How to Create a Commonplace Book

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe commonplace book is a tool par excellence for incubating ideas that you eventually want to share via writing, speaking, training, teaching, or consulting.

See my previous post for an overview of the purpose and benefits of this tool. In this post, I’ll answer some questions about setting up and using your own commonplace book.

WHAT GOES IN A COMMONPLACE BOOK?

This is the key decision. And, it’s totally up to you. To begin, consider two basic options.

One is to use your commonplace book to catalog, summarize, and reflect on your reading. This is a classic application and a good way to get started. You can include:

  • A list of books that you’ve read
  • Your summaries of and comments on those books
  • Your favorite quotes from those books
  • A list of books that you plan to read in the future

The second option is include anything in your commonplace book that:

  • You want to remember
  • Is not better stored in another place (such as calendar, to-do list, or file cabinet)

With this option, your commonplace book can include:

  • Quotations from any source—speeches, movies, blog posts, magazine and newspaper articles, and conversations
  • Plans—long-term goals and “bucket list” items (things that you want to accomplish or experience before you die)
  • Personal creations such as original poems, drawings, journal entries, and outlines and rough drafts of articles or presentations
  • Artifacts—physical objects such as newspaper clippings and printed photos
  • Daily diary entries and travel diaries
  • Reference information such as recipes and checklists (items to pack when you travel, places that you want to travel, movies that you want to watch, and people that you want to stay in touch with, and the like)
  • Anything else that’s on your mind

WHAT MEDIUM SHOULD I USE FOR MY COMMONPLACE BOOK?

This is tricky. Plan to experiment and eventually discover what works for you.

Your basic options are:

  • Analog (paper and pen)
  • Digital (software for your computer, tablet, or smartphone)

Of course, the classic medium for a commonplace book is analog—a paper-based notebook of some type. This can be anything from a cheap spiral-bound notebook to a pricey (and blank) hardcover book.

Some people prefer to use a three-ring notebook, which allows you to add, delete, and rearrange pages. Moleskine notebooks have a solid reputation in this space, as do Field Notes. If you have an office supplies fetish (like me), then check out the beautiful products from Levenger.

When it comes to digital tools, the sheer number of possibilities are dizzying. The major categories of options are:

  • Journaling apps such as Day One and Moleskine’s iPhone app
  • Note-taking apps such as Microsoft OneNote; Notes for the Mac, iPad, and iPhone; andEvernote.
  • Blogging platforms such as WordPressBloggerSquarespace, and Tumblr
  • Writing apps—anything from Microsoft Word or Pages to plain text editors such as TextEdit, TextPad, and iA Writer (a personal favorite).

Personal preferences play a huge role here. There’s a passionate group of people who swear by pen and paper. One of them is Ryan Holiday, who uses index cards. He enjoys the physical act of writing by hand.

Twyla Tharp—dancer and author of The Creative Habit takes it even further. When she starts to choreograph a piece, she grabs a big empty box. Then she fills it with handwritten notes, CDs, books, article clippings, and other physical objects that are relevant to her project.

There’s a middle ground here: using a digital medium but keeping it simple. For example, Leo Babauta from zenhabits makes a case for storing everything in plain text files. And I’ve written about the virtues of using one big-ass text file.

HOW DO I ORGANIZE A COMMONPLACE BOOK?

Again, there are many options. Personal preference rules. Please experiment until you find something that works.

Digital tools have an advantage here. These allow you to tag individual entries and search everything with key words. You don’t have to worry so much about setting up air-tight categories

Your choice of medium plays a role. Suppose that you’re writing on paper and storing sheets in a three-ring notebook. You could insert tabs for major categories, such as titles of book that you’re reading.

In his book Making Things Happen, Scott Belsky offers an idea that can help you organize your commonplace book: Everything in life is a project. Projects include books that you want to write, presentations that you want to create, and any other outcome that requires more than one action to accomplish. See his posts on the Action Method to learn more.

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (GTD) defines projects in a similar way. The GTD method as a whole offers a useful set of categories for a commonplace book. (Learn more from these free GTD resources.)

One more option: Let the categories for your commonplace book emerge organically. As Ryan Holiday suggests: “Focus on finding good stuff and the themes will reveal themselves.”

