A Little Good News for Non-Fiction Writers About Readers

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

There is plenty of depressing news for writers floating around out there.

You may have seen the statistics about how fewer and fewer people actually want to “read” to absorb content online. Increasing numbers, we’re told, would rather push “play” on a video than have to read words to get information or entertainment.

Then there is the explosion in podcast consumption that parallels a rise in the popularity of audio books. This is primarily because of over-scheduled lifestyles in which you can’t read while commuting or running on a treadmill. But you can listen.

But the worst news I’ve heard is embedded in a statistic I’ve heard several people cite recently. It involves some variation of: “The average/typical non-fiction book reader only reads the first 20% of a book.” The usual takeaway advice from this is: “Put your best and most important content right at the front of the book so at least that part gets read.”

Now, sadly, in the book publishing ecosystem only the writer cares very much at all about whether a book actually gets . . . you know . . . READ. Everyone else’s concern is whether or not a book gets SOLD–and understandably so. The agent, the publisher, and the bookseller are completely focused on whether or not people BUY your book. To them, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the buyers ever read it or not.

Of course, we non-fiction writers do what we do because we long to inspire, inform, move, persuade, and illuminate. And we can’t accomplish any of those things if our books are bought but remain unread. Or even only the first 20% read.

Here’s the thing. I have no doubt that well-written fiction books get read much more deeply. And I’m confident that really good “page-turner” fiction books get read all the way to their exciting conclusions.

Well the same should be true of a well-crafted non-fiction work.

“Well-crafted” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that previous sentence. You seen I read a lot of non-fiction and the vast majority of it is not remotely reader friendly–neither in the way it’s written nor the way it’s laid out on the page.

There are many things good fiction writers do that non-fiction writers should adopt immediately. At some future point I’ll create a little course that lays those practices out. But in the meantime, just know that a large body of people really do want you to inspire, inform, move, persuade, and illuminate them. And they’ll read you cover to cover if you’ll only make it easier and more enjoyable to do so. That’s good news.

Questionnaire for Prospective Authors

I routinely talk to people who believe they have a book in them. Some hope to write it themselves. Others are looking for ghost-writing help in getting it written. Several years ago I crafted a short questionnaire to help both groups clarify their thinking.

-> Why a book? (As opposed to a white paper, a flyer, a newsletter, or a series of blog posts.)

-> Who is this book for? (“Everyone” is not an acceptable answer.)

-> Reduce this target group down to one, prototypical reader. In other words, describe the ONE person you envision needing the book. (Their sex, age, background, situation, needs, etc.)

-> After this person has read your book, what do you want them to:

  • . . . understand that they didn’t understand before?
  • . . . feel that they didn’t feel before?
  • . . .  be motivated to do that haven’t done before?

-> Describe the tone and style of the writing in this book.  (Academic? Informal? Intellectual? Flowery? Profound? Humorous? Serious? Playful? Etc.)

-> What existing books would this book be comparable to? (What successful books will be sitting next to it on bookstore shelves?)

-> What materials will constitute the sources for this book?

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How We Miss Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey passed away ten years ago today. In tribute, here are a few words we wrote at the end of the Introduction to “Paul Harvey’s America.” They still ring true for me:

“There are some who suspect that something in America died with Paul Harvey—or is dying as time relentlessly claims the remnants of what has come to be known as “the greatest generation.” Something precious and noble and good. 

“And though Paul Harvey is gone and his generation is now passing away, perhaps the flame of that American spirit can be rekindled in remembering who they were and what they meant to us. Paul Harvey, ever the optimist, would have believed so. 

“On the pages that follow, then, let’s gather ‘round the fire of this amazing life and warm ourselves in its good-humored glow. Perhaps we’ll take away a few sparks and embers that can light our way in the gathering gloom of the twenty-first century.”—Paul Harvey’s America


I disappeared from this space for a while because, among other things, I was writing a devotional focused on grace-based praying. That’s done now and I can resurface.

I have every intention of posting here frequently for a while. And we all know that good intentions make excellent paving material.

Two BIG events have transpired in our lives in recent months that have gone un-chronicled here. I’m about to remedy that.

As Paul Harvey used to say . . . Stand by for news!

An Open Letter to Sarah Palin

Dear Sarah,

Palin BookIt’s been almost six years since my colleague Stephen Mansfield and I researched and wrote our book about you—The Faith and Values of Sarah Palin.

We wrote it in a publishing environment in which nearly all profiles of political personalities were either hagiographies crafted to praise them to the heavens; or hit pieces hoping to make the target look like the spawn of a love connection between Josef Mengele and Caligula.

