To Engage Readers, Make Your Core Messages Easy to Find

What readers ultimately take away from a non-fiction, “how-to” book is one big idea and five to ten supporting ideas that lead to positive behavior change. Let’s structure our books so that readers find those ideas without friction.

Here we can take a cue from good newspapers, which place key messages in predictable places — headlines and lead paragraphs. We can do something like this in a book manuscript.

The key is to remember where readers will go first and craft those sections with care.

1. Write a table of contents that sells your book

When considering whether to buy and read your book, many people will flip to the table of contents. Reel them in by giving them something of substance here. In addition to chapter titles, list the subheadings within each chapter as well.

Also write titles and subheadings that truly inform. Peter Bregman does this in 4 seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want. So do Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in Rework and Remote.

For more inspiration, study the headlines in good news sources such as the New York Times and BBC. Copyblogger offers some excellent guidance on headlines as well.

2. Make the first few pages shine

After scanning the table of contents, people are likely to land on the first few pages of text — the introduction or first chapter. This is arguably the most important part of your book.

If you wrote a compelling proposal for your book, then draw on the work you’ve already done. Look in particular at the overview section of the proposal. This makes the case that you have an original and effective solution to an urgent problem that readers face.

3. End with a bang

Close each chapter or part of your book with a list of key take-aways. The folks from 99u do this well in their books, including Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business.

End your book as whole with another summary. Round it out by suggesting concrete ways for readers to act on your ideas:

  • Guide readers to define projects and next actions.
  • List Tiny Habits for readers to adopt.
  • Provide scripts — examples of what readers could say in a conversation or write in an email.

When we guide readers from ideas to action, we create a legacy that will outlast our words.