One year ago I gave my wife a book about tidying for Christmas. (I’m still alive, so that tells you something about my wife.) I bought The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo on a whim and, perhaps, a modicum of husbandly intuition. It ended up my wife’s favorite gift of the year.
We took Kondo’s method to heart and decluttered our three-bedroom apartment. It was well timed, just a few months before we moved across the state and into a much smaller apartment. But more importantly, it opened our eyes to how much stuff we held onto that we didn’t need, and how that stuff cluttered up our minds as well as our home.
Now, of course, Kondo has a new Netflix series: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Watching the show and thinking again about the book, I’ve been asking myself: What makes this a great book? And what can legal publishers and lawyers learn from it? (Yes, I literally ask myself these kinds of questions. My wife is used to my muttering.)
What makes Tidying Up a great book?
We lawyers often think law is a dull subject to others. But tidying might just win the dull subject trophy. Despite the subject, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is not a dull book. It’s lively and human. Why is that?
Kondo isn’t dull because she doesn’t make her book all about the how-to of tidying. It’s there, of course—but later. Like all good nonfiction books, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is more about the reader than the subject of tidying.
You can see this in how the book starts. Does Kondo begin with a broad overview of tidying? Does she explain the fundamental principles? Does she dive into the first step of her tidying process? No. She starts with a bold claim.
“In this book, I have summed up how to put your space in order in a way that will change your life forever.”
That’s the first sentence of the book. It gets right to the point: how will this book impact the reader? Kondo just promised to change your life forever—and you’re going to keep reading to see if there’s any proof in this pudding. You’re hooked.
A book that hooks you is the opposite of dull. And it has nothing to do with the subject. The hook is all about a promise to change your life; solve your problem; help you in some concrete way. The book is not about an abstract subject; it’s about helping people. The problem it solves isn’t my house is cluttered—it’s I can’t keep my house in order. See the difference? That’s what makes a book human. That’s what gives a book soul.
Of course, a bold claim like “this book will change your life forever” will raise some eyebrows. The reader will be skeptical that Kondo can make good on her promise. So the next thing she does is establish her expertise. She can write things like:
- Everyone who completes my private course has successfully kept their house in order.
- I started reading home and lifestyle magazines when I was five.
- From the age of fifteen I undertook a serious study of tidying.
- I spend most of my days visiting homes and offices, giving hands-on advice to people who find it difficult to tidy.
- Here are seven sparkling testimonials from former clients.
- I have a three-month waiting list.
- My repeater rate is zero.
Clearly, if anyone is going to write a book about tidying, it’s Marie Kondo.
Having hooked the reader with a bold promise and proved she knows what she’s talking about, Kondo moves on to the substance of a well-structured book. Now, surely, it’s time to get into the how-to nitty-gritty of tidying.
Nope. Before that, one more thing: the reader needs a good understanding of his or her problem. Chapter 1 is “Why can’t I keep my house in order?” In this chapter, Kondo explains why keeping a house tidy is such a challenge for people. She talks about the mistakes everybody makes and the bad advice in housekeeping magazines. She says “storage experts are hoarders.” And as she explains the problem, she lays the foundation for the solution. She gets the reader into the right mindset to receive the how-to advice that follows and actually do it.
Then, finally, she begins to explain the how. She has a method with several steps. She walks the reader through each step and how to complete it. She answers common questions and gives specific advice. Throughout, she tells stories about her clients and connects the tidying process back to the promise of changing the reader’s life.
Finally, Kondo ends her book by circling back once again to that promise. Her final chapter, after the how-to of the KonMari Method, is all about how following this method changes your life. It gets to the bottom line with topics like: tidying will help you find your passion, tidying will give you confidence, tidying will show you what you’re holding onto from the past and what anxieties you have about the future, tidying will help you discover what is truly precious to you, and after tidying you will be surrounded by things that make you happy. The pudding has proved.
Perhaps my favorite piece of writing advice comes from Sir Ernest Gowers in Plain Words, directed at government workers whose job was “explaining the law to the millions”: Be short, be simple, be human, be correct. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a great example of all four.
What can lawyers learn from Tidying Up?
Since I’ve already described what makes Tidying Up a great book, I won’t belabor the point. It should be easy to see how most books written by lawyers compare—poorly. It wouldn’t be hard to improve, though, if lawyers took to heart these lessons:
- A dull topic does not have to mean a dull book. Lively writing is even more important when the subject is arcane. But even more than writing style, focusing on the reader—the emotional benefit to be got, the problem to be solved—will lift the book.
- Don’t take your expertise for granted. You must establish it; you must give the reader a reason to trust you. The J.D. alone will not suffice. So talk about your experience—briefly!—or your unique approach, or your proven results for your clients. You can do this in one or two paragraphs. But you must do it.
- Don’t organize your book by its content. Organize by its audience. What experience will the reader have? You must hook the reader, describe the problem, and explain the impact of your solution. In a way, structuring a book is like structuring an argument to a judge; you don’t jump straight to applying the law point by point. You start by stating the question to be answered and why it matters.
- If you want anyone to actually read what you write, your book must be short, simple, human, and correct. Whereas Kondo’s book follows all four of these elementary rules, lawyers and legal publishers often care only about the last. (That’s why they do things like start sentences with whereas.) Focus on the reader. Tell stories. Don’t belabor the point. Edit!
- It’s tempting to think that conveying accurate information is all that matters. You don’t know what the law is, so I’ll just tell you—bada bing, bada boom. This leads to the classic lawyer-problem of overwhelming the client with too much information. The client, and the reader, needs context. The how-to is important, but a book without humanity and life will never be read. And if it is read, it won’t make an impact. Your goal is not simply to convey information, but to help a person. It wouldn’t be helpful to hand your client the latest codebook. It’s not helpful to give your reader what amounts to a handful of lawyer-written Wikipedia entries.
- Finally, stop being afraid of sharing your knowledge. Kondo is a consultant; she makes money by tidying one-on-one. She’s published a bestselling book that completely describes her method so that anyone can do it. She’s still in business, and business is booming. You can publish your knowledge, too, and doing so will not only help more people than you could ever help individually but also generate more business. It’s a win-win.