The moment when you’ve just finished writing your book is a big one.
You close your laptop with a satisfied sigh, dance a little jig of delight, and treat yourself to something celebratory. An inspired choice by an author friend of mine was fish and chips and champagne.
But after the excitement has died down, voices of doubt creep into your head. ‘Is this book a good one? Is it the best it can be? And what will other people think?’
This is when it’s worth pausing for a moment.
Recently I read a brilliant gem of a book: Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by the comedian John Cleese.
It’s worth reading for all sorts of reasons, but one of the best comes towards the end, when Cleese gives three insightful questions for you to ask when you show people your work. (Actually he gives four, but the final one isn’t that relevant to non-fiction, which is what I’m focusing on here).
I found myself inspired by these questions. And as I specialise in ghostwriting business books, self-help guides and memoirs, I’m giving you my thoughts on how they can help you make sure you’ve written the best book you possibly can.
Question 1: Where were you bored?
I love the fact that this question comes first.
So often, non-fiction books come across as if they’re instruction manuals. But readers don’t enjoy reading manuals, because they want to feel engaged with a book. If they’re not, they give up before the end of Chapter 1.
They’re also unlikely to follow the advice within the book. They don’t get the feeling that their needs are being catered for, so they assume that the author doesn’t understand them. This results in them switching off from the content.
Being a little bit boring shows a lack of respect for your readers, who’ve paid money and – just as importantly – committed several hours of their time to read your words.
There are all sorts of ways you can turn your book into a good read. The most obvious are to include stories, fun facts and analogies to make your ideas concrete and engaging.
You can also liven up your language by using varied vocabulary and the active voice. This gives your readers the impression that you’re sitting in front of them, speaking to them as a trusted friend.
Question 2: Where could you not understand what was going on?
There’s a marketing saying that I love: ‘A confused customer isn’t buying.’ Just as you walk away from a supermarket shelf crammed with products that don’t make their unique selling points clear, so will your readers put your book to one side if they struggle to work out what you’re saying.
Clarity is essential if you’re to persuade your readers over to your point of view. This is, after all, the main purpose of a business book or self-help guide.
Consider the difference between a text that takes you from one logical place to another, leading you by the hand so you know where you’re going, and one that jumps around so that you’re confused. You’ll soon give up on the second one.
In addition, part of being clear is starting in the right place for your readers. Are you beginning each chapter where they actually are, or where you think they should be? It’s easy to let your expertise lead you to believe that they know more than they do.
Question 3: Where did you not find things credible?
If your readers don’t find you trustworthy, they won’t take action on your advice. The orator Aristotle called this concept ‘ethos’, or the moral expertise and knowledge that guides your audience to believe you.
If your book doesn’t display ‘ethos’, your readers will question your authority all the way through. Given that one of your reasons for writing your book in the first place might be to enhance your credibility, this could be a killer blow.
You can make your book credible in various ways. Incorporating real-life examples or stories to back up your claims helps, as does including well-researched facts and information. You can use footnotes to reference your sources and to expand upon what you’ve written in the main body of the text.
But one of the key techniques is to address the possible counter-arguments to your claims.
For instance, if you’re advocating eating less sugar to lose weight, consider the cynics among your readers. What might they think? Could they assume that fat is the main enemy of weight loss, rather than sugar? If so, debunk that myth, rather than glossing over it.
To do this, you need to have a deep understanding of your readers. What do they already think? What do they care about? And how can you present your ideas so that they make sense to them?
John Cleese’s three questions are a brilliant place to start when it comes to evaluating your book. And of course, you can have a go at answering them yourself before you turn to anyone else – that will take you a long way.
The added bonus is that, after you’ve actioned the feedback, you’ll feel much more confident about your book. You’ll need that confidence when it comes to shouting about it from the rooftops while you’re marketing it.
Ginny Carter is a bestselling ghostwriter of 20 books, a book coach, and a successful author in her own right. Her guide to writing a standout business book, the award-winning Your Business Your Book, takes you through the process of planning, writing and promoting your own book.