Writing any book is an adventure, but when you write a self-help book you must follow a unique set of rules. There are several ways that your gut instinct in the self-help genre – also called prescriptive nonfiction – will lead you astray. Especially if this is your first book. Here are five mistakes to stop making – and what to do instead.
Your Instinct: Your first temptation will be to use your self-help book as a platform to discuss everything you think you know about life, happiness, and the meaning of the universe.
It’s not every day that you write a self-help book. You might be terrified about the responsibility to fill all those pages, so you think it’s a good idea to just talk about everything you know. After all, if someone’s reading your book, then you’re probably doing something right, right?
What You Should Do: Here’s the problem with writing about everything you know. No one cares. And it’s not relevant. It’s all about sticking to your topic and hyper-focusing on it. Discuss the nuances and tiny details that you remember, simply because they are so small yet so obvious that only you could have ever thought of them. That’s not to say you shouldn’t get all your ideas out before you start writing. That’s part of organizing your thoughts. But once you’re writing? Don’t go broad. Go detailed and magnified.
Your Instinct: When you have an amazing life event or go through something that most people never experience, it’s easy to think to yourself: “I need to write about this right away!” Before you start putting pen to paper, step back from the excitement and look around at your competition. Every story there is to tell has already been told, everything from alien abductions to underground cults.
For example, you might want to write a self-help book about how you died for a few minutes and went to heaven. That’s great. But there’s already a book written by a world famous neurosurgeon who died and went to heaven. And it’s someone who is an authority on the workings of the mind.
What You Should Do: Do your research. Find the other self-help books out there that are similar to what you want to write and see how they tackled the problem. Figure out how you can help people differently, and more importantly, figure out how you can help better than existing material.
Think about it like this—you never go into any major exam that you want to ace without studying for weeks or months beforehand. Researching the industry and reading your competition before writing your book is just like studying.
Your Instinct: It’s your book and it’s not fiction, so why shouldn’t you write exactly what you might be thinking, whenever you might be thinking it? You will be tempted to sit down at your desk every day and just write the first things that come to mind, without considering the basic elements of what makes for a good book. Like structure, flow, story, or narrative. You might think that self-help books aren’t about stories the way fiction books are. Rather they are about helping other people with what you have to say.
What You Should Do: Throw all of that out the window and start again, this time with a story in mind. While a self-help book might not be fiction, all books should still have a basic narrative and structure.
Why? Because convincing someone of the veracity of your ideas is all about unraveling them in a logical way. Whether your reader is reading about Harry Potter’s latest adventure at Hogwarts or your self-help book about managing stress and anxiety in the workplace, the ideas need to arrive in the way that works best. Follow a structure and narrative rather than throwing out any and every detail whenever you feel like it.
Your Instinct:You go through something immensely tragic or life-changing and you decide that you want to write a self-help book. Your purpose is to share your story and help others who might be in the same situation. You might think that the experience itself is enough to justify your authority in writing this story.
After all, who better than you to talk about something that you’ve been through, right? You don’t need to prove who you are or that you know what you are talking about—you know that you are a credible source, because you lived through it.
What You Should Do: Your instinct here is wrong. In most cases, the experience itself is not enough to credit yourself as being an authority on the matter. Ask yourself if you really do possess the credentials to be seen as an authority on the subject. If you do, then you want to highlight that in your narrative. And if you don’t, perhaps you should be writing a memoir.
Don’t let the lack of any credentials discourage you from writing your book. It just means you have to write in the correct sub-genre. And then you need to find a unique way to stand out.
Your Instinct: One mistake many first-timers in the self-help industry make is that they forget the name of the genre: self-help. And the self-help is for the readers, not for the author. It’s true that it might be a great form of personal therapy to write a self-help book. However, remember that readers will be reading your self-help because they want to learn how to be or do better at your topic.
Don’t fill your book with vague platitudes and reflective questions that do nothing but add to their confusion.
What You Should Do: Give them a real, actionable game plan that they can put in their journals and to-do lists. Some real instructions that they can remember every day to help them start making real changes in their life. Help them, not yourself.
To wrap this all up, let’s repeat the most important point. Don’t forget your genre. Self-help is unique from all other genres out there. Because it’s not just about telling a story.
It’s about telling a story and adding value to your readers’ lives. Make sure that they walk away with the knowledge to make their lives better in whatever unique way you offered. Make sure that your book isn’t just about, or for, you.
Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books. She's author of One Million Readers: The Definitive Strategy to a Nonfiction Book Marketing Strategy that Saves Time, Money, and Sells More Books. Boni is an author coach, editor, and ghostwriter. As an award-winning former Canadian television reporter, news anchor, producer, and talk show host, working under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray (it's a long story), Boni covered politics, government, the economy, health, First Nations, and crime. She won several Canadian Association of Broadcaster (CAB) awards and a Jack Webster Award for best documentary. Boni also held senior management roles in government, leading teams responsible for editorial, issues management, media relations, and strategic communications planning. Boni is co-author of Rock Your Business: 26 Essential Lessons to Start, Run, and Grow Your New Business From the Ground Up and, like any good author, has several books in progress.
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