Chip MacGregor

March 2, 2012

Writing that Keeps Me Up at Night


Marie Pic 





Marie Prys is the administrative presence behind our three agents. Books are one of her favorite things. Look for a monthly post from this former editor on what she will happily give up sleep for. 

February is all about trying to nurse along good intentions for the resolutions I made the previous month. Second this, anyone? Having read a great book for spiritual health last month, it was time to read for physical health. In keeping with yet another well-intentioned resolution, I turned to a favorite place, the library.* 

When I was a serious editor, “help” book projects were both a peeve and a plus—a peeve because so many “how-to” books are poorly organized, redundant, and dull. A plus because of the peeve—a willing editor won’t starve amid the great wealth of self-help books in need of significant editorial assistance.

Having defined what makes a crummy self-help book, let’s just say the ideal self-help book is organized well (style!), avoids redundancy, and has the right blend of theory and practicality. The author’s voice should ooze through the writing in a personal way so the reader wants to keep reading all the way to the end. And if the author isn’t an authority or expert on the subject matter, he should find a new hobby that doesn’t include writing.

If you want a fun little read that helps demonstrate most of these checkpoints, see Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Penguin, 2009) by Michael Pollan. There’s a new, illustrated hardcover version out, but I haven’t perused it, sorry.

More manual than book, the author’s use of brevity (64 rules, 140 pages) and wit make it easy to learn practical steps for better eating. The book has just three sections and can be summarized in only seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And I like how the author’s voice comes through using a one-liner approach: 

 #7.  Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.

#13.  Eat only foods that will eventually rot.

#21.  It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.)

#37.  The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.

#60.  Treat treats as treats.

What’s not to love? My children are already parroting #37 back to me when we stand in the bread aisle! 

Where this manual falls short is the lack of balance of knowledge and practicality, in which case you should read one of Pollan’s other books to get the full breadth of his authority on the topic of food. Admittedly, Food Rules is the reader’s digest version. So zoom through it and then pick up the book you really want to read.

 So what are you reading today from the self-help aisle?

* Being a very new Nook owner, I only recently learned that many libraries circulate digital books. If you haven’t checked out the modern wonder that is the E-reader, do yourself and your nightstand a favor. 





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