Improve self-help books using the BLUF format

tl;dr: The BLUF structure would make self-help books much more efficient to consume.

Most self-help, leadership training, and other personal growth and improvement books are laid out in a way that spreads the most valuable content throughout the book. They’re usually hundreds of pages long and can take 7-8 hours to read. The key points aren’t always called out in an obvious way, either – sometimes they’re hidden away within long paragraphs of stories and exposition.

Consider this illustration showing how information is spread throughout a typical self-help book:

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  • Gray areas represent annecdotal stories or personal thoughts from the author. This content is pleasant to read, but not required to get the point.
  • Yellow areas represent supporting information that helps the reader understand the main points and offers more detailed explanations, example applications, etc.
  • Green areas represent the key takeaways, the ultimate topics the author wants to convey.

What if we organized these books in a way that brought the most important information up front and then put the supplementary information later?

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In that layout, the reader could cover the most important points in just a few minutes. If follow up is desired, the reader is free to jump ahead to the appropriate section to learn more.

This idea isn’t new. Scientific papers have been written like this for decades: there’s an abstract/summary up front that’s maybe 1-2 paragraphs long, then the rest of the paper goes on to provide a deeper dive into all of the supporting material, previous research, experiments, findings, and considerations that led to the overall conclusion of the article.

This format is also the embodiment of BLUF.

What’s BLUF?

Bottom Line Up Front.

Or, in other words, make your point immediately, then follow up with only the most pertinent supporting information to help set context or tone.

Consider this message:

Hi there, some things have come up. I need to run some errands, pick up some groceries and take them home, take the dog to the vet, and so I’ll be late to meet up with you tonight. I know we planned to meet at 4, but can we meet up later, maybe around 6 PM? I hope that works out. Looking forward to seeing you later. Thanks!

The point of the message is buried deep within that paragraph:

Hi there, some things have come up. I need to run some errands, pick up some groceries and take them home, take the dog to the vet, and so I’ll be late to meet up with you tonight. I know we planned to meet at 4, but can we meet up later, maybe around 6 PM? I hope that works out. Looking forward to seeing you later! Thanks!

Ultimately, the writer is asking the recipient if they can meet up at 6 PM instead of 4 PM.

Using BLUF format, the message could be reduced down to:

Can we meet at 6? I’ve gotta take the dog to the vet then run some errands.

Notice that not only is the message much shorter, but it puts the action for the recipient up front. It makes the request to meet up later first and foremost. That queues the recipient up to respond and helps them not miss the most important part of the message.

The message could be reduced down even further with a second pass of BLUF:

Can we meet at 6?

It’s a little less personal and sounds a bit curt because it doesn’t provide any context. It might leave the recipient wondering. But based on your relationship with the recipeint, this may be an acceptable way to phrase it. If they ask why you need to reschedule, then you can fill them in with more details (errands, vet, etc.)

Why do we write the long way?

The type of writing we’re required to master in school trains us in the opposite direction. We’re raised to produce that longer, more verbose style. It’s also more polite and conversational, and as such is a more natural flow for many writers.

But it’s not the most efficient way to convey this sort of information.

What if books were written with BLUF?

A number of issues arise, some good and some bad.

PROs

  • Less wasted time understanding the valuable parts of a book.

  • Ability for faster self-improvement, as less time is required to absorb helpful material.

  • Improved organization allows for easier reference and recall later.

  • No need to look for third-party summaries of the book.

CONs

  • Current publishing model wants to sell “a book” and not “a leaflet.”

    • Would anyone pay $19.99 for a book whose key points can be read while you’re casually standing around in a bookstore?
  • More people reading the condensed version of the book opens it up to wider scrutiny and harsher judgement.

    • Readers might not take the time to consider the points of the book in the wider context provided in the later follow-up sections.

    • Is that actually a PRO, not a CON? If more people can read the takeaways easily, the book becomes much easier to validate. Are the key points actually helpful, or is this book rubbish? Are the key points still relevant, or has the book become outdated?

It’s unlikely that publishers would even consider changing to this format, but it’s been an interesting exercise to think about. It’s certainly a wish of mine that these books were written in a format that was more efficient to consume.