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE?

Commonplace book, the Wikipedia entry

How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book” by Ryan Holiday

Project: Start a Commonplace Book by Jamie May

The Commonplace Book: Part 1 from DIY Planner

The Commonplace Book: Part 2 from DIY Planner

Commonplace Books from the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program

The Commonplace Book—An Essential Tool for Idea Entrepreneurs

file9001274905634If you’re an idea entrepreneur, then you need a tool to collect, organize, and refine the ideas that you’ll eventually present to the world through writing, speaking, training, or consulting.

Ideally, this tool will be simple, flexible, and immediately accessible. Moreover, you’ll want something you can use over the long-term—for months, years, or decades—as you develop  articles, blog posts, books, and presentations on a variety of topics.

Fortunately, such a tool does exist. Actually, it’s been around for a couple thousand years. This tool is the commonplace book.

I’ve assembled an FAQ on commonplace books (my latest obsession) that I’ll present in two posts. In this one I’ll define the commonplace book and describe its uses and benefits. My next post will go into the details of setting up your commonplace book and using it on a daily basis.

WHAT IS A COMMONPLACE BOOK?

I like this definition from the young and brilliant Ryan Holiday:

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

If you choose to create a commonplace book, you’ll be in lofty company. According to Ryan, the list of commonplace book enthusiasts includes Marcus Aurelius, Petrarch, Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, H.L. Mencken, and Bill Gates. And that’s just for starters. (To see some examples, check out this online collection from Harvard University Library.)

Today, the contents of a commonplace book can be stored on index cardsMoleskinesField Notes, or other paper-based tools.

Another option is to go digital. Blogs, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr can all be used as commonplace books. Note-taking and writing apps fill the bill as well.

WHY CREATE A COMMONPLACE BOOK?

Everyone who creates a commonplace book will have a personal answer. Some key reasons are to:

Aid your memory. The mere act of writing something down can help you remember it. As the people at Field Notes put it: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later; I’m writing it down to remember it now.”

Create a personal reference system. Of course, a primary use of commonplace books is to remember things later. With a commonplace book, you never have to worry about losing a key fact, quotation, or personal insight. If you bothered to record it, then it’s in your commonplace book. Look there.

Filter information. Think about all the words and images that come at you daily through media (Web, audio, video, books, magazines, newspapers), speeches, presentations, and conversations with flesh-and-blood human beings. Out of that massive input, only a fraction is worth remembering. What exactly is that fraction, for you? The answer is your commonplace book.

Spur creative thinking. Commonplace books allow you to take ideas (such as quotations from books, articles, and speeches) out of their original context and “mash” them up. Arranging and rearranging this material allows you to discover new relationships and patterns.

In his classic book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler called this process bisociation—the “perceiving of a situation or idea…in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.” Matt Ridley describes it in more graphic terms as letting ideas have sex with each other.

Move seamlessly from consuming to creating. In “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” a 2000 article for The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton captures this well. He describes commonplace books as a method of breaking texts into fragments, combining those fragments, and commenting on them. Historically, this meant that:

Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

Have fun. Hey, you don’t really need a reason to keep a commonplace book. If people ask why you do it, just tell them it’s your hobby. Some people collect stamps. You collect ideas. So there.

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE?

Commonplace book, the Wikipedia entry

How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book” by Ryan Holiday

Project: Start a Commonplace Book by Jamie May

The Commonplace Book: Part 1 from DIY Planner

The Commonplace Book: Part 2 from DIY Planner

Commonplace Books from the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program

Anecdotes Are Sexy But Not Conclusive

Chris1stDollarAICIf you’re writing a “how-to” book, then how do you know that your ideas actually work?

As an author, your goal is to give instructions that consistently help people produce a specific outcome. This means offering credible evidence for your claims. And evidence means something more than personal anecdotes.

When I talk about this with prospective clients, the conversation typically goes through certain stages. I’ll illustrate with an extreme (and fictional) example:

Me: Your book lists 123 techniques that readers can use to change their self-defeating habits. Where did those techniques come from?

Author: Well, I read a lot of self-help and spirituality books.

Me: Great. Me, too. Readers will want to know what’s new or different about your book.

