A friend, who is also a prolific reader, once shocked me. Talking about nonfiction books, he said: “I only read the first chapter. Then I page through the rest and stop to read anything that’s interesting.”
My incredulous look encouraged him to explain. “Most nonfiction books pack their entire message into the first chapter. The rest of the book just rehashes it.” While some books warrant a more thorough investigation, he claimed most didn’t.
I’ve tested his theory. He’s right. Most nonfiction books present all of the essential information in the first chapter. Yes, the subsequent chapters do expound on the first chapter’s truths, but they do little to add substance to the main concept. In too many nonfiction books, I learn 90 percent of the main material in 10 percent of the time by just reading the first chapter.
I see three reasons why this happens:
1) The author doesn’t have enough content for a book. Some ideas, really great ideas, are simply not big enough to fill a book. Maybe it’s perfect for an article or even a blog post, but not a book. Yet authors may try to stretch an article into a book.
2) The author has a word count goal. Publishers (or agents) want a certain length book. They require X number of words to fill Y number of pages. That’s what best fits their production process or what marketing feels the buying public expects. After all, if we spend $15 on a book, we expect it to have some heft. As a result, authors stretch their words to hit a target. But that doesn’t make for a good book.
3) The author doesn’t know how to write nonfiction. There are all kinds of instructions on how to write fiction, but the amount of information on writing nonfiction is nonexistent in comparison. Maybe the assumption is that nonfiction is easy to write and requires no training. In fiction, we learn how to grab readers’ attention, keep them turning pages, and skillfully guide them to a satisfying conclusion. We would never reveal the ending in chapter 1 and then explain how it all happened. Yet that is precisely what too many authors do in nonfiction.
The more I think about this, the more I realize what a huge problem this is. Maybe I should write a book about it. No, on second thought, I only have enough for a blog post.
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Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.