We all hate textbooks so why do people write them?

textbookThere’s a place for textbooks. They belong as reference material for classrooms and courses. They don’t work in isolation. They supplement other learning materials such as lectures, seminars or workbooks.

But as far as we’re concerned as experts who write, they are irrelevant. Unless you have been commissioned by a major publisher, who has the infrastructure to get the book to market and you have been paid in advance to write it, there is absolutely no point in writing a textbook.

So why does everyone do it?

When experts begin writing their book, either to pitch unsolicited to a publisher or with a view to self publish, they begin in couple of particular ways.

Here’s the wrong way. We can call it the linear method or ‘the brain dump’.

Linear authors start by writing everything they think they possibly know about everything they know. It’s so unstructured that they try desperately to think of a start, to give them something to hang onto. Since there’s no plan, defined topic or target market in mind they have no choice but to try to start at a beginning. Such books begin with variations of “I was born at an early age in my home town” and “In the beginning…”.

This linear way of starting kills the motivation to write really quickly. The actual ‘beginning’ of any story is usually very boring. Boring to write and boring to read. It’s also out of context. The reader is given no clues at that point as to what’s going to happen. That’s why most fiction and all movies start well into the story. The action has already begun.

Good authors recognise that they’re not telling the entire story of everything, they’re just telling one story that sits within a bigger story. A James Bond film doesn’t start with him being born. It doesn’t start with him sitting in the secret service offices waiting for the phone to ring. It starts at the peak of some action.

“But I’m not writing stories! I’m not writing fiction!” I imagine I hear you cry. I doesn’t matter. The same rules apply. Any writing needs to engage the reader enough so that they don’t stop reading through boredom.

The only book that’s allowed to start at the beginning of all creation is the Bible. And even with that the writers wrote that very first bit of Genesis last.

This linear way of writing is bad for the reader but it’s worse for the writer. It will almost always create ‘writers block’ which we can define as boredom, lack of confidence and lack of inspiration. If those blocks are overcome the result is a textbook.

These textbooks start tediously at the beginning with simple introductory concepts and then get more complex and more tedious as it progresses. Then at the end when it delivers the most complex, in-depth material, it stops. Then there’s an index (which is totally useless as you can’t dip into such a book as you would have had to read everything up to that point for it to make sense.)

These boring textbooks are often written by lively, passionate, friendly, talented people. So why do they leave out all that passion and emotion when they write?

The solution to all this, to write an engaging book, perhaps one that can be dipped into and most useful of all, one that you can actually write AND finish, is to write a non-linear book or write the book in a non-linear way.

Have you ever read a textbook? Probably not. If you did it would only have been because there was a gun pointed at your head.

No-one reads textbooks. So don’t write one.

We’ll look at the alternative method in my next post.

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5 comments on “We all hate textbooks so why do people write them?

  1. Thank you for your interesting posting. You mention that in some text books, the most complex and in-depth material comes at the end. Just wondering where in the book, the author should move this material to ?

    • That’s fine for textbooks and the obvious thing to do. The article is saying that if you’re not writing an actual textbook then the approach should be different. The best and best-selling non-fiction doesn’t start banal and end complex, the interest and value is spread throughout.

  2. Thanks for the timely reminder. I am in the process of writing my 4th useful guide and getting bored with it. I think I may have been in danger of going down the text book route. Back to the drawing board with renewed energy. Thank you

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