View Full Version : Help - I need a critique of my non-fiction style

Jim Clack
04-21-2008, 01:01 AM

I've been lurking on these forums for several months and finally decided to make myself visible. It's wonderful to find a place to seek advice, and that is what I am hoping for in this request. I have written dozens of technical manuals for various manufacturers over a period of three decades, some of a thousand pages in length. But I have never written a real book - one that can be bought in a bookstore. Now I have a topic that I wish to pursue, a do-it-yourself guide to applying for a patent, and I need advice from others. At issue is my style.

As a writer of product user guides I have been both hailed and damned for my style. Some clients love it, others hate it. I try to present dry subjects in a manner that is fun to read. I avoid appendices and large words, I use folksy mannerisms, and I try ro make the topic lighthearted. I've been criticized for these very things, and have had to do some significant rewrites in the past. Many people are of the opinion that non-fiction must also be formal, and that my style is far too casual. But now that I am attempting to penetrate the commercial market, I want to know if I'm just wasting my time. Before I seek a publisher, or even an agent, I'd like to solicit the opinion of other non-fiction authors.

I'd like your professional opinion on my style. I've provided a couple of brief excerpts below. Do you think that a relaxed style is inappropriate for a non-fiction book? Is it acceptable or even desirable? Should I start over, give up, or press on?

And thank you so very much for your input.

-Jim Clack

Excerpt 1:

Make sure that you own what’s in your head. I’m serious. Do you have a day job? If so then you’re employer probably owns your dreams as well as your fantasies. However, most employers are willing to sign rights over to you for specific exceptions. Of course if the idea relates to your line of work, then they might want the idea for themselves. This can be a problem, and for that kind of issue you should consult with a good attorney. Let’s hope your boss just snickers and says, “Hey, we make garbage bags, so why would we be interested in your harebrained scheme to patent an improved kitty litter box?”

This is especially true in a white collar environment; your employer can argue that you were hired for your brains, so your ideas belong to the company. Believe it or not, one of the sheets that HR gave you to sign when you were hired probably included a clause to hand your brain to your employer on a silver platter. Although there have been hoards of court cases challenging these kinds of claims, the results are all over the map, so don’t gamble.

Get it on paper. If your company has a legal department then they will probably want to draw it up themselves. Say “okay” and don’t feel guilty about making them do all the work. After all your company is paying the attorney’s salary, so they expect him or her to earn it. If you have to provide the weasel words, refer to the sample Release of IP Rights below. IP rights? Is that a new term to you? Like the French, the lawyers have a different word for everything. They refer to the ownership of patents, trademarks, and copyrights as IP, which stands for Intellectual Property.

Are you afraid to ask your employer for IP rights? That is completely understandable. Your boss might be afraid of you becoming rich and leaving him without a bag-packer. Use reverse psychology. Make up a proposal for your company. It should show your invention without giving away any of the key benefits. It should have a cover letter that asks them to patent it for you and that requests them to give you a certain percentage of the proceeds. In all likelihood, they will laugh out loud and think that you must be crazy. So much the better. Now you are perfectly poised to tell them that, if they don’t want the idea, you will be glad invest your own money in it. Let them laugh again. Then they should be willing to sign the release. Tip: Don’t ask them to sign it right way, as they will realize they’ve been taken for fools. Wait until the next day.

Excerpt 2:

Often you must evaluate your invention in light of existing inventions. When you first dive into the search, as you will in upcoming chapters, you probably will hope to find nothing that is at all like your invention. If you find similar inventions you may feel defeated. But the experienced inventor approaches it differently. She worries that there might be nothing at all like it, making it a hard-sell. That is because investors want to compare it to something. In television sitcoms there is little originality, just cookie-cutter copies with slight variations, because investors would rather go for the sure thing than take a gamble on something new. So the discovery of similar inventions is often a blessing.

In general you should be pleased to find that something already exists that is quite like your invention, especially if it is currently making a lot of money for somebody. Don’t look at it as competition to your idea, but as a springboard for it. Sure yours might have a 75% overlap, and now you’ll have to whittle your invention down to a shadow of its former self. But that small slice of an idea is likely to be worth more than a whole pie of a pristine idea. At the State Fair an apple pie generally wins the blue ribbon even though it’s only slightly better than the second place pie; whereas the baker of that innovative Gorgonzola-rutabaga pie goes home empty handed.

Of course if existing products are too similar to your invention, or if the claims of an existing patent are worded in such away that it would not be profitable to work around any conflict, then that may not be such a lovely find and you may be sunk. Isn’t it better to find out now, before you invest a lot of time and money?

