Writing for readers
I am in that singular stage of insanity called finishing a book. My mind is full of details and questions such as, “did I already cover this in Chapter 1” or “do I have too many diagrams in this chapter”? At the same time, I can’t help but think about my reader.
I hope that my reader will hungrily devour the book from start to finish, stopping only to make notes about how she will put my ideas to use. I hope it will be dogeared, full of notes and highlights my reader will return to time and again. But seriously, how can we plan for the realities that will occur when masterpiece is in someone else’s hands? Here are some of my apprehensions, and the strategies I’m using to address them.
1) Beginner or advanced? The books I write are not ones that slot readily into a specific course. In other words, I’m not writing a textbook that I know will fit into an English 101 curriculum. This particular book might be read by advanced undergraduate or master’s level students, or by grad students in an EDD program. It might also be read by professionals in the field, such as instructional designers. Given this potential range, am I aiming too high or too low with the content? Will readers already have the foundations or should I provide them?
To address this concern, I aim to provide the background needed to grasp the subject matter of the book. I assume that someone who already has prior knowledge can either review it as a refresher, or skip it. I also use the companion site as a place to post both more explanatory information for the person who needs the basics, and more challenging materials for the advanced reader.
2) Assigned or motivated? Is my reader opening this book because it is required for class, or because she is motivated to learn about this topic? If the book, or chapters from the book, have been assigned then do I need to organize my material any differently? Do I need to include more examples, stories or diagrams that might make the material more engaging for a busy student with lots of other assignments?
I hope that my readers will be drawn into the book, even if they are reading it involuntarily. I try to present material in a clear and well-organized way. I try to avoid extraneous verbiage. I provide chapter introductions and summaries that I hope will help the reader focus on the important points. I also re-read drafts with my students in mind, and think about how I would explain this material to them. This helps me to keep my writing style concise and friendly.
3) Linear or hopscotch? The book is written in a logical way, developing concepts from the first chapters through to the end. However, it is likely that the reader will not work through the chapters in sequence. If the book is used as a supplementary text, it is likely that only a few chapters will be assigned. If someone picks the book up to read based on interest, he might just go to the chapter that fits a current need.
This is perhaps the most difficult for me, because I don’t want to be repetitive and keep discussing material already covered in earlier chapters. I look for ways to present the content so that a chapter can stand alone, if necessary. I try to cross-reference other chapters, inserting (see chapter 3) so the reader can easily find relevant material if they are reading it out of order.
4) Learning styles? I’ve always been a fan of Howard Gardner and his work on multiple intelligences. Will my readers prefer the printed page, images and diagrams, or audio?
I spent a lot of time developing media and various kinds of supplementary materials for my previous books. For one text, I created detailed explanations of some of the important ideas in the book. I thought perhaps these videos were too long, so for the following book, created very short podcasts with related slides. Diagrams and major points have an accompanying audio clip with a short explanation. I will use a similar approach with the forthcoming book, to increase interest and usability.
There are no perfect answers to these dilemmas. Once we’ve relinquished the manuscript, we have to accept that it will be used in ways we can’t imagine. What are your concerns about how your book will be used, and how do you address them?
Janet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.