Small book, 2,000+ years of impact: Use the tactics of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for your own book

In the last article we looked at how writing a full-length book liberates you from the need to selectively choose and simplify your knowledge, experience and wisdom, and allows you to take the reader with you on a longer and deeper journey.

We can think of this type of book as the ‘two-year book’, because it typically takes around two years to bring a book of depth into the world, from the beginning of research and writing to the publication of the book online and distribution to bookstores.

Now let’s look at the other type of book, the one that’s short, to the point and has a narrow focus.

To do this, we’ll explore why Sun Tzu’s approximately 65 pages known as The Art of War have had such a powerful impact across millennia, cultures and spheres — especially military, political, business and management.

Then we’ll look at what Sun Tzu’s book doesn’t do.

The Art of War

What are key characteristics of The Art of War as a book?

  • It has a narrow focus: military strategy based on Chinese warfare and military thought.
  • It has brief chapters, often not more than 1,000 words.
  • The information is organized into clear categories, e.g. planning, fighting, strategy, flexibility, weakness and strength.
  • The information is presented in the form of bullet points or numbered paragraphs. Each point is typically conveyed in a single sentence.
  • Only the most important information is provided.
  • Often there are if-then instructions: If this is the case, then do this. Or don’t do this, because . . .
  • Advice is given in the form of lists of a certain number of items: five essentials for . . .; five questions to answer before . . .
  • The book explains the what and why, but leaves the how up to the reader.
  • Much of the instruction is given in the form of generalities that can be interpreted and applied in spheres other than war, e.g. ‘If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.’
  • The book offers truly timeless wisdom: ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.’
  • (And other wisdom that is more obscure: ‘To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.’)

Why has The Art of War proven to be timeless?

If we strip away everything but the core essentials of the advice, we find that it’s not specific to a particular time, place or activity. Why? Because the advice concerns a particular aspect of human nature and behaviour that has not changed across 5,000 years of recorded history — the desire to gain and retain advantage over others. The Art of War succinctly explains how to get and maintain power and control, and thereby material gain.

At the level of language, much of the advice can be read metaphorically and the how is left up to the reader. This means that the advice can be interpreted for and applied to spheres other than Chinese warfare in the 5th century BCE, which vastly increases the potential (and actual) influence of the book.

What is missing from The Art of War?

Now let’s look at what The Art of War doesn’t do, from our modern perspective.

Since the publication of Simon Sinek’s book, it has become accepted that your audience is more likely to pay attention to what you say, and to do what you want them to do (e.g. buy from you) if you ‘show them your why.’ Does Sun Tzu show us his why? Not in either of the editions I’ve read.

Case studies and real-life examples have also become an essential component of the how-to/self-help/business/professional book. There is not a single case study — or even the hint of a real-life example — in The Art of War.

Also missing are in-depth explanations of key points and explanations of how to apply the advice.

All of this is neither good nor bad; it’s simply something to think about. We live in modern times, and we have to consider the needs and preferences of the modern reader. Most of all, we need to figure out the best way to convey what you have to say.

In the next article, we’ll look at why you should write a short book.

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