‘There are just three rules for writing,’ claimed bestselling author Somerset Maugham. ‘But nobody knows what they are.’
This is true, but it doesn’t mean you have nothing to go on when you’re planning your book.
In my experience of ghostwriting many business books, self-help guides, and thought leadership titles, I’ve learned that there are three questions you need to ask before you begin.
The answers to these questions will set you up to write a book that becomes a transformational force for change. One that makes a critical difference to its readers. And one that helps you to build a loyal band of followers and advocates, so you become the focal authority on your subject.
What’s more, these questions enable you to grab your readers by the metaphorical throat, making your book the one they read, remember, and act upon above all others. Sounds pretty tempting, doesn’t it?
So, what are these three questions to ask yourself?
1. What do my readers need to know?
This sounds pretty simple, but it’s deceptive.
Suppose you’re writing a book about how to recruit the right people for your business. Your readers need to know about staff selection techniques, how to conduct interviews, and a host of other things. You’ll know what these factors are because you’re an expert in recruitment yourself, so it’s easy for you to work out what information to impart.
To a point, yes. But it’s not enough just to be clear on what you want to say, it’s also essential to pick out the elements that matter most to your readers, in the order that makes sense to them. In other words, you need to join them on the journey they’re already on. And that might mean starting at a different place, or coming at your content from an alternative angle, to the one you had in mind.
Think: what’s the conversation your target readers are already having with themselves about this topic? Using the example above it might be, ‘Why is it so hard to attract good people? I never get any decent applications from quality candidates.’ In this case your book should start by explaining where they’re going wrong right from the beginning of the recruitment process; if you dive into the how-to of interviews before you do that you’re going to confuse them and dilute your precious message.
2. What do my readers need to feel?
This is where my favourite Maya Angelou quote comes into its own: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
How your readers feel both during and after reading your book is fundamental to whether they buy into your vision. Think about what emotions you want to inspire, because it’s only when thoughts become feelings that we take action. What’s more, they make your book memorable; it’s the swirling sensations your readers are left with that will stay with them forever, not the facts and figures.
What do you want your readers to feel? Excitement? A feeling of empowerment? Fascination? Confidence? Or something else?
It’s worth working out what primary emotion you want your readers to have in each chapter, and also by the end of your book. You might start by helping them to feel clear about what their problem is, or relieved that they’re not alone with it. This could move into fascination as they learn about what’s causing them to feel stuck, then excitement as they discover the way out of the mire. At the end of your book you might want them to feel powerful and motivated to do something about their situation.
It’s these emotions that make the difference between your book being a compilation of ideas and facts, and it being a force for change.
3. What do my readers need to do?
Your book might not necessarily contain a strong call to action – it could be an exploration of a particular topic or an explanation of a new strategy, for instance. But even if it does, it’s still aiming to provoke a change in your readers’ way of thinking, and that’s bound to result in them doing things differently as a result.
So to write a book that makes an indelible mark on their souls, you need to be clear on the primary action you want your readers to take. Is it to change something in their lives or businesses? Sign up to your email list? Contact you to speak at their next event? Ask to work with you one-to-one? Spread your message far and wide? You may have a combination of these (or others) in mind, but if you’re not clear on what they are there will be a similar lack of focus in your book.
After all, the reason you’re writing your book is to effect change of some sort. So for your book to be an agent of that change, it needs to present a path of action in a clear and obvious way.
All this means . . .
If you’re clear on what you want your readers to know, you’ll guide them to new ways of thinking.
If you’re clear on what you want your readers to feel, you’ll inspire them to care about it.
And if you’re clear on what you want your readers to do, they’ll put their new-found loyalty into action.
That’s how you write a book that’s a force for change in the world.
Ginny Carter ghostwrites authority-building books and self-help guides for entrepreneurs, thought-leaders, speakers, and coaches. Her own recently published book, Your Business Your Book, has been shortlisted for an award.