Author: Well, I put my own spin on everything. Plus, the techniques worked for me.

Me: Really? You personally tested all 123 techniques?

Author: Well, not all of them. Most of them.

Me: What about the techniques you didn’t test?

Author: Well, my friends like them.

Me: Your friends? How many?

Author: Well . . . actually, my wife read the first draft of the manuscript. She really likes everything.

Me: Did anyone else read it? Maybe someone with a more objective point of view?

Author: Ahhh . . . ummm . . . well, not yet.

Me: OK. No problem. We can work on that. Now, did you do a literature review?

Author: Literature review? What’s that?

Me: It means you look through any research that is relevant to the subject of your book. There are hundreds of published studies about habit change.

Author: Really? Where do you find that stuff?

Me: In professional journals that publish peer-reviewed papers.

Author: I don’t bother with that stuff. It’s too dry.

Me: So as of right now, we don’t have solid evidence that your techniques work.

Author: Of course they work. They worked for me, and my friends, and my clients. I can give you lots of good anecdotes.

Me: Well, anecdotes aren’t quite enough. They are useful as stories that you can use to lend a human touch to your writing. But a few isolated anecdotes don’t count as evidence for your ideas.

Author: No? Why not?

Me: For lots of reasons. Because anecdotes are only based on the experiences of a few people. Because they’re often embellished when retold over time. And because anecdotes don’t involve careful observation or isolate any variables. When you produce a new result in your life, how do you know that one of your 123 techniques created it? Human behavior is complex. Events have more than one cause.

Author: Hmmm. . . . (Thinks to himself: This guy is going to be a pain in the ass. I need another editor.) . . . . Well, this is all real interesting. I’ll get back to you.

Also see Does Your Personal Experience Prove Anything?

Don’t Let Your Ideas Die—Creating a Conscious Workflow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIdeas are fragile and often inconvenient. As Caleb Wojcik notes, “Great ideas come when you aren’t trying to think of them.” They’ll pop into your head while you’re showering, exercising, traveling, or engaged in some other non-work activity.

At that point, many ideas simply disappear into the Holy Void. And that’s tragic, because one of them could be the seed of your next book, presentation, product, or service.

If you make your living as an idea entrepreneur, then ask: What steps do you take to guide an idea from birth to full expression? Without a system, you’re leaving a key process to chance.

BEHOLD THE OPTIONS

Good news: Today we have smart phones, laptops, tablets, Moleskin notebookshipster PDAs, and more. These offer countless options for capturing ideas on the run, organizing them, reviewing them, and presenting them.

Hard news: All those options can be overwhelming.

What we need is a system that’s sophisticated enough to keep track of our ideas and simple enough to actually use on a daily basis. At the bare minimum, this means having a process (workflow) for:

  • Capturing ideas the moment that they occur to you
  • Tossing those ideas into some kind of in-basket or “bucket” for later review
  • Editing ideas by culling, organizing, and refining them for publication or presentation

Your process will be unique to you. You create it by consciously experimenting with  options—enduring some trials and errors along the way—until you discover what works.

CONSIDER “GTD”

One wildly popular process that works for “idea flows” is David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method, summarized here and here. David’s book has sold several million copies and is worth a read also.

Keep in mind that GTD is primarily a way to think clearly about your projects and how to finish them. As such, GTD is “tool agnostic”: You can implement it with digital tools, paper and pen, or both. For examples, see the official GTD blog.

CHECK OUT SOME SAMPLE WORKFLOWS

The Internet, of course, abounds in nerdy people like me who care for ideas and document their process. Feel free to steal from any the following examples:

Where Do Great Ideas Come From? (Hint: Not Where You Think) by Caleb Wojcik

How To Develop Your Idea Muscle by James Altucher

How to Use Evernote If You Are a Speaker or Writer by Michael Hyatt

The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read by Ryan Holiday (also covered here)

A productivity system I use—The Iceberg Method by Ramit Sethi

The Dash/Plus System by Patrick Rhone

And just for fun: Daily Routines

Does Your Personal Experience Prove Anything?

file4851264123548Many of the book manuscripts I’ve seen over the years present a system for behavior change that’s based solely on a sample of one—the author’s personal experience. The premise of these books is I did X, and here’s how you can do it, too. (For X, substitute any desirable outcome: lose 25 pounds, make a million dollars, attract a loving partner, find parking spots on a regular basis, etc.)