Both types of books lie in the space somewhere between PR and propaganda.

That is not the kind of book we were interested in writing. To their credit, Frontline Books allowed us to write a thoughtful, objective exploration of your faith journey and worldview from an unapologetically Christian and conservative perspective.

We weren’t out to promote you. Nor were we out to tear you down. We were neither fanboys nor haters.

In a season in which many were speculating about whether you might choose to run for the presidency in 2012, we were out to give open-minded readers the fairest, most sensitive understanding possible of what shaped you and what drives you. Or, as the title promised—your faith and values.

In researching your life, words, and actions we found much to admire, and I believe this comes through in the book. For me, three of your strengths stood out as being especially impressive and praiseworthy.

u-s-constitutionThe first was your tenacious and passionate commitment to constitutional constraints on the power of government. We described the way you consistently pointed to Alaska’s constitution as a candidate; and we cited numerous instances in which you courageously stayed true to those principles while in office.

You have always seemed to understand that fallen, fallible, corruptible, humans require iron-clad restraints of constitutional limitations when they exercise political power.

The second was your seemingly clear understanding that our nation had too many individuals and corporations gorging themselves at the government trough. In numerous speeches you’ve rightly pointed out that the welfare state fosters dependence; and that when corporations and whole industries become recipients of taxpayer money, it results in something very unhealthy for our republic.

Thirdly, we admired your unapologetic commitment to Christian values and the pro-life cause.

palin-trumpAll of which makes your recent endorsement of Donald Trump not only disappointing but baffling. And I’m not the only one struggling to reconcile your ethusiastic cheerleading for Mr. Trump with the principles you’ve articulated and lived in public over the last ten years.

In an effort to solve this mystery, numerous cynics have opined that you, after several years of declining relevance, have tossed aside your principles for an opportunity to share a very bright spotlight once again.

I’ll not try to guess your motive. I personally think presuming low motives of those with whom we disagree is a very low and nasty form of argumentation. Even so, it is one of Mr. Trump’s favorite devices—along with name calling, crass insults, and schoolyard taunts.

I will say that it is highly ironic that your joining yourself to the traveling Donald Trump circus coincides with two events that the old, principled Sarah Palin would have found worthy of cheering.

The first is Ted Cruz’s refusal to bow his knee and kiss the ring of the Corn Growers Lobby in Iowa. In the past, most conservative candidates campaigning in Iowa have felt it necessary to toss their principles aside and pander to the powerful corn grower/ethanol industry. But not Cruz. Cruz is standing on principle even though it is almost certainly damaging his prospects in strategically important Iowa. (Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is in full blown pander mode, praising ethanol subsidies left and right.)

The Sarah Palin I used to admire would have found some nice things to say about Mr. Cruz’s courage.

Secondly, only one presidential candidate was present in snow-buried Washington, D.C. at the annual March for Life event a few days ago to show solidarity with the pro-life movement.

Carly Fiorina stood before a throng of pro-life activists and sent a message out to the pro-abortion activists who show up and try to shout her down at every campaign stop:

“You can scream and throw condoms at me all day long.  You won’t silence me. You don’t scare me. I have battled breast cancer. I have buried a child. I have read the Bible. I know the value of life.”

That’s the kind of full-throated, warrior-woman battle cry that used to earn an “amen” and an “atta girl” from you. But it didn’t. It couldn’t.

It could not because you’ve hitched your wagon to the wrong horse. And I can’t help but find that sad. You’re better than this.


David A. Holland








Another Embarassing Series of Date-Setting Failures


The Three Businessmen of the Apocalypse

It’s been a bad couple of months for the date setters.

Several years of Blood Moons hype did more than sell a jillion-teen books and DVDs and provide the premise for countless breathless interviews on Christian television. It worked millions of my fellow believers into a frothy lather of end-time expectation focused on the Jewish holy days in September.

Tens of thousands of man-hours of research went into building elaborate cases for why the rapture of the Church was likely to take place during or around the lunar eclipse of September 28.

For example, here’s an  site aptly titled, “The Coming Blood Moon Rosh Hashanah 2015 Rapture.” And here’s “Blood Moons POINTING to Rosh Hashanah 2015 for the Rapture…?

Back in May, a writer at this site wrote, “I have no doubt that something major is going to happen in September of this year.” There were tens of thousands of others, of course. Most had the usual disclaimers and qualifiers but still went to great lengths to build logical cases utilizing lots of math, scripture and Hebrew word study.

