Referring to her childhood home of Oakland, California, Gertrude Stein wrote that “there is no there there.” I sometimes think that about a book I read: There just wasn’t anything “there.” The author didn’t deliver anything new, substantial, or useful. The book was under-cooked, half-baked, and served too early.
How do you know when you’ve really got something “there”—a body of ideas and best practices that is ready to be shared via speaking, consulting, and publishing?
Good editors can answer that one with their gut. They can tell when a manuscript is “there.” They can feel when something is present behind the pages—an emotional and intellectual energy that has the potential to change people’s lives and make a lasting difference in the world.
I’d like to clarify the concept of “there.” This will be tough, and I will fail. It’s like trying to define “love.” “There” is both abstract and concrete—something that you can talk about endlessly and still feel in your loins.
As a place to start, let’s translate “there” as well-baked (well-formed) content. This kind of content often has the following characteristics.
(Note: This list applies only to nonfiction books that give instructions—anything from how to meditate to how to make more money.)
When newness is lacking in a book, you usually know it. While reading one chapter, you can accurately predict what’s coming next. The book is a “rehash.” You get the feeling that you’ve seen it all before. The author is patching together ideas from familiar sources without offering anything new or adding value.
Good nonfiction writers don’t usually “reinvent the wheel” by offering content that is wholly original. But they do deliver something new: A unique perspective. A fresh major concept. A new structure for existing ideas, or a new process for applying those ideas in daily life.
Holding a creative tension between the familiar and the new is a delicate matter. We read in part to confirm what we already know and validate our current experience. But useful books present fundamental insights or programs of action that are not available from other sources.
Do you remember writing essays as a student and not having enough material to meet the assigned word count? Some books have this quality. They are actually articles or blog posts in disguise. You get a sense that the author is “padding”—stretching to fill pages.
In contrast, good books are windows to worlds beyond worlds. The author presents valuable content while successfully conveying the idea that there’s much more that she could say. In fact, good nonfiction works can spawn sequels that are just as useful—or even more useful—than the first book in the series.
3 Clear structure
Good books offer simplicity without being simplistic. Their authors present a memorable series of steps, phases, or stages. Stephen Covey did it in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. David Allen did it with his five stages of mastering workflow in Getting Things Done. Don Miguel Ruîz did it in The Four Agreements. You can probably give other examples.
The key is that these structures clarify a limited topic without sacrificing complexity or lapsing into clichés.
4 Clear outcomes
Like a good map, the table of contents for well-baked books lights a path for us. We get a sense of direction. We start with a new understanding of our current condition. We gain a vision of a desired outcome. And we get guidance for the next steps on the journey to that outcome.
With some books, the eventual point of arrival is as clear and visible as a sign on the highway. Readers of Alcoholics Anonymous want to stop drinking. Readers of What Color is Your Parachute? want a new job or career.
Outcomes can be more subtle and just as powerful. For example, the outcome of implementing Getting Things Done is a state of mind that Allen calls “mind like water”—a state of perfect readiness. That might sound flaky, but anyone who’s experienced it as a result of applying his suggestions knows how it feels.
5 Actionable ideas
Once I was in a yoga class where the instructor gave the instruction to “suck in the backs of your knees.” I have no idea what that means. How would you do such a thing? It is not an actionable idea.
Years ago I read another book about how to boost your immunity to disease. The core instructions were: Consume more vitamin C and be happy. Those two instructions exist on totally different levels of abstraction. Most of the book was about vitamin C. The suggestion about happiness was devoid of detail. This instruction was not well-baked.
You know you got an actionable idea when you can translate it into physical, visible behaviors—something you could see and hear on a video recording.
Authors, please give me guidelines on how to move my arms, legs, and mouth differently. If I take your ideas to heart, how will my speaking change? What will I do that I’m not doing right now? If I can’t answer these questions, then I’ll pass your book by.
6 Supporting Evidence
Good books in the business or self-help genre give us a set of instructions that have been tested on someone other than the author.
Authors, it’s not enough for me to know that you’ve made a million dollars, lost 50 pounds, or gained financial independence. I want to know that other people have produced the similar results by relying mainly on your instructions.
I feel most at ease when authors base their instructions on scientific studies that are published in peer-reviewed research journals. (A wonderful example of this is Brain Rules by John Medina.)
Of course, research is time-consuming and expensive. What’s more, it can yield inconclusive results. So, if you can’t cite supporting studies, then convince me that the anecdotal support for your ideas is clear and overwhelming.
Thanks for reading a long post. What books with well-baked content have made a difference in your life?