What’s easy to miss is the underlying assumption: If it worked for me, it will work for you.

This is exactly where many authors—and bloggers—try to build a towering edifice of content on a crumbling foundation.

WHY N = 1 MATTERS

Scientists who design experiments use the capital letter N to denote the number of subjects involved. If a psychologist includes N = 2000 in a paper about her study, it means she observed 2000 people.

Why pay attention to this number? Because the more subjects, the better. A study based on observations of 2000 people (or 20,000 or 200,000) inspires more confidence than a study based on 20 people. With more subjects, we have more confidence that the conclusions will generalize to the population at large.

If N = 1 (meaning that the author is the only subject), then the work inspires little—if any—confidence that the observed results will apply for the rest of us.

I use the same logic to evaluate books on an informal basis. If one person tells me that the system recommended in a how-to book worked for her, I’ll make a mental note. If three people tell me that the book works, I’ll get interested. And if ten people recommend that book, I’ll definitely check it out.

WHY N = 1 FAILS

There are many reasons why what works for one person might fail for the rest of us. I’ll focus on three:

It’s possible for people to draw dumb lessons from their personal experiences. Check out this example about a tech journalist who concludes that Apple is in big trouble because he sees more people with Android phones than iPhones at a single convention.

Correlation does not equal causation. The outcomes that an person experiences might be due to coincidence and have nothing to do with the program he recommends.

For example, medical researchers have a term to describe symptoms that resolve themselves simply with the passage of time: These conditions are called self-limiting. If the problem you’re dealing with is self-limiting, then simply waiting it out might be more effective than any strategies you try to implement. Those strategies might correlate with a solution but not cause it.

For more examples of the correlation = causation fallacy, see this wonderful post by April Hamilton.

Life is complex. Human behavior is multi-faceted. Any event can have multiple causes. When we recommend one strategy or technique as the way to produce a given result, it’s almost always possible that we’ve missed another contributing factor.

THREE WAYS TO AVOID N = 1

Limit your assertions to “this is how it worked for me.” I appreciate authors who tell their story in a moving way without the arrogant assumption that my story will unfold in the same way.

This is one of the reasons I enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. There are many lessons that I can draw from Jobs about how to live well (and how to not live well). But Walter makes no attempt here to offer a program for “succeeding the Steve Jobs way.”

Perhaps this seems obvious. Yet many of the proposed self-help books I see are biographies or memoirs in disguise. In brief, they’re ultimately about me, not you.

Test, test, test. If you can conduct a well-designed, formal scientific study to test your program—great. Chances are, however, that you don’t have the resources to do this. Next best is to recommend your system to as many people as possible and track their results over time as closely as you can.

This is one of the many reasons that I appreciate David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. David used these ideas with hundreds of consulting clients over decades before publishing a book.

Present a process that readers can test. The most powerful how-to book is one that helps readers to discover what works for them.

I’m enjoying James Altucher’s Choose Yourself for this reason. The book is loaded with personal anecdotes (including times when James failed miserably). Yet his core recommendation is a set of daily practices. You can test them for yourself and see what sticks.

The work of Ramit Sethi has the same spirit. He recommends specific behaviors for us to adopt and encourages us to systematically track results.

There are useful lessons here for all of us who seek to influence the way that people think and behave:

  • Offer possibilities, not prescriptions.
  • Recommend specific behaviors to implement rather than vague generalities.
  • Be willing to revise your system based on feedback.
  • And above all, be humble. As James Altucher once put it: “Note, this is only what works for me. For you, I have no idea.”

Three Must-Reads for Idea Entrepreneurs

file5951239550691I’m plowing through my list of “to-read” articles. It includes several gems for people who write, speak, teach, consult and otherwise make a living from their ideas. (Ironically, two of these articles start with the words How To—a cliché but it works.)

Should You Write a Book?

I got the term idea entrepreneur from John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas. All of his blog posts for Harvard Business Review are worth reading. Start with this one.

