Note that I put “thinking” in parentheses. This post isn’t about common grammatical errors—it’s about common mistakes authors make in thinking about their subjects and how to present them.
In my experience as a developmental editor, I’ve seen many nonfiction authors dive into their topics without thinking much about the audience first. But this approach can lead to confusion—because you’re jumping into a subject from your own vantage point as an expert. You’ve lived the experience and researched the heck out of the topic, usually over a span of years or decades.
In other words, you’re too close to the material to know if you’re explaining it clearly to those who are less familiar, or maybe even unfamiliar.
Remember, unless you’re writing a book for people with the precise same expertise as you, you’re likely to have blind spots about reader understanding. Not taking these blind spots into consideration means you could be confusing your audience more than helping them, which is the opposite of your intention. (Unless you’re an evil mastermind, that is.)
With these blind spots in mind, here’s my answer to the question, “What are the most common writing mistakes you see?”
1. Writing for “everybody”
Nearly every author who sinks the time and money into writing a book wants to imagine making bestseller lists and selling millions of copies. Many authors think their message is so universal, it will resound with people from a variety of professional fields or walks of life. That may well be true, but positioning your book for “everybody” is not a winning strategy. It leaves you vulnerable to the common pitfall of writing only for yourself.
I know this sounds like a contradiction, but it’s true: telling yourself you’re writing for everyone is letting yourself off the hook from an important task—tailoring your content to the most likely reader. Saying “every reader can benefit from this book” can end up as a justification for telling yourself, “I am every reader too. I’ll just write the book I’d like to read.”
The problem with this is, you’re an expert on the topic; that’s why you’re writing the book. Your reader isn’t the expert you are, which is why they need the book. Instead of writing for every reader, you need to be writing for a specific reader who’s in a specific place in their life or process.
So if you’re a successful serial entrepreneur writing about securing venture capital and investors, your ideal reader isn’t someone who just came up with their first small business idea. Nor is it for someone who’s preparing to buy a fast food franchise. Your book isn’t actually for everyone, or even everyone in business; it’s for an entrepreneur with their own company, ready to present their product and business plan to potential financial backers.
Though you know your book contains universally applicable wisdom or themes, in truth, it has a narrow focus after all: it’s to help a specific someone with a specific part of their decision-making at a specific moment in time.
The same is true for any type of instructional nonfiction book, be it a diet and exercise book, self-help book, or book about building your own furniture. What goes into the book needs to be dictated by an understanding of who’s reading it. Your audience is your filter. If you’re considering a chapter that’s irrelevant to the reader’s needs, take it out and set it aside for some other purpose.
Here’s a technique that may help: imagine yourself in the room with a real person who needs to understand your book’s subject from every angle that’s relevant to their life, business, or pressing concern. How would you lay out the information that person needs to know?
2. Taking on too much in one book
Writing for everyone often contributes to this second problem—one I see often, especially in first-time authors.
Writing a book is hard work and it can seem like an endless process (and an expensive one, if you’re self-publishing). You may convince yourself that you have only one shot to get it right, because after this, you won’t have the bandwidth or budget to write another.
Your solution? You try to say everything you know about your subject in one big book. You tell yourself it will be comprehensive. No one will ever need to buy another book on the subject ever again.
This thinking is counterproductive to your goals, and here’s why:
- Your extremely long book may take forever to write—meaning, you may never finish it.
- Your book may be unfocused and overwhelming; readers may get lost in the vagueness and think, “This won’t solve my problem.” They may opt to buy a shorter, more focused book that does.
- Your book may be so comprehensive, you’ve undermined your own ability to write future books. Because you put it all in book #1, what’s left to say? Writing one book is great, but writing five books over five years is better, especially if you’re trying to brand yourself as an expert.
If you find yourself writing a kitchen sink book, take a step back. See if one section of the book speaks to your expertise or passions more than the others. Start there and see if you can keep talking about that particular issue until you hit your word count. Maybe that single chapter, fully explored, is a tightly focused book that can help people.
3. no transitions between ideas (and, related: sequencing errors)
Something I run across on just about every project is a lack of connective tissue linking ideas. If your thoughts are in the right order, usually your sentences and paragraphs (and chapters) are too. Transitions aren’t a problem in that case: c follows b, which follows a. But if you haven’t taken the time to think through the story you’re telling or process you’re presenting, you may end up with b then c then a. The shifts between these poorly sequenced thoughts can seem abrupt at best, nonsensical or confusing at worst.
Sometimes, this common writing issue is a remnant from copying and pasting between documents—you put a paragraph somewhere as a placeholder and then forget to smooth out the writing so it’s clear why that paragraph is there. A simple transition can smooth out the abruptness and remind a reader why you’re suddenly discussing this new topic. For example, you may say something like, “Another reason. . . ,” or “Building upon that idea. . .,” or the time-tested, “Also. . .”
But there are times where a writer may have a real organizational issue. In a passage containing three paragraphs, the one in the middle may work better at the end. Or in a selection of three pages, page two really belongs before page one. These problems can be tough to fix in your own work after the fact. It’s easier to write in a natural sequence, rather than re-sequence later. How can you do this?
I like to use a metaphor I call The Tour Guide. Skillful, smooth writing that doesn’t “bump” readers is like leading new visitors through an unfamiliar landscape like a city street or a museum. As the guide, you need to take charge and be clear about every step and landmark along the way. That means making no assumptions about specialized knowledge; prepare to hand-hold and pull the reader through your thought process.
Subject matter experts often overlook this hand-holding because they are so familiar with the topic, they don’t realize context is necessary. They work with the material in so many different forms, outlets, venues and styles that they’re not accustomed to thinking of their big, broad subjects from start to finish, the way you have to when you’re introducing a concept to unfamiliar audiences.
Of course, another reason writers may forget this essential step is that they’re busy. You want to get to the point, and often that means bluntly presenting a piece of information and then moving onto the next one.
But keep in mind that successful persuasive or instructional writing is just as much an art as it is a science. Keeping readers interested, and allowing them to follow your argument and feel smart, is key to helping them absorb and retain information.
This is why editors and ghostwriters are so valuable: they can partner with you to help you see and address these common writing issues—freeing you up to do what you do best.
Do you have a manuscript that could benefit from a second look? Read about manuscript critique and developmental editing. Then contact me if you think we’d be a good fit. I’m currently taking projects for November 1 onwards.