Randall Payleitner


Don’t Treat Your Reader Like an Idiot


I believe that all great books have a few things in common with each other. In fact, I’m working on a new longer project to that effect—I will be ready to send it out of my brain sometime this summer. This short post is a taste of that theory…

Authors of great books know it takes a certain amount of smarts on the reader’s end to be picking up a book in the first place. The great ones don’t start at the very beginning of time—explaining all the background details in order—for no reason. This is a true puddle that authors in every genre step in: Biographies. Dystopian fiction. Children’s storybooks. Business development books. Spiritual growth books.

It needs to be less “classroom lecture” and more “guided historical monument tour.” Great books bring the reader along as their knowledge, experience, and purpose gaps are filled. They don’t bludgeon them with facts at the outset.

Great books understand that their reader is the last part of the solution. If a great book is written and no one reads it—does it matter? I’d say “nope.” A great book is complete when it connects with a reader. This is an intuitive exercise in every great book. They don’t talk down to the reader. In fact, they’d never think of it because the reader is not merely the financial piece that makes the book possible—the reader is the centerpiece of the whole thing.

Some books have a ton of detail and require a good amount of foreknowledge for the reader to proceed. The great ones do what they need to do to set the table and trust the reader to be smart enough to catch up. You can see this when a novel introduces a bunch of characters at the front—the best ones do a clear job of introducing everyone and then moving on. Trust the reader to be able to handle it.

You can also see this done poorly with non-fiction books where every detail is laid out and repackaged and nuanced to death. Usually this is just filler. Make your point. Give a few examples. And continue on.

It is critical for the book/reader dance to be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. Inclusive, in that the normal, non-expert reader will either have or quickly be able to acquire the knowledge base necessary to move with the book’s progress. And, exclusive in that the regular reader will feel as if they are an extension of the book itself. That it was written just for them.

Never forget: The best books don’t talk down to the reader.