The Smarter Faster Better way to write nonfiction

This is a follow up to my recent rant post, Why (almost) no one reads nonfiction anymore.

A few months ago, I started coaching a handful of product managers at my company. New to this type of coaching, and wanting to model the approach of successful executive coaches, I purchased a book on the subject. With great anticipation I started reading my new book, excited for the lessons I hoped to learn.

Two months later, I’m stuck at page 37. I just can’t get through it. Over the last few weeks I’ve picked it up several times but can only make incremental progress before putting it down. The book is painfully monotonous and the long, drawn-out chapters seem to regurgitate the same message ad nauseum. I doubt I’ll ever finish it.

Alternatively, I recently finished reading Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg. Though I loved Duhigg’s first book, The Power of Habit, I was hesitant to pick up his second book, which focuses on the secrets of productivity. The title wasn’t as compelling to me, but I went ahead and gave it a shot.

Smarter Faster Better is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It stands as a model of how great nonfiction can be. Here’s an example of why I loved it so much.

Chapter 5, titled Managing Others, tells the fascinating story of how a General Motors factory—that was once shutdown for performing abysmally—leveraged lean manufacturing principles from Toyota to become one the company’s most productive factories. It also shares how changes in how the FBI makes decisions led to the solving of a high-profile kidnapping case. These stories are beautifully woven together to drive home the key lessons of the chapter:

“Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision making authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success.”

Duhigg could have led the chapter with his core thesis and backed it up with facts, figures, and a few anecdotes. This is the approach many writers take.  

Rather, he starts with two seemingly disparate stories that come together as the chapter progresses. Duhigg’s ability to craft an engaging narrative is what makes Smarter Faster Better such a good read. And his approach of leading with story not only makes the book more interesting, it also creates stickier and more memorable lessons for his readers.

This is why Charles Duhigg is a New York Times bestselling author. This is why his book will be highly recommended in my next monthly newsletter. And this is why I’ll buy any book he writes in the future, regardless of the topic.

Authors, take note. 

Why (almost) no one reads nonfiction anymore

A few weeks back I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed and was struck by this comment from a former colleague:

These days many blame our lack of desire to read books on our supposed growing attention deficit disorder as a society. But what I personally find archaic about especially non-fiction books is their forced stereotypical length. Many topics could be sufficiently covered in far fewer pages, but that wouldn’t meet our previous expectations of what a proper length of a book was. To me the medium itself is dated, not our attention spans.

I could not agree more. I read a lot of nonfiction, and I love talking about books with friends and co-workers. But in these conversations, I find that many of them read very little (if any) nonfiction books.

Sure, the demands on our time have never been greater. And with our mobile devices we are always a push notification away from the next distraction. But the real problem with nonfiction, at least in my opinion, is that most many books just don’t need to be 300+ pages.

I regularly find myself loving a book after the first 20-30 pages, then running out of steam in the second half. I’ve found that many nonfiction books consist of filler. It’s the same message restated and regurgitated in ways that lack creativity and engagement. What’s wrong with publishing a good 100-page book? Or a 50-page book?

As my colleague Dan said, “If the goal is to optimize for learning efficiency, reading the whole book is almost never the right answer.”

I think he’s right. But if a book isn’t worth finishing, is it even worth buying?

And that’s why no one reads nonfiction anymore.