  • tv
  • smartphones
  • magazines
  • friends and family
  • reminders
  • environmental things like pouring boiling water carefully, remembering birthdays and appointments

This constant bombardment is exhausting, disruptive and distracting when it comes to getting something done, like reading and learning.

Plus, over time, thanks to brain plasticity – our mental faculties adapt to suit the environment we find ourselves. We are becoming progressively more skilled at multi-tasking and short bursts of attention.

Alas, even when people consciously attempt to focus on a longer task like reading, they struggle.

In 2000 a study, reported on by the Associated Press, it revealed that the average attention span for someone concentrating in an office was 12 minutes in 1998. Skip ahead 10 years (if you pardon the pun! 🙂 ) to 2008 and it’s down to just 5 minutes!

Studies on email habits have shown that long emails are often abandoned within 30 seconds. If the reader cannot see what the point of an important email is because the sender was long-winded, they give up.

Skimmer are winners

Usability specialist, Jakob Nielson analysed data from a study “Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use” by 4 German academics (From the University of Hamburg, Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Matthias Mayer and from Hannover,  Eelco Herder.)

They studied reading information on the internet back in 1998:

  • 49 % of words read on web pages with 111 words or less
  • 28 % of words read on an average (593 words) web page

As authors, it’s very important to us to pass on our knowledge and skills and help other people. We must share the learnings that come from the hard yards we put in, to shortcut others routes to success. However, that desire to help does not give you permission over do your explanations in your book. Every piece of information must be clear, concise and have a purpose.

Quite often, less is more.

Coupled with shorter attention spans is the concept of readability – a measure of how well the written word can be understood.

Prose with long words and sentences is penalised – because it takes longer to understand the message. It’s more difficult for people to understand what you mean when you use long sentences bursting with long words. Similarly, shorter words are easier to understand than longer words. Using these writing style techniques make our words ideal for the tired minds of our readers who are constantly drowning in a soup of information surrounding them.

  • reduce the word count and word length in each sentence
  • check you are still making the point clearly

This, of course reduces the word count of your entire book without dumbing down the quality of the information. It makes your book lean, mean, fun and engaging for the reader. Great!

It’s ok to be bite-sized with your nonfiction book

As a non-fiction writer, I think you should always be practising creating the biggest impact with the fewest words. Your readers will love you for it.

The fiction authors it’s different. They are writing to entertain not educate. They need more words to create the scene, to set the tone and the mood. They elaborate and help fill in the gaps of a reader’s mind.

But non-fiction readers tend to know a lot about the subject already.

Let’s say I’m writing a book on how to create a really good presentation. My readers will probably have worked on some presentation text – however fraught that experience may have been :). They will have attended other people’s presentions, online and offline. They will have seen presentations on TV shows and at work. So they have lots of relevant information already in their head. They just need me to help them communicate effectively.

They need some simple processes or hints and tips from somebody who’s mastered the subject. After all, a few minutes spent focusing on that will save them time wandering around on the internet – with all it’s distractions – desperately seeking answers!

The delete key is the reader’s friend

Always remember the value of your delete button. look every sentence that you write and chop out any unnecessary words.

If you use 2 or 3 sentences to make a point, perhaps you might be able to to do in 1.

Always seek to trim the fat in your writing.

PS before you despair about the world being in danger of a brainy goldfish takeover, there are some trends that suggest human’s might be fighting back. The slow reading movement is gathering momentum, just like slow food and slow travel. And let’s remember the propensity for people to “binge-eat” an entire box set of TV shows in one sitting is increasing. I wonder which side of our brains will win over time? Hopefully the best bits of both worlds.

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