11 tips for how to keep your readers reading

If you retain readers’ attention through to the end of your book, they’re far more likely to adopt your ideas and spread the word. If they give up on it, it’s far less effective.

Remember that your objective is not to get people to buy the book and put it on a shelf. It’s to get people to read it, love it, and talk about it. (I’d rather have one enthusiastic reader who got the book for free and tells all their friends than ten buyers who never got past page 4.)

Unfortunately, writers often lack the knowledge and discipline to craft a book that keeps people reading. Unless you take steps to accomplish the goal of keeping people reading, they likely won’t.

Here’s how to prepare and execute a plan that will keep readers reading your book through to the end.

1 Scare the crap out of them.

The first step is to get them through chapter one. And the best way to do that is to scare the crap out of the reader in the first chapter. They should become concerned that if they don’t address the issue you’ve raised, they’ll either risk disastrous consequences or miss out on something awesome.

2 Ditch the introduction.

The introduction (“Why I wrote this book”) is where you’re most likely to lose them, since it doesn’t provide any actionable information. Forget the intro; plunge us directly into useful ideas and consequences in chapter one.

3 Keep it short.

The best way to get readers to read to the end of your book is to make sure the end isn’t too far from the beginning. These days, effective business books are often 40,000, 50,000, or 55,000 words (that translates to less than 150 pages). If your book is longer than 65,000 words, cut the parts that your reader cares least about.

4 Use the reader questions method to design the book before you write it.

Planners have an opportunity to create a book that draws people in from beginning to end. Seat-of-the-pants writers (“pantsers“) don’t. Design your book so that each chapter answers a reader’s question and those questions lead naturally from one to the next. At the end of each chapter, the reader should be thinking, “Yeah, but what about . . . ,” after which you explain just what they were wondering about.

5 Start chapters with stories

Nobody can resist a story. Chapters that start with stories keep people reading.

6 End chapters with teasers.

At the end of a chapter, explain what’s coming next. For example, “Now that you know how to negotiate with buyers, you need to know how to set prices. That’s the topic of the next chapter.”

7 Write directly to the reader with “you” and “we.”

People may give up on reading about something, but they never give up in the middle of a conversation. Regular reminders that you’re talking to them can help. For example, “You may be wondering at this point . . .,” “You should never write when you’re tired,” or “There are three ways you can handle this objection.” And it’s also helpful to write with “we,” which invites readers to imagine that you and they are fellow travelers. While it’s possible to overdo this, I believe you should use “you” or “we” at least once every page or two.

8 Vary the length of sentences and paragraphs, and keep paragraphs short.

Variation keeps reader interest. The simplest kind of variation is to vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs. Pepper in a few short sentences and paragraphs to wake the reader up. And avoid long paragraphs that take up most of page and tire people out. (Much of my editing work is simply adding paragraph breaks to break up long paragraphs.)

9 Reduce repetition.

You’re going to repeat yourself. It’s human nature — you’ll forget you mentioned an idea or example, and mention it again, or you’ll come back to a theme multiple times. The time to fix this is in the rewrite. Notice where you have repeated yourself, and bring those instances together in one place.

10 Keep jargon to a minimum.

The easiest way to make a reader give up is to write sentences full of jargon and acronyms. “What the heck is this saying?” the reader thinks, and soon after, “Screw this, I have other things to do.” Do a jargon audit, identifying all the jargon in the book. What can you keep and what can you ditch? For example, if your book is about AI, then of course it’s going to include the acronym AI in a bunch of places, and probably also LLM (large language model). But if you only talk about natural language processing in a few places, don’t reduce it to another hard-to-recall acronym.

11 Avoid clichéd examples, quotes, and metaphors.

Nothing drives people to give up on your prose like hearing something they’ve read a bunch of times before. We already knew to skate to where the puck was going. We already heard about how Chewy sends flowers to people whose pets have died. If you’ve already read the story or heard the quip in more than two places, it’s doesn’t belong in your book. (Trust your editor: they’ve read a lot more manuscripts than you, and if they think you’re using a cliché, you are.)

Remember the audience

You’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing to solve your audience’s problem. As a side effect, you’ll get them cheering for the value you’ve created for them . . . along with their recommendation to their friends, or in their blog, or in their podcast, to buy your book.

But that only works if you keep them reading until the end.

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