How to write a self-help book
Leading publishing editor Kelly Notaras offers her top ten tips for writing a self-help book
I have not always been a “self-help person.” I only discovered it about 15 years ago, when I was living in New York City and working as a book editor at a major publishing company. After years of struggling with unhappiness—taking anti-depressants to keep from crying at my desk during the workday—I picked up one of the great personal growth titles of our age: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. The book changed my life—and my career.
For the past 12 years I’ve been a dedicated self-help, personal growth and spirituality editor. In that time I’ve learned a whole lot about what it takes to go from being an aspiring self-help author to a successful, published one. I am sharing here ten top tips for writing self-help—in hopes the book you were born to write changes someone’s life the way Eckhart Tolle’s book changed mine.
1: Test your audience before you start writing.
One of the biggest mistakes I see new self-help authors make is writing a book or book proposal without first test-driving their ideas to make sure they resonate with an audience. Social media, blogging, podcasting and videocasting are all great ways to try out your ideas to see which gain traction.
2: Choose a unique concept for your book.
This “hook” or positioning statement is the 1-2 sentence pitch explaining what the book is about. It needs to communicate how your book is new, different and appealing enough that it’s likely to find a readership. Once you have your hook dialed in, let it be the guiding light as you write.
3: Speak to the reader’s pain point, and explain the benefits of what you’re offering.
Readers come to the self-help bookshelf searching for answers to a real pain point in their lives. As a self-help author, it’s your job to communicate that you understand the reader’s pain—and that you have a solution. Be sure your cover copy names the problem your book is solving, i.e. “overcome X to experience Y”—with X being the problem and Y being the desired outcome.
4: Write about what you personally know.
If you are considering writing a self-help book, your personal and professional experience with your topic ought to be deep and significant. If you don’t yet have this experience, I suggest pausing the book-writing process and taking your work to real people in order to gain the authority your readers will be looking for.
5: Start with an outline.
While they should not be formulaic per se, most popular self-help authors do use a strong, symmetrical chapter style. What’s the best way to ensure your book fits the bill? Write from a solid outline. Draw up a table of contents, and then add three or four subheadings inside each chapter, noting where you’ll include stories and exercises. Added bonus? Your outline will give you a simple starting point every time you sit down to write.
6: Include memorable stories, not just facts.
It’s been suggested that humans are 22 times more likely to remember a fact if it’s been wrapped in a story. So be sure to include anecdotes to illustrate your main ideas throughout the book. These may be case studies from your client base, relevant stories from literature and mythology, or tales from your own life.
7: Create an actionable program or process.
A self-help book is meant to help readers get something specific they want from life. To this end, it can be very helpful to offer step-by-step guidance toward the outcomes you’re promising. Naming a specific number of teachings (such as The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success or The Four Agreements) or a multi-step process (such as a new eating or exercise plan) can help the reader digest the content in an orderly manner.
8: Give the reader practical exercises.
No self-help book is worth the paper its printed on if it doesn’t have a measurable effect on the reader’s life. The easiest way to accomplish this goal is to include actionable, step-by-step exercises that allow your readers to integrate the learning in a proactive way. Consider journaling questions, movement practices, conversations with loved ones or even a “field trip” to test your theories in the real world.
9: Know your audience.
A reader must feel your book is precisely tailored to his individual needs, or he is likely to leave it on the shelf. How can you ensure your book hits this mark? Choose an “ideal reader” before you start writing and then make sure the book is truly tailored toward this section of the reading market.
10: Start building interest in the book early.
These days it’s generally up to the author to get the fire of interest in her book burning bright. For this reason, growing an audience—or a “building your platform” as it’s called in the book business—is a critical part of any nonfiction book journey. The Internet is on your side here. It’s put a bullhorn in the hand of anyone with something to say and the motivation to say it. So no matter where you are on your self-help book journey—whether just nurturing the dream or already shipping your manuscript off to the printer—the time is now to start building your audience and setting yourself up for strong sales at pub time.
Kelly Notaras is a writer, editor and the founder of kn literary arts. She is the author of The Book You Were Born to Write: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World.
More a more in-depth look at writing a self-help book, read what Kelly has to say in the January issue of Writing Magazine, published on 6 December.