man holding up two fingers with dirt on his hands

Trying to be “Professional” can Kill Your Book

Highly intelligent nonfiction authors frequently shoot themselves in the foot by trying to be professional…or even worse…trying to look really smart.  When these brilliant, eloquent and well-informed authors sit down at the keyboard they step into a time warp and find themselves writing a term paper for their professor.  Their fascinating ideas become instantly boring.

Two Reasons Why it Hurts Your Bookman holding up two fingers with dirt on his hands


The most important reason why it hurts your book is because your “professional” language separates you from your ideal reader.  When the reader is engaged with your message, they want to feel you know them well and have a vested interest in their understanding and success.  If you are writing for your college professor, you are not writing as a colleague…and certainly not like a mentor.

One of my author clients sent me a link to an article from the Middle Finger Project by the title of “How to Stop Writing With a Stick Up Your Ass.”  The blogger has a humorous way to approach the subject of writing for your reader.  I love it.

He explains about how we desire to be taken seriously.  When we are in conversation, this “professional” voice can be mitigated with vocal inflection, intonation, pace and volume.  When the same words are written on a page in your book they become stuffy and sometimes outright arrogant in tone.  You don’t want to come off as arrogant to your precious readers.

colorful graphic of two heads communicating back to back


Top selling authors almost always write at a grade school level of comprehension.  When I tell authors this fact, they often gasp in disbelief.  It is totally counter-intuitive to what they believe is true about good writing.  Many simply don’t believe me.

When I was trained as a marketing copywriter, it was drilled into us to keep the reading level at 8th grade or below.  If I submitted content testing at the 10th grade level, it was immediately rejected without giving me the time of day.  My writing may have been outstanding and I might have had a dozen reasons why I could not bring the reading level lower.  Bottom line was – I either found a way to lower the reading level, or I made no money for my work.  I eventually developed the disciplines of writing for the grade school reader.

You may think your reader is more sophisticated than the ones reading marketing content.  After all, your topic is targeted to very intelligent people.  WRONG!

  • Have you ever read the work of Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen or JK Rowling who wrote at 4th and 5th grade levels?
  • How about Stephen King, Ayn Rand or Dan Brown who all wrote at the 6th grade level?
  • Why would you think you can ignore this secret weapon for popularity?

The best resource I have found about this subject is an article from The Content Strategist in an article by the title of “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write.”  When you get to the article, scroll down to the Reading Level of Bestselling Authors’ Books chart.  It charts out many authors you know, in both fiction and nonfiction with the grade level of reading comprehension.  What is also interesting on the chart is the two authors represented in red indicating they “bought their way onto the bestseller list.”  Both of the authors in this category wrote at the 12th grade level.  Check it out.  I think you will get a kick out of what you read in the article.

The Biggest Challenge for Authors

Almost every time an author comes to me with a manuscript, their content is written at least for the high school comprehension level.  Because I care about their success, I spend my time revising their content and bringing it down to at least an 8th grade level.  Some topics can be reasonably brought down to 5th or 6th grade level, but pretty much all topics can reach the 8th grade level goal.

Authors need to know this from day one of writing their book.  Some simply cannot get out of “term paper mode” when they write.  In most cases, those authors are best served by having their content created from a recorded/transcribed interview process.  Others simply need a good copywriting edit when the book is pretty much completed.  All the rest fall somewhere in between.  Let’s talk about your situation in a free half hour consultation.