John notes that even in the twenty-first century there are are still things that only a book can do for you. For one thing, writing a book is hard work. If you can publish a decent one, you’ll gain more credibility than you’d get from creating an online presence alone. As John notes, “Charlie Rose rarely says, ‘My next guest has just posted a cat video.’”

In addition, a printed book is both beautiful and useful—better to leave behind than a business card, and a great gift item.

John also lists the potential downsides of publishing a book, including the time and effort it takes, the threat of backlash from readers, and the fact that books do not sell themselves.

How to Write a Self-Help Book

Ignore the words “self-help” in this headline. This post is full of useful ideas for writing any non-fiction, how-to book. For example:

  • Remember that chapter breaks give people and chance to rest and gauge their progress. For a 200-page book, give readers at least 10 chapter breaks.
  • Organize your ideas by creating a table of contents. Write the actual chapter headings and subheadings that you want to appear in your book.
  • Start by writing the chapter that you know the most about. Do this even if it’s not the first chapter in your table of contents.
  • Connect with readers’ intellect, emotions, and behavior. For each core idea in your book, explain the basic principle first (intellectual connection). Follow with a story about someone who used the idea (emotional connection). End with an exercise that guides people to take action on the idea.

How to Write for a Living

James Altucher has a popular, no-holds-barred blog. He’s also written several books, including Choose Yourself—which, at $1.99 for the Kindle version, makes it this year’s best bargain.

It’s hard to remain unchanged after reading James’s writing. He has a gift for throwing life-altering choices in your face in a way that you can’t ignore.

This post is full of ideas worth savoring, many of them counter-intuitive. For example:

  • “YOU ARE A WRITER. If you sit down at a blank screen every day and simply do nothing then you are a writer. If you write one word, even better.”
  • “BOOKSTORES ARE EVIL.” (See the post for his reasons.)
  • “PLATFORM IS SHIT. I agree it’s important to have some Internet presence. You need to sell your first 1000 books once you publish and the Internet is a good way to do it. But your free audience is not the way to do it. They read your blog for free. They don’t even want to fork over 99 cents to buy your book.”
  • “BLOG…. How come? Because it makes you write every day. And it also is fun to build friends and community around your blog.”
  • “REWRITE EVERY DAY…. I feel better about the words I take out then the words I write.”

James Altucher on Making Money by Writing Books

nationalbestsellerI am reading a fascinating book by James Altucher, an idea entrepreneur with an ungodly number of blog subscribers. The book is Choose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream. Check out this passage:

I just realized I have made $1 million writing a book. My very first book Trade Like a Hedge Fund. The book itself didn’t make me that much—maybe $50,000, give or take—but in 2004, I started getting speaking engagements with companies like Fidelity, Schwab, Profunds. A few other institutions would pay up to $20,000 per talk. I’ve probably given well over a hundred talks based on that book over the past nine years. Plus I’ve written articles for them and had other opportunities because of that book. Remember: when you write a book, it’s not all about book sales. Books give you credibility in your area of expertise or interest. Credibility gets you:

  • consulting (Tim Ferriss has done this very well)
  • speaking (the authors of Freakonomics have made a career out of this)
  • other media opportunities (TV show, radio show, etc.)
  • other writing opportunities. Most authors I know, even bestselling ones, don’t make millions from their books. But then they get paid to write for big-paying magazines or corporations or whatever. These add up.

The Ultimate Challenge for Idea Entrepreneurs—Practicing What You Preach

file3421312043166Idea entrepreneurs are people with a mission. They want to influence the way that people think and behave. This mission comes at a steep price—the challenge to live your ideas. Those who fail at this alignment will undermine their credibility.

For example, consider Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat. Who would take her seriously if she were obese?

Who would believe Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, if she dominated conversations?

Who would listen to Al Gore, author of An Inconvenient Truth, if he drove a Humvee?

During an interview for Forbes, John Butman talked about the need for idea entrepreneurs to model their ideas. In short, audiences expect you to practice what you preach.

When they don’t do this, idea entrepreneurs can create some heavy karma. Cases in point: Martha Stewart and Greg Mortensen.

So ask yourself:

  • If you want readers to practice inbox zero, then how many emails are in your inbox right now?
  • If you’re promoting the virtues of being debt-free, then how much debt are you carrying right now?
  • If you’re writing and speaking about a system for habit change, then what habits are you successfully changing right now?
  • If you advocate failure as a path to learning, then how do you react when people make mistakes?

