The Learning Sequence and Why It Matters to Nonfiction Authors

by Joel Friedlander on April 4, 2011 · 7 comments

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When I started baking I couldn’t tell the difference between a bundt pan and a burnt pain au chocolat. I was enthusiastic and tried to learn as much as I could as fast as possible.

I bought books, watched instructional videos, recorded cooking shows for convenient watching, and hung around cooking equipment stores fondling the flour sack towels and perusing the petit fours pans.

It’s a Newbie’s World

In short, I was a total newbie, open to all different approaches to baking, avid to learn, and ready to spend money on tools and training to do the baking I dreamed of. In my mind I stood at the kitchen counter with a hot fruit tart fresh from the oven, dinner guests oohing and ahhing at the miracle of gastronomy sitting in front of them.

Some people say that beginners, like I was, account for 80 percent of the purchase of instructional material and tools in any specific field, and that makes sense. Once you know how to make that tart, and you own the cookbooks with the recipes, the rolling pins, sifters, tart pans, pie weights and other equipment needed to create them, your purchases will be sporadic.

You won’t watch videos on how to roll your crust, because now you know how to do it from experience. You won’t experiment with different timers, you’ll already have settled on your favorite.

And you won’t spend nearly as much money on these things as you did when you were new. Now you’ll move on to different purchases. A new French pastry rolling pin for specialty items. Maybe a new stand mixer, since you’ve gone as far as your little hand mixer can take you. A more advanced book of recipes.

These better tools usually cost quite a bit more money. At some point you’ll probably stop buying new tools altogether. You have become a knowledgeable and experienced baker. You no longer dream of the fruit tart, you serve it regularly to your guests, and now you’ve added your own ideas to the recipe.

Although you’re not a professional, you know vastly more than someone just starting out. To them, you are something of an expert. This is the way it works in most hobbies and many professions, too.

Nonfiction Authors Sell Entertainment, Education, and Information

For nonfiction authors of information products, understanding this sequence is essential to effectively reaching the people who can make the best use of your content. It’s also how you build a series of publications that link to products that will be appropriate to buyers at various points on their development in your field.

Here’s another example: When I teach book cover design we start off with simple concepts. These ideas are the foundation on which new indie publishers will build, and it’s vital they understand them before we can move on to more advanced concepts. Later, with the basics well understood, we can branch out to more complex and interesting projects for our book covers.

Think about this sequence in your field. When you write books, workshop curriculum, presentations, blog posts or sales letters, do you take this continuum of experience into account? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to keep your content on target for its intended audience.

  1. What is the specific thing people should take away from this content?
  2. Have I given readers all the information needed to take action?
  3. Are there steps the reader should have already taken in order to perform the actions I’m suggesting? Do they understand that?
  4. How does this information fit into a larger picture of learning about this field?

And if you blog your book, you know that your blog represents another long-form narrative that can be organized to provide another type of content to readers than what you’re able to give them in your books.

Remembering the sequence of learning will make your content more focused, more useful and, because of that, more popular with readers.

The photo shows logs of dough about to go into the oven for the first bake on the way to becoming three dozen orange-raisin-almond biscotti. Don’t they look good?

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    { 6 comments… read them below or add one }

    Roger C. Parker April 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Dear Joel:
    This post, and its comments, is a classic. The concept of the learning continuum, and the 4 questions that authors must answer, provides a great perspective for us all.

    I encourage you to return to the ideas raised in this post as they are so fundamental.

    When you return, I hope you explore the implications of the second subhead, i.e., “Nonfiction Authors Sell Entertainment, Education, and Information.”

    Not only is the order of the words fascinating, but it begs questions like, “How are you defining ‘entertinment’ in the subhead?” and “What type of ‘entertainment’ is needed to enhance actionable information?”

    Roger

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 4, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    That’s very interesting you mentioned the subhead, Roger, you are an acute reader. I would like to talk more about the role of entertainment in nonfiction sometime, thanks for the suggestion. It was amazing how David took the idea I was discussing and made it so practical, it added a new dimension.

    Reply

    David Carr April 4, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Thanks, Joel, for putting learning sequence into focus. It is the initial challenge of editing most books. What does the reader need to know at any moment to understand what they are hoping to discover – or what the writer hopes they discover?

    The offenders that frustrate me most frequently are JOURNALISTS! Particularly radio journalists (perhaps TV, too, but I avoid TV news because it makes me too numb to maintain the sensitivity I need to serve my writing clients). They rarely locate or give context to their content before they plunge into the drama. What country is this happening in? Who are the actors? What is their station in life? Before I want to know there WAS a tsunami, I want to know WHERE it was – specifically – because of my concern for people. “Fighting broke out today between rebels and militias loyal to the ruling party.” Great drama. But what country did it happen in? Are the rebels an international force (Al-Qaeda) or disgruntled farmers whose wells have run dry (rural Nepal)? The implications are tremendously different.

    Too frequently I receive manuscripts for editing that have no logic to their structure. Then we need to begin with a structural analysis, before trying to turn the words into correctly structured, lively sentences. Imagine you are in the market to buy a house. You are taken to one which is overgrown with gorgeous wisteria in full bloom, the walkway littered with last year’s leaves. Personally, I’d be charmed – if it were someone else’s digs. But if I’m going to live here year round, I need to see what I’m committing to. Is the concrete path cracked? Is the roof rotten under the vines? Does enough light come through the windows to want to wake up in the morning? (Yes, I want a glorious day to welcome me each morning.)

