How do you keep a reader reading? Inquiring writers and editors of nonfiction want to know. There are many ways to do so. No one single formula should always be employed, but one that many writers and editors use effectively is to provide takeaway.
It’s the so-what factor, the how-does-this-matter-to-me dynamic, the what-am-I-going-to-get-out-of-this element. Takeaway is clearly most important in books that seek to help readers change or improve or behave or even think in a different way. And the more a book is intended for a broad readership, the more attention an author needs to pay to this.
The value of takeaway may be obvious. But execution can be everything. And there’s more than one way. The default pattern is often to give the book a two-part structure that puts your theory in the first half and your practical outworkings in the second half. “Theory” need not be merely abstract, of course. It can also be “setting up the problem”—showing the very concrete ways in which people or groups get themselves into trouble or misunderstand a certain issue. In the second half of the book you then tell them how to get out of their messes.
This structure makes a certain kind of sense—you lay out all the history, background, felt-need and logical framework first. Then build on that foundation your sure-fire, down-to-earth solutions. After all, good theory is essential to good practice. Setting up the problem can make readers highly motivated to get to the answer.
Most readers these days, however, are not patient enough to wait one or two hundred pages to get to “the good stuff.” A book that defers these useful implications will get cast aside, unfinished, faster than you can say, “Ten-second sound bite.” What’s an author to do?
A second option is to give every chapter a two-part structure. Theory (or setting up the problem) first and practice second. This is a marked improvement. Now readers only need to wait five or ten pages before they get the payoff. You could also alternate theoretical and practical chapters, but that still violates a good rule of thumb one editor told me: “You have to have takeaway in every chapter.”
Writers can go a step further, however. You can interweave theory and practice throughout each chapter. Some people don’t understand a general principle unless they see a concrete example. And other people are the reverse. By continually intermixing theory and practice, you keep both kinds of readers with you the whole way through.
Not every topic lends itself to this third structure. But the more you push a book this direction, the more likely it is that readers will benefit from what you’ve written.