Let me emphasize that most of these cases were indeed logical and, in their own way, biblical, in that they cited a lot of scripture. Most built a highly persuasive argument that something BIG was likely to happen on 9-13 or  9-23 or 9-28-2015.

All were wrong.

Up next was an online group called E-Bible Fellowship. They built an equally elaborate case the world was “in all likelihood” going to end a few weeks ago—specifically on October 7.

Then on October 8 they posted an article titled, “A response to being incorrect with the prediction that, “in all likelihood, the world would end on October 7th.” (At least they owned up to being wrong. Most end-times hypsters don’t do that. They generally just start looking for the next secret biblical code everyone else has missed over the last 2,000 years.)

Once again, an extensive set of facts, calculations and scriptures were marshaled in support of what the folks at E-Bible Fellowship believed was a nearly airtight argument.

LGPEOf course, we’ve seen this kind of thing repeatedly over the last 45 years or so. When I was an impressionable 11-year-old, a well-meaning Sunday School teacher took me and a group of other boys chapter by chapter through Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth.

I came away absolutely, 100% convinced that I would never reach adulthood. Never marry. Never have a career or children.

As you might expect, this didn’t have a particularly positive effect on my study habits or motivations to prepare for grown-up life.

It’s hard enough to get young people to have a future-oriented vision and make  sacrifices for the future without convincing them that the Bible says they’re not actually going have a future—not on earth anyway.

Here’s why I bring all this up. 

There is a fundamental rule of logic . . .

If logical processes consistently lead you to incorrect conclusions, it’s time to reassess the assumptions (a.k.a. premises, presuppositions, givens) upon which your logic is based.

I learned this valuable truth in a college course in Logic. If one or more of your premises is false, it’s very possible to build a sound logical case and reach a false conclusion. For example, it you begin with the premise that the earth is flat, it’s logical to be wary of sailing too far in any one direction lest you fall off the edge.

88 ReasonsAs I’ve noted, all of those who predicted an imminent Second Coming or Rapture through the decades have built their cases logically. Indeed, Edgar C. Whisenant and the World Bible Society gave us all  88 very sound, very compelling reasons why the rapture was going to happen in 1988.

So, I offer this question:

Is it possible that one or more flawed assumptions or premises is lying unexamined beneath the twisted rubble of all these rigorously researched cases and arguments?

Given the decades of predictive carnage, I would hope we would at least be open to examining the biblical validity of the assumptions that underlie these prognostications. This isn’t a hobby horse I’m particularly interested in riding. But I do have a few thoughts along these lines.

In an upcoming post, I’ll drag one of these “givens” into the light so we can all take a good look at it. But for now, it’s . . .




Advice for Aspiring Writers


Got a call this week from a dear old friend from our Minnesota days. Wasn’t it just the other day our kids were small and we were taking turns hosting sleepovers?

It seems their offspring, like ours, had the chutzpah to grow up and plan productive lives of their own. (Kids can be so insensitive.) He was calling because one of his young-adult girls had recently expressed interest in becoming a writer. He was hoping I could share a few insights or practical words of wisdom to help her get started.

I actually get this question or some variation thereof quite a bit. A few times per month someone reaches out to me by phone, email or social media in search of advice. Some, like my friend’s daughter, want to pursue writing as a calling. Others believe they have a book in them that needs to get out. Some have experienced an extraordinary life event and have repeatedly been told by friends and loved ones, “You need to write a book about that.”

Of course, I’m always happy to dip a ladle into the exotic bouillabaisse that is my life experience and dole out a steaming, savory cup of crackpot sagacity for a hungry enquirer. However, I’m sure most of these askers are profoundly disappointed once they hear my advice. I can see it on their faces. That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?

I suspect my honest answer is far too simple to be satisfying.

How simple?  The essence of the advice I give aspiring writers can be found in the two-word reminder I once put on a Post-It Note and stuck on the front of the monochrome monitor of my IBM PC XT compatible (a whopping 640k RAM) 30 years ago when I hadn’t written anything longer than a 60-second radio commercial or a two-minute newscast.

The handwritten note said, “Writers write!”

designI’m not the first to have used that reminder as a motivational pointy stick for self-prodding. It’s a novelists’ proverb that has been passed around among aspiring writers since Jane Austen was in a training bra.

The meaning is that countless people think about writing. Multitudes speak frequently about their plans to write. But precious few ever sacrifice the time, push through the pain, and actually put words on paper (or screen).

Pain? Oh, yeah. I’ll get to that in a moment.

But just know that the first rule of Write Club is: “Don’t talk about Write Club. Just write.” You may be bad at it at first. (I was. Reading my early stuff now induces a grand mal cringing-wincing episode in me.) But you’ll get better. No one may pay you for what you write at first. But you’ll be banking experience and learning the craft.

