The number of books that I’ve started to read over the years is in the thousands, but the number of books I’ve actually finished is only a small percentage of that number.
There are multiple reasons why I don’t finish most of the books that I start – some of the more important of which I’d like to share with you here.
If you’re a serious reader, what I have to say may help to free you from the guilt-induced motivation to finish books just for the sake of finishing them. And if you’re a writer (or want to become be one), my words should be of value to you when it comes to honing your craft. I say this because the very factors that make me give up on a book early include some of the important ones that every author should focus on when he writes.
1. A long introduction
Nothing is more off-putting to me than a lengthy introduction. An introduction should be nothing more than a brief overview of what a book is about or a few paragraphs to help orient the reader to the material that lies ahead.
Heck, if the introduction needs to be a dozen pages in length, why not just call it “Chapter 1”?
2. Taking too long to get to the good stuff
Louis L’Amour, the late and legendary author of so many classic western novels, once advised writers to begin every book in the middle of the story. In other words, cut to the chase and get right to the action. (Not bad advice for copywriters, either.)
People are impatient – especially in this day and age of the Internet. If I have to labor through the first few chapters of a book, I’ll usually close it – never to be opened again. In the old days, when I felt a moral compulsion to finish every book I started, I found that when a book was a dud in the first few chapters, it almost never became better.
3. Lack of entertainment value
I’ve bought, but never finished, some of the best-known books ever published. In many cases, the chief cause of my non-finish was that the books were dull – often excruciatingly so.
If you aspire to be a writer, you can add a lot of spice to your writing by consciously trying to lighten up a bit. I’m not saying that you have to inject knee-slapping humor into your work. In fact, the best humor is subtle.
But it’s not about humor; it’s about entertainment. You can be entertaining without being funny. Don’t be afraid to be sardonic, sarcastic (without overdoing it, of course), or metaphorical. Clever analogies can also be very entertaining. The bottom line is that if I’m bored after a few chapters, the author is in danger of losing me.
4. Long paragraphs
As a general rule, keep your paragraphs two-to-four sentences in length. There’s nothing more discouraging to a reader than staring at a huge block of text that covers half the page – or, in extreme cases, the entire page.
5. Too hard to understand
Many authors who have a world of knowledge also have a tendency to write so far above the head of the average reader that he loses him. Sometimes, the writing can be so difficult to understand that I sense affectation. And nothing turns off a reader more than affectation – unless he happens to be an ivory-tower type.
Though I deplore his politics, I am compelled to say that Thomas Friedman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World Is Flat) is an excellent example of an intellectual who has the ability to convey an extraordinary amount of knowledge in an easy-to-understand, entertaining style. During much of the last century, intellectual giants Will Durant, Eric Hoffer, and Peter Drucker all displayed an uncanny knack for sharing the most profound thoughts and insights in ways that the average reader could both understand and enjoy.
Have you ever read a book where, after four or five chapters, you start thinking, “Am I crazy, or have I already read this?” The reason is because the author keeps repeating the same thing over… and over … and over again.
Hey, if the guy didn’t have a whole book in him before he started, he shouldn’t have tried to pass it off as one.
If you’re a writer, don’t expect the reader to stay with you if you’ve said all you have to say in the first few chapters. If you want to write a book, wait until you’ve pulled together enough material for a real book – not just one chapter.
7. Straying from the main point
To a great extent, this is the polar opposite of too much repetition.
I recently started reading a book that really grabbed my attention. In fact, I rated it a “10” through the first few chapters. But beginning about Chapter 4, the book began to stray dramatically from its purported main topic. After four or five more chapters, I completely lost interest. I’m not certain whether it was affectation, ignorance, or a lack of material regarding the main subject of the book, but the author meandered from subject to subject like a drunken sailor. (Actually, make that a drunken author.)
I could name a number of other reasons why I often give short shrift to books – but in most cases, it’s because of one or more of the above reasons.
The two most important points you should take away from my list are these:
If a book doesn’t grab you in the first few chapters, don’t intimidate yourself into believing that you have some sort of moral obligation to trudge your way through to the last page. My philosophy is that if a reader doesn’t like my book, it’s not his fault; it’s mine. I feel it’s a call to arms for me to do a better job the next time around.
If you’re writing a book, or plan to do so, keep the above points in mind as you do your outlining and writing. And don’t be shy about adding more of your own rules to the list I’ve offered in this article.
“Boredom is like a pitiless zooming in on the epidermis of time. Every instant is dilated and magnified like the pores of the face.” – Charlotte Whitton