I was in the airport lounge waiting for my flight when I noticed that a man sitting across from me was reading a book that one of my friends wrote. That’s happened to me several times in my life, and usually I strike up a conversation to see what the reader thinks about the book. Usually they have great things to say and I can pass them on to my friend. This time was different.
I asked the man what he thought of the book. I didn’t tell him about my friend being the author. The man furrowed up his brow.
“Well,” he said, “it’s pretty good, but he’s a little shaky on some of the facts. I’ll probably give it three stars.”
I asked him what facts he was talking about. The book was about finding innovative ways to unlock resources. My friend had used an analogy from the petroleum industry. The man I was talking to in the airport was a production engineer for an oil company. He found the spot in the book to show me an example of “shaky facts.”
“Here,” he said, “read this.” He pointed with his finger.
I read the piece, and it seemed fine to me, so I asked what was wrong. It turned out that while my friend had the basic principles right, he’d used some incorrect terminology to refer to the equipment. Not only that, my friend was a few years off on the date that the technique he was writing about was used for the first time.
The fellow I met in the airport was reading a book to learn about something he didn’t know well. But he judged the book based on what the author wrote about the few things in the book he was familiar with. That might not be fair, but it’s how human beings work.
Readers judge your work based on what they know
Retailers call them “Known Value Items.” They’re items that we’ve bought frequently enough to know the price. We use them when we visit a new store to decide whether all the prices in the store are high or low. If the milk is priced below what we’re used to, we infer that the prices in the store are lower that what we’re used to.
When readers come upon something in your book that they know something about, they infer something about the entire book from it. That’s a good reason to check your facts and terminology. Here’s another reason.
Experts, experts, everywhere
Your readers know a lot about a lot of things. You can be sure that there will be an expert out there on anything that you write. There will also be people who aren’t experts, but are familiar with the examples you use. Those people will judge the entire book based on how you handle the things they know.
The man I met in the airport was going to give my friend’s book three stars, based on the way my friend handled some technical details that really weren’t important to his point. Beware! This can happen to you. Take the time and make the effort to check all your facts, examples, and quotations.