Why Is This Writing So Boring?
Let me first show you an example of academic book writing.
This is an excerpt from The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 1: Doubleday, 1992. I pulled this book from my bookshelf, opened it up at random, and read the first words my eyes settled on. I found exactly the kind of writing I expected to find.
Early Altars in Canaan. There existed in Canaan a long tradition of altar construction prior to the Israelite period. Already in the Chalcolithic period there is evidence that altars were in use. In a broadroom sanctuary of Ein Gedi, directly opposite the entry, a horseshoe-shaped altar composed of large stones was found. Bones and broken clay figurines were found with the ashes of the altar (p. 165).
I ask you, do these words catch your interest? Why or why not?
I'm not asking about the topic itself. I assume that you have little compelling interest in early altars in Canaan. What I am asking you to do here is read the words themselves and ask yourself: Why is this paragraph so boring?
I'll give you a hint. It has much less to with the topic itself and almost everything to do with the writing.
If You Want to Write Better Books, Identify Your Actors
If you doubt this, consider the Indiana Jones movies. The lead character of the series is an archaeologist with an encyclopedic knowledge about ancient cultures, languages, and artifacts. The movies take viewers into ancient tombs, caves, and catacombs filled with dusty relics. Audiences love the movies and the archaeologist. In contrast, few people are likely to read the paragraph about early altars in Canaan and love it.
What's the difference? The difference is someone who does something. It's the difference between stuff and stories about the stuff.
As movie watchers, we watch Indiana get in over his head time and time again, and then we watch him somehow do something to find a way to escape death and retrieve the artifact from the bad guys.
We love Indiana Jones because he acts. We are bored out of our skulls by most academic writing because we get information about something, but no one actually does anything.
What Exactly Is Missing In These Sentences?
Let's look at these sentences again. Identify the active subject of each sentence and name the action that the subject of the sentence does. In other words, name the actor who takes action in the sentence.
There existed in Canaan a long tradition of altar construction prior to the Israelite period.
The sentence tells us that altar construction existed, but it says nothing about any human being who constructed altars.
Already in the Chalcolithic period there is evidence that altars were in use.
Once again, we find out that altars existed, but there are no human beings in this sentence. We don't know who built them and used them in the first place and we don't know who discovered the altars.
In a broadroom sanctuary of Ein Gedi, directly opposite the entry, a horseshoe-shaped altar composed of large stones was found.
How about this sentence? We read that a horseshoe shaped altar was found, but we know nothing about the one who found it.
Bones and broken clay figurines were found with the ashes of the altar.
We encounter the same problem with the statement about bones and broken clay figurines. They were found but we don't know who found them.
Of course, the truth is that no one really knows the stories behind the dusty old stuff hidden stashed away in the ancient tombs, caves, and catacombs. That knowledge is what the scholars are seeking. The scholars are seeking historical facts. The movie-makers and the novelists give us entertaining stories.
How You Can Write Better Sentences
Now, let's rewrite history a bit and pretend that Indiana Jones made these archaeological discoveries about early altars in Canaan.
Indiana Jones discovered that ancient Canaanites had a long tradition of altar construction.
Indiana Jones found evidence that altars were used in the Chalcolithic period.
Indiana Jones found a horseshoe shaped altar in the sanctuary of Ein Gedi.
Indiana Jones found bones and broken clay figures with the ashes of the altar.
Then imagine that you find out that Steven Spielberg is directing another Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and The Secrets of the Horseshoe Altar.
Ask yourself. Would you pay to see that movie? Or would you rather read about altars that were found without any story about who found them?
Your Simple Step to Write Better Books
Unless you are writing articles for academic encyclopedias, and your editors insist that you must focus on things rather than people who take action, you can use this simple book writing strategy to turn dead, boring, sentences into readable, interesting sentences.
Your simple Book Writing Made Simple step is to write sentences with active subjects who actually do something.
This simple step turns a recitation of facts into a story. Readers are usually far more interested in stories with compelling characters who take action than they are about a recitation of dry facts about things.
Analyze your sentences. Get rid of the ones where things happen but no one does anything. This simple step will help your writing come alive. It will also be clearer, without convoluted sentences filled with passive constructions.
This simple strategy will immediately improve your book writing skills and result in writing better books.
[Original Post October 31, 2012]
PS. The Book Writing Made Simple Series is organized around questions. Take a look at Book Writing Made Simple, Volume 1. How To Start Writing A Book With The Right Question if you want to write better books.