How to Write a Self-Help Book

The story of how I found myself writing books has been told elsewhere. This is the story of how I wrote those books.

Writing self-help or how-to books is a different process to writing a novel or a travel book. Much of it comes down to two skills:

  1. The ability to reduce complex topics to simple 3-step processes.
  2. The ability to produce quotable phrases.

I’ll talk about each in turn.

Make It Simple

As most of us know, nothing in the world is easy. Anyone who tells you that it’s easy to lose weight, stop smoking, learn Spanish, play the guitar, or find Mr/Miss Right is – colloquially speaking – talking out of their a**.

But in my profession, anything that’s hard or doesn’t produce immediate results isn’t going to sell.

No one will pick up a book that tells them that their goal is difficult to achieve and will take a lot of time and energy. Come on, of course no one wants to put in any effort! Generation Y might as well be called Generation “Instant Gratification” for the kind of results they expect for doing hardly anything.

We want fast, quick, easy, n0-brainer solutions to our problems. So, if you, as a writer, can’t deliver that kind of solution, you’d better change genres.

The difference between a good self-help book and a great self-help book is in the ability of its “big idea” to be summarized in one unique word or phrase. For example, when you think of Susan Jeffers, you think of her classic advice to “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” Think of John Gray, and you immediately understand what it means to say that “Men are from Mars, Woman are from Venus.”

As simple as those ideas sound, the amount of original thinking that went into producing them is astonishing. The simplest ideas are often the most difficult to come up with, because they involve synthesizing a vast amount of information and reducing it into one clear metaphor.

If you’re not an expert in the field you’re writing it, it becomes even more difficult to generate an idea that has the staying power of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” or “Who Moved My Cheese?” That’s where step-by-step programs come in.

If you can’t think of one big idea, then use steps. Create a 3-step program to achieve what your audience wants to achieve. Each of those “steps” may actually cover a vast area of mastery, but as long as you can encapsulate each area in one clear word or phrase, then your readers will forgive you.

For example, if you’re writing a book on how to cure a health problem holistically, your 3-step program might include:

  1. Find out the cause.
  2. Adjust your lifestyle.
  3. Try alternative therapies.

Those three steps are so vague as to be almost useless, but that’s not the point. The point is, you’ve created a 3-step program to cure, say, yeast infections, and your readers will accept your word on it.

Make It Quotable

As I’ve mentioned before, academic writing will kill you professionally. That’s because academics use big words, long paragraphs, and lots of references to build their case. Most casual readers won’t put up with wordiness. You need to get to