Back in the Late Cretaceous Period when I first started writing, there were no blogs and no self-publishing opportunities on Amazon. There have never been more venues in which to write; and it’s never been easier to have your writing “discovered” by others than there are today. But the writing has to get done. Which brings me to this . . .

Writing is sometimes often almost always painful.

New Acquaintance: “Do you enjoy writing?”
Me: “Oh goodness, no.”
New Acquaintance: (shocked-confused face) “Really?”
Me: “No. I don’t like writing. But love having written. Do women enjoy childbirth?”

Writing is EasyWhich brings me to another of my favorite proverbs for writers: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare intently at a blank screen until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

In other words, if you wait to be infused with inspiration to start writing, you’ll likely never start. You just start slogging. Slog long and persistently enough and inspiration has a way of sneaking up on you.

So here it is. The secret sauce. The mysterious alchemic formula I’ve used to write 37 published books (most of them anonymously, as a ghostwriter), two of which became New York Times non-fiction bestsellers.

  1. Put rear in seat in front of keyboard.
  2. Lay one word down after another until you have a whole sentence.
  3. Keep creating sentences until you have a paragraph.
  4. Keep building paragraphs until you have a full page.
  5. Repeat.

I’m sorry. I truly wish it were sexier than that. It’s just not. Thus, the truths described above winnow out about 98% of all aspiring writers. They are also the reason I’ve been able to make a pretty good living writing other people’s books for them over the last 30 years.

Of course, if a person is willing to put in the time and hard work—has the “fire in the belly”—there are some practical things one can do to get better, faster. There are a few hacks, tips and tricks in the craft.

design-2One thing I’ve noticed over the years . . . Really good writers tend to be readers. In fact, I’ve never met a gifted, successful author who wasn’t a voracious devourer of books.

More specifically, it’s helpful to read good writing. Read over your head. Read above your pay grade. Read outside your usual interests and preferred genres. Read genius writing that’s so good it’s actually discouraging. (The discouragement will wear off, but the genius will rub off, and germinate in your soul.)

Here’s another pro-tip I wish I’d learned sooner . . .

Yes, “writers write.” But then they re-write. And then re-re-write. You never do your best writing on your first pass. The best, most productive writers create a rough draft—the operative word there being “rough.” They don’t try to perfect a sentence before moving on to the next one. Likewise, they don’t try to perfect a paragraph before moving on to the next.

write edit

They write quick and dirty, loose and ugly, just to get the basic ideas, concepts and thoughts down before they evaporate. The goal is flow, not perfection.

Your brain will fight you on this. Seriously. It will engage you in fierce, dirty, krav maga combat. To win, you have to continually reassure your brain that you’re going to go back over those sentences later. But that for now, it’s vital to just keep moving forward.

I delicately describe this first draft exercise as, “throwing up on paper.” The more artful saying among experienced wordsmiths is “Write in haste. Edit at leisure.”

Finally, there are some books on the art and science of writing that have helped me a lot. Some of these I dust off and re-read every few years. I’d recommend starting with The Elements of Style. It’s indispensable. You really do need a firm grasp of the “rules” of good writing—even if you ultimately end up breaking them. It’s okay to break the rules but it’s not okay to not know when you’re breaking them. Or why you’re doing so.

Once you’ve internalized those principles, I’d move on to the “sequel” so to speak, Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing.

The quickest way to start getting paid to write words is to become skilled at marketing and direct response writing. To learn this craft I’d start with the ancient but still-relevant books of John Caples, the original Don Draper. See here and here. I also recommend Robert Bly.

For aspiring novelists and screenwriters, I recommend Robert McKee’s, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

The fact is, all effective writing—no matter what the genre—involves story telling. It seems the human mind is wired to take in, remember and be impacted by information presented in story form.

Do you have a good story to tell? Are you prepared to tell it well? I’ll pull up a chair. Others will too.

Happy Birthday P. G. Wodehouse

PGWodehouseThe English novelist–most famous for his thoroughly awesome series of “Jeeves” novels–would have been 133 today. Here are some of my favorite Wodehouse lines of prose:

He enjoys that perfect peace, that peace beyond all understanding, which comes to its maximum only to the man who has given up golf.


Insidious things (mint juleps). They creep up on you like a baby sister and slide their little hands into yours and the next thing you know the Judge is telling you to pay the clerk of the court $50.


He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg.


She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.


The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When!


She uttered a sound rather like an elephant taking its foot out of a mud hole in a Burmese teak forest.