Last time, we looked at some common structural issues in non-fiction manuscripts. In this post, we’ll move on to a final important category of target reader feedback: Sound.

The Sound section of each Target Reader Manuscript Analysis report is all about how the author or narrator comes across to the reader. Do readers like the writing style? Do they view the author or narrator favorably? Have they identified any blind spots that might hinder the author’s connection or credibility with the reader?

The answers to these questions can make or break a book. A book with great ideas but a poor writing style will likely fail to connect with readers, while a book with more modest ideas but a truly compelling authorial voice may find an audience. Feedback from First Look Readers provides a wealth of valuable information about a book’s Sound. Below, we’ve reviewed some of the most common insights.

Writing Style 

First Look Readers are always asked what they think about an author’s writing style, and the feedback they provide—both positive and negative—can go a long way towards identifying strengths and weaknesses, helping hone a book’s prose.

In a recent report on a business leadership book, readers appreciated that the author’s writing was straightforward, clear, and easy to understand, but several also complained that it was boring. As one reader wrote: “It was a bit dry. I felt the language used could have been done in a more creative way.”

In short, the writing style’s strength (clarity and brevity) went too far until it became a weakness, and the author needed to jazz up his writing to keep his audience engaged. This is quite common with non-fiction books, particularly those written by individuals whose background is in fields that place a high value on clear, concise communication with minimal fluff (such as business or medicine). On the other side of that same coin, it is common to see reports in which some readers praise an author’s writing style as “conversational” or “like having a cup of coffee with a friend,” while others describe the same prose as “lacking authority” or “taking too long to get to the point.” In short, good writing is a fine balancing act between conversational and authoritative, engaging and dry. The trick is finding balance and using reader feedback as an opportunity for improvement.

Perception of Author

TRMAs are a great tool to find out how an author comes across to readers through their prose. One extremely common stumbling block in non-fiction business and leadership books happens when authors use their own success stories as in-text examples. Done well, these sorts of examples underscore the author’s authority, as in: “I used the techniques I’m teaching you here to accomplish XYZ, which is why you should trust me that it will work for you too.”

Done poorly, these very same stories can come across as arrogant and self-aggrandizing. This really does matter. Over and over again, our TRMA reports have uncovered patterns in reader data showing that a high percentage of readers think: “This book has brilliant ideas and could be amazing, but I just can’t stand the author. He’s too full of himself. I won’t be buying this book.”

Establish authority such that readers trust your expertise, but never at the expense of likeability.

Potentially Offensive Content 

We specifically ask target readers in every TRMA whether they think the author has any blindspots that might be frustrating or offensive for some readers, particularly regarding whether they found any specific characters, descriptions, or passages to be insensitive or culturally inaccurate regarding their portrayal of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual-orientation, disability or other categories.

In recent reports, readers have voiced concerns about how an author spoke disparagingly about religion, while another insulted members of the opposite political party. Other readers have criticized portrayals of non-white characters as racist or denounced the lack of women in an author’s leadership examples as sexist. Still others take issue when authors offer commentary on politically controversial topics that are not directly related to a book’s core subject.

While such complaints tend to come from a small minority of readers, these comments can be some of the most forceful, along the lines of: “This was such a great book, but I couldn’t possibly recommend it based on the author’s racism/sexism.”

Few authors intend to offend, and yet, if left unaddressed, these sorts of issues can alienate readers and harm a book’s reputation.

Insights That Matter

In general, issues in the Sound category are much harder for authors to address than those in either the Story or Structure categories. After all, an author’s writing style and personality are relatively fixed, while the book’s story and structure can usually be tweaked fairly easily. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing an author can do to improve their book’s Sound; it just takes a little more effort. And feedback from First Look Readers provides a great place to start.