-Jim Clack

04-21-2008, 01:25 AM
I personally don't mind a casual or even breezy style in non-fiction. For a topic as dry as patents, you may need it to keep the reader from falling asleep. However, the style should never get in the way of the content. In my opinion, the style should act as a tool to make the content easier to understand. It shouldn't call attention to itself as a way to say, "Look how clever I am." Are the excerpts you posted part of the introductory portions of their chapters or are they part of the meat? If it's the latter, I'm a bit concerned because I'm sensing too much style and not much hard information.

By the way, have you checked out Patent It Yourself by David Pressman? That book will likely be your main competition and it's widely recommended as a reference, so it's worth a look.

Good luck!

04-21-2008, 01:33 AM
Totally agree with MeowGirl.

04-21-2008, 03:07 AM
Hi Jim,

I too have agonized over this issue, having spent much of my working life as a technical manual writer, which took me about 10 years to beat out of me. Who are these people who think non-fiction is supposed to be formal? If I picked up a self-help book and the style was formal, I wouldn't last a sentence reading it. I like your style. And I love the joke about lawyers and the French having a different word for everything.

It sounds like rather than just a thumbs up or thumbs down, you probably could benefit from some actual editing or critiquing. Tweaking after reader feedback is valuable even if your style is generally "correct." I think there is a critique section here although I've never used it. I've been in a number of critique groups but never found one specifically for self-help books. Maybe we could start one.


Jim Clack
04-21-2008, 03:50 PM
Meowgirl, Scope, Jerry, I see where you're coming from. Indeed, I can now see many places in the book where I was putting style over substance, and that can put off a user. These are factors that I too must consider.

In regard to my past employers complaining that my style was not formal enough, my most recent half-dozen manuals were critiqued by a highly qualified engineer who kept using the term folksy to deride my style.

I have read the Pressman book as well as a few other good books about do-it-youself patents. My first several patents were done by attorneys, but my latest three patents were done by me alone, with assistance from several such books. The Pressman book was especially enlightening.
The Pressman book can be a jungle survival book, but it does not prepare one for the detailed work that is yet to be done. And although I think the world of Pressman, I ended up taking notes about the many details that were not present in the book, and those notes served as the basis for my book

In doing do, I discovered several shortcomings of those books, including Pressman. These books prepare you at a high level but when it comes time to actually fill out the forms, You feel abandoned. I kept notes of all the missing details, and my book focuses on those details. For instance, Pressman discusses the tracking of dates for prior art and determining the correct date to record. What he leaves off is that when you apply for a patent electronically, those dates don't matter. The form won't let you enter any date prior to 1987, and much of the prior art pre-dates 1987. So I consulted the USPTO and was told that the inventor should not fill them in.

There are many other such stories, such as he one about the submission of an oath or declaration. Which oath or declaration is to be used, and does one use an electronic signature or real signature? And how does one submit it to the patent office? The USPTO insructions specifically tell you that it is not form-fillable and NOT to submit it by rendering it to a new PDF; but that very approach is indeed what you must do.

These are the details that my book addresses. Where the other books tell you how to do it, I show you how.

Based on your feedback, my takeaway so far is that I must stand back out of the limelight when writing - focusing on what the user is learning. I can still keep the book lighthearted, as long as it does not interfere with a clear presentation.

I hope get some more feedback. This is vey helpful.

Thank you so very much,
Jim Clack

04-21-2008, 04:04 PM
Jim, it sounds like you're well on your way. The fact that you've worked through Pressman's book and have identified its shortcomings through your experience will go a long way in convincing someone why your book is needed. Nice job!

Based on your feedbacke, my takeaway so far, is that I must stand back out of the limelight when writing - focusing on what the user is learning. I can still keep the book lighthearted, as long as it does not interfere with a clear presentation.

Bingo. You've got it! :D

04-26-2008, 05:06 AM
Hi Jim,
First, congratulations on pursuing your desire to write your book. Lots of people never get that far. It also sounds like you've done a good job researching to find your audience's need and filling it. From what you describe, it sounds like a salable book.

As far as a critique:

I agree with Meowgirl too. I read mostly non-fiction and if it becomes too text bookish, I probably won't make it through. Light and conversational is not a problem. That said, I also suggest you check your balance between conversational teaching and joking comments. Done well humor adds, over done, your info starts sounding like a comedy routine, and you begin to lose authority.

For a finer point, I'm not sure the television analogy works as you have it now. I get what you want to say, but I think you need a better transition because it seems like a jump in topics.

All of this is easy enough to fix. Keep at it & keep your good attitude. I think you can be successful.

Jim Clack
04-26-2008, 05:20 PM
Thank you Cheryl - that's valuable feedback. For now I'm going to sign up for your newsletter, but I might want to make use of your critique service as well.