I read a lot of books in a year. In fact, it’s not unusual for me to read a book or two every month of the year. While it may take three or more months to read something for pleasure, such as a favorite fantasy novel, technical books usually receive my intense interest for less than a month. Once I pick it up, I’ll keep reading until I’ve finished the book. Unlike many readers, I do read technical books end-to-end so that I can pick up new writing techniques, as well as information. When it comes to technical books, I’ve found that there are usually two flaws that make me scratch my head: the introduction and summary.
The introduction is akin to an advertisement or possibly an invitation. You want to provide a reader with a good reason for viewing the material. After all, the reader’s time is precious and there are many authors on the market peddling their wares. An invitation to read a particular chapter is not only necessary, it’s essential if you want the reader to spend time with the book. A good introduction highlights the reasons why the reader should continue and tempts the reader with the fine fare you’ve diligently created. However, introductions should also be short. You have about 30 seconds to convince someone to read a chapter—possibly less in this day of the sound bite. Instead of focusing on the question of what, the author should tell the reader why. It’s important to say why the reader should read the chapter and describe how much the reader stands to gain by doing so.
Summaries are eschewed by most readers for good reason—they’re boring. In many cases, it’s obvious the author didn’t devote much thought to the summary, so it isn’t hard to figure out why the reader doesn’t devote any time to it. Over the years, I’ve stopped calling the end of the chapter a summary because the term has picked up such a terrible meaning. Rather, I use a heading that at least promises to excite the reader a little. My summaries do tend to follow a formula that I modify as needed to satisfy the requirements of the target reader for my book. I write three or four paragraphs that answer these questions:
- What is the most important bit of information the reader can take away from the chapter?
- Now that the reader has new information, how can the reader apply it in a specific way?
- How does the next chapter expand on the content of this chapter (or what new topic does it cover)?
In working with the introduction and summary, I’m careful not to develop new information. I simply direct the information I cover in the body of the chapter in a specific way. Yes, the summary does imply new information in the form of a call to action, but the call to action is not the topic I’m discussing, but rather invites to the reader to apply what the chapter has taught in order to make the lessons more permanent.
The content of the introduction and summary does vary by publisher. Specific series have specific requirements and I always do my best to make use of these requirements in a way that helps the reader obtain the most from that particular chapter. In addition, beta readers have often requested that I include some special feature in either the introduction or summary to help make the chapter more useful. I listen to these comments carefully because the beta readers probably know better than I do what will attract another reader’s attention.
Summaries can be especially hard. There are times where I’ll rework a summary several times to get the effect I want. In some cases, my summaries will include questions or other special features because simply telling the reader to go out and use the information learned seems inadequate to address the topic at hand. No matter how you write your introductions and summaries though, you do need to treat them as an important part of the chapter. The first invites the reader into the chapter and the other bids the reader adieu. Both provide the reader with a lasting impression of your skill as an author and both change the way the reader views the content of the rest of the chapter.
What is your reaction to technical book introductions and summaries? Do you often feel as I do, that they are simply bolted on as a means to start and end the chapter, but not much else? What would you like to see in an introduction or summary? Let me know your thoughts on the topic at [email protected].