    Writers can save their editors and readers a lot of sweat (most readers won’t sweat over something that they have to untangle in order to understand – they close the book instead) by building a logical outline, keeping in mind one question: What does my reader need to know here in order to track the content I am offering?

    I’m hot on outlining. I’m old enough to have learned to in elementary school (meaningless as it seemed at the time). When was the last time children were taught how to write for good communication skills? And I ask this as a free-flow, informal writer myself. I can write for emotional release – in fact I teach such techniques. But if I want a reader to understand the SOURCE of the emotion, perhaps even empathize with me or have pity or compassion, I need to contextualize my life so they care about what I want to say.

    But I’m not only hot on outlining for the reader’s sake. An outline with a lot of detail makes the writer’s job so much easier. I recently had a conversation with a doctoral student whom I’m coaching through the dissertation process (these can be the worst as far as not understanding learning sequence). His proposal had been approved (after presenting me one of the worst attempts at writing I’ve ever seen). When he had completed gathering data and was ready to write it up and develop his conclusions, I ordered him to outline – elaborating the very process which he’d listened to me talk about on my website and why he hired me. His first attempt was 10 pages – the overview. We explored the reader’s learning sequence, re-arranging things. I suggested more detail. He sent me 46 pages and we repeated the process. I suggested MORE detail. He then sent 129 pages. I concluded our conversation with, “OK, you can begin writing now.”

    A few days later he sent me ten pages of writing for feedback. It was terrific – which for a dissertation means logical and clear. He, of course, was delighted to hear my delight and said, “Writing was really easy. I could finish this dissertation (three years after starting) in a few weeks.”

    It’s true. A sufficiently detailed outline means you have thought through EVERYthing you want to say, so there is no need to interrupt the writing process with more research. And there are no Doubts (the biggest block to writing) slowing the process.

    I concede, 129 pages is excessive- though for him, it was necessary in order to arrive at a place to write quickly and easily. “But doesn’t it take a long time to create such a huge outline?” It certainly takes some time, because every detail has been nuanced, every statement checked for alignment with every other one. But most people get hung up in the writing process – and a detailed outline leaves no place to hang up (unless you’re OCD and have to contemplate whether each word is exactly and precisely and defendibly the best word to use. Fortunately, I teach techniques for people with that tendency.)

    “Will I really need 129 pages?” Probably not. For most people, a few words that signify each thought are enough for each line of the outline. This client, however, was more comfortable writing whole sentences, so where five words might have sufficed, he inserted three lines. The benefit, of course, was that he could cut and paste from the outline into his paper.

    “Did this really speed up the overall process?” For him it did, even with full sentences in the outline – because in his mind the outlining process was free-thinking, not “writing” – so his internal editor (superego, inner critic) was snoozing in the hammock on the porch, leaving him free to plunge into the conceptualizing process on the swing next to the hammock.

    Did I use an outline for writing this? Of course not, it’s a blog response. BUT – I did read it over to see if the learning sequence was logical.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 4, 2011 at 10:55 am

    David, what a great contribution, thanks. I’m a believer in outlining and practice it myself. Although it’s an old skill we learned decades ago in school, the idea behind it is as relevant and up to date as it ever was. For instance I’ve been looking at a lot of presentations that use mind mapping. Isn’t that just an outline turned on its side?

    The organization of ideas and the presentation of them in a logical and comprehensible order is still the biggest challenge of the nonfiction author. Turning your knowledge and expertise into usable information that’s easy to access is the skill we’re trying to teach people.

    As readers can tell, David is an editor of uncommon sensitivity and skill. If you’re interested, go over and check out his site at MovingWords.us and watch for a guest article from David here in the future.

    Reply

    David Carr April 4, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Addendum to what both Joel and I have said: Outlining or good mapping is essential in much of fiction as well. The reader must be given enough information fir the plot to remain interesting (a cohesive context), but some information needs to be withheld in order to maintain the reader’s curiosity and commitment to keep reading. A judicious fiction outline is often much more complex than for non-fiction, as well as more fluid. Perhaps I’ll post a second blog on this.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus April 4, 2011 at 1:26 am

    Most of us know not to believe something just because we read it on the Internet, especially on April first. The ease of self-publishing without the editing and fact checking that have been part of traditional publishing means that a lot of bad information gets published. And, if packaged properly, the bad information may appear to be good information — especially to newbies.

    When I decided to self-publish a book in 2008, I bought about 30 (!!!) books on publishing. Many were informative, useful and accurate. Sadly, some were filled with baloney that should not have been printed.

    Errors ranged from stating that Lightning Source is owned by Amazon to the the improper meaning of “PDF” and bad advice about page margins and front matter sequence.

    Sadly, some of the most inaccurate books have excellent reviews online, which means that the inaccurate information was believed and probably acted upon.

    Wives are often upset when their husbands refuse to ask for driving directions at a gas station. It’s not merely macho pride. Male drivers know that the gas station guys often give terrible directions. Sadly, so do many authors and online “experts.”

    In any new field, whether its baking, publishing or auto repair, it’s important to consult multiple sources, and try hard to verify accuracy and authority. Inaccurate information can lead to a cake that doesn’t rise, or much worse.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.Self-Pub.info
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

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