Wandering the Aisle
Let’s say that you’re at a bookstore or downloading a Kindle sample. The book you’re considering buying begins as follows:
Building on the arguments of our previous foray into this topic, this book envisions the emergence of the Fifth Wave in American higher education—a league of colleges and universities, spearheaded initially by a subset of large-scale public research universities, unified in their resolve to accelerate positive social outcomes through the seamless integration of world-class knowledge production with cutting-edge technological innovation and institutional cultures dedicated to the advancement of accessibility to the broadest possible demographic representative of the socioeconomic and intellectual diversity of our nation. The Fifth Wave primarily augments and complements the set of American research universities, which, for reasons that will readily become apparent, we term the Fourth Wave, but will also comprise networks of heterogeneous colleges and universities whose frameworks are underpinned by discovery and knowledge production, and institutional actors from business and industry, government agencies and laboratories, and organizations in civil society.
I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.
Losing Your Audience at the Get-Go
The first discursive sentence clocks in at 85 words. The second is only a smidge shorter at 61. Try to read either sentence in one breath. I couldn’t do it. Sure, Proust would be proud, but the dude should consider taking my class on how to write a business book or reading any book on effective writing for that matter. Message Not Received qualifies, but I digress.
The words stilted, soporific, circumlocution, and impenetrable come to mind.
Great, but what does the data say?
Copy the text above and paste it into one popular readability tool. One of two things will happen:
- Your computer will crash.
- If not, then the results will confirm that the text doesn’t exactly scream readable.
I’m not going to name the book from which this excerpt comes, but it’s easy enough to figure out.
There are scores of intriguing and objectively better ways to start a non-fiction book. For a recent example, check out Brad Stone’s excellent Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire. 1
Why write this way? A few reasons come to mind:
- You want to demonstrate to the world that you know plenty of 50-cent words.
- You are clearly overcompensating for some deep psychological issue.
- You don’t want others to understand your message.
If, however, you want others to actually understand your prose and, you know, read on, then use the text above as an example of what not to do.
Your sentences never need to be anywhere near this long. Ever .If, however, one is, then for God’s sake follow it up with a shorter one.
What say you?
Updated May 24, 2021: My friend Josh Bernoff offers his take.
For more advice like this, check out my Teachable course How to Write a Business Book.