This is the one. This is the book that will help me help me solve my problem, get what I want, feel less alone, gain the advantage I need. This is the book that will help me finally do the thing.
When readers dive into a prescriptive nonfiction book, they have high hopes—and a healthy dose of skepticism. Will this book deliver on its promise? Will this work for me? Does this author know what they’re talking about?
As readers learn new concepts, gain knowledge, and consider acting on the author’s advice, doubts can grow into objections.
I don’t think this author gets it—or me. These ideas are outdated. This approach is not doable.
And when unaddressed doubts and objections stack up, they can become spoken criticisms of the book and the author.
“This book is a total disappointment. The author is out of touch. I’m better off using Google to get the answers I need.”
Ouch. So what happened to the readers’ hopes?
At the heart of nearly all reader doubts, objections, and criticisms is self-doubt.
I could do the thing! Can I REALLY do the thing? I don’t think I can do the thing.
In my work with authors, I emphasize the importance of putting the reader first at every stage of the writing and editing process, in every chapter and on every page. This includes considering and respecting the readers’ journey through the book. What is it like to learn these concepts for the first time? Where might they freak out? Where have I asked too much of them—or too little? Then, authors edit the book to address doubts, manage objections, and prevent criticisms. This helps a reader feel seen and understood. They start to trust the author. They keep reading. And they are more likely do the thing.
When readers do the thing, they get results. When they get results, they tell everyone about your book. And this time they say, “I love this book. You have to read it. I feel like this book was written for me.”
The best time to get in front of readers’ doubts and objections is during the editing stage, after you have a complete first draft. If your reader is an earlier version of you, start by thinking about how you felt going through the same process you share in your manuscript. For example, in his book, Profit First, Mike Michalowicz asks readers to complete an “Instant Assessment” of their business finances. After we wrote that section, I asked him about the first time he looked at his numbers in the same way. Mike said, “It felt like someone dropped a bucket of cold water on my head. I wanted to give up.”
If Mike wanted to give up after looking at his Instant Assessment results, the reader might feel the same. So we wrote some content that acknowledged the experience could be a shock, shared Mike’s own experience with it, and lifted them up with some “arm over the shoulder” encouragement. If we had left the task in the book as-is, without getting in front of readers’ potential doubts and objections, many of them would put his book down—forever. More importantly, they would not get the promise his book delivers, the thing they wanted most.
Here’s a list of some common reader doubts and objections:
“This strategy won’t work for me because…”
This objection is rooted in readers’ unique sets of circumstances that they think prevent them from doing the thing. It could be financial or time constraints, lack of a support system, or health issues. It could also be something as simple as thinking they don’t have the right equipment or materials. Remember, some limitations are real and some are perceived, and it’s not up to you to decide which is which. Consider your biases and privilege. Your advice may work for you in part because of your own set of circumstances. If that’s the case, how can you change it to make it more doable and accessible?
“Easy for you to say!”
At the heart of this criticism is your readers’ perception of your life, past and present. They may read your bio and your stories and think you succeeded at XYZ because you had a better education, a loving family, more money, stronger connections, or that you are simply a lucky person who was in the right place at the right time. Maybe you’re leaving out critical information that would help them relate to you, maybe you need to be more vulnerable, or maybe you need to acknowledge the fact that not everyone has XYZ.
“This process [task, challenge, framework] is too hard.”
Here you may be dealing with self-doubt, or you the thing you’ve asked readers to do needs to be simplified so it’s easier to do. You’re practiced at your own process, and you may have forgotten what it’s like to try it for the first time. You want them to act on your advice because when they do, they will get the payoff, and that helps keep readers on the page. When they stay with you chapter by chapter and benefit from following your guidance, they want to tell the world about your book.
“I already tried this, and it didn’t work.”
This objection comes up when you ask readers to do something that other authors, speakers, or coaches recommend. Creating a morning routine, for example, or journaling. Because this objection is about past failed attempts, you’ve got a mix of self-doubt and the actual reasons why the thing didn’t pan out the last time they tried it. Maybe they gave up too soon. Maybe they didn’t have a guide to help them. Maybe the thing they tried was different or flawed in some way. How can you convince your readers to try again?
“What you’re saying goes against everything I learned…”
Your reader will criticize your content when they feel torn between believing you and someone influential in their lives—their parents, their religious leaders, their coach, their boss—even other authors. If you defy conventional wisdom in your book, this issue may come up. As you craft content that shows them your advice has merit, be sure to honor their previous knowledge and current beliefs, because someone they care about is likely behind them.
“I’m not [smart, talented, strong, young, old, fit, financially stable, experienced, beautiful, healthy, creative, brave] enough to pull this off.”
This is the big one. And here’s the kicker—if your reader believes they are not enough, they will experience self-doubt over and over in your book. This means you’ll have to reassure them and motivate them multiple times. It can be helpful to build them up as you go, reminding them of all they’ve learned while reading your book.
With your list of doubts and objections on hand, look through your manuscript and consider where some of these issues may come up for your readers. Then, get in front of them. Here’s a simple process to do just that:
- First, ask yourself if your readers may be right. If the answer is yes or maybe, modify your content. Make the ask more doable. Simplify. Respect the belief systems you are asking them to set aside. Honor their experience.
- Whether or not you change your content, acknowledge the readers’ doubts, objections, and criticisms right in the text. This is the “get in front of it” part of this editing exercise. Simply stating what they may be thinking can be enough to build trust.
- Next, provide social proof. Include an anecdote or story, or perhaps a statistic that backs you up.
- If you’re dealing with a big objection, or if you’re asking them to do the hard things, lift them up. Offer encouragement. Inspire them to try.
Getting in front of your readers’ doubts and objections takes the energy out of their concerns before they become criticisms. It’s as if you’re saying, “I see you, and I get you.” When readers feel seen and understood, they stay on the page. Hope wins out over skepticism. They will probably do the thing. And maybe, just maybe, they will get what they want most.
AJ Harper is the author of Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own. Through her workshop, she helps authors write transformational nonfiction books readers dog-ear, underline, and rave about any chance they get. In her 17 years in publishing, she has worked with hundreds of authors, co-founded an award-winning LGBTQ-focused small press (later sold to Chicago Review Press), and helped launch the careers of beloved and bestselling authors who are making a difference in the world. Learn more about AJ at her website.