P.S. Saying that you “teach what you most need to learn” won’t cut it.

Before You Publish, Try to Destroy Your Ideas

file451297827287There are many reasons to begin writing on a regular basis. One is to keep an evolving record of your ideas as you create and refine them. Another is to take ideas that you have already tested and present them to the world.

These two reasons are entirely different. And many aspiring authors forget this distinction—to their peril.

Maybe you shouldn’t write a book—yet

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: In a casual conversation, you explain one of your big ideas to a friend. “That’s great,” she says. “You should write a book!”

Well…maybe.

A more useful interpretation is you should put that in writing. I won’t argue with that, especially if you want to crap-test the idea.

But are you ready to publish a book? Not necessarily.

Ways to test

If you want to publish a nonfiction book to establish your credibility as an expert, consider this: Your book will culminate a long period of engagement with your ideas. This can include:

  • Blogging about the ideas and monitoring the comments
  • Writing for trade journals or other periodicals and seeing if editors and readers respond
  • Speaking about your ideas and listening—without resistance—to audience reactions
  • Translating your ideas into a program of concrete suggestions that people that people can use and evaluate
  • Conducting research based on your big idea—something that Dan Pink did for To Sell Is Human
  • Circulating a draft of your book to competent reviewers and asking for comments

Until you done such testing over a period of several years, you’re probably not ready to publish.

Overcoming our built-in biases

Ruthless testing is necessary due to a human weakness called confirmation bias. Shane Parrish at the Farnam Street blog defines this as “the tendency to seek information that confirms prior conclusions and to ignore evidence to the contrary.”

How do we get past this bias? Make a deliberate effort to find evidence that disconfirms your ideas.

I admire this passage from Tad Golas’s foreword to The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment:

I never varied from my determination to evolve hard information, a way of being that could be relied on even in chaos. It was chaos that taught me. I was so ruthless in testing, suspecting every sentiment, that I came to feel I was a destroyer of ideas, and indeed my books are based on what I could not demolish. Anyone who wants to tear those books down will have to work harder and longer than I did.

Now there is a crap detector—and someone who sold a lot of books.

Golas captures the irony of intellectual adventure: If you love your ideas, then seek to destroy them. Otherwise, you have not done the work required to have an opinion.

Another Simple Way to Make Your Sentences Sparkle—Lose Punctuation

file7091266105841I once heard a writer say that the only punctuation mark that we ever need is a period. He exaggerated, of course. And, he made a point.

In an earlier post, I noted that you can immediately give your writing more impact by putting the payload at the end of a sentence. A closely related suggestion is to see how much punctuation you can lose.

Check your drafts for sentences that are packed with dashes, semicolons, colons, and commas. These sentences tend to impose cognitive burdens on readers through:

  • subordinate clauses
  • parenthetical phrases
  • qualifications and exceptions to the main point
  • sheer length

The result is a sentence that readers must untangle to understand. Many won’t bother, especially if they’re reading online.

I am not advising that we avoid complex sentences altogether. My suggestion is to use them consciously and consider the alternatives.

If you want to find examples of long sentences with internal punctuation, just check almost any newspaper. I am surprised by how many news article leads consist of one long sentence. For example:

Opponents of a state website for online voter registration called its implementation the equivalent of stealing from taxpayers in a spirited court hearing Friday over a legal challenge to the system, while the state countered that it has the legal authority to create a system that will likely save money.

Yikes! That’s a 50-word sentence. Let’s just get rid of the comma and the following word:

Opponents of a state website for online voter registration called its implementation the equivalent of stealing from taxpayers in a spirited court hearing Friday over a legal challenge to the system. The state countered that it has the legal authority to create a system that will likely save money.

Better, no? With a single edit, we:

  • Shaved 19 words off the first sentence.
  • Gave the reader a chance to breathe before tackling the next sentence.
  • Emphasized the payload of the first sentence — challenge to the system — by putting it right before the period.

We fixed just one sentence here. But think of the cumulative effect of such edits when you do them to hundreds of sentences in your book manuscript. The result is a quantum leap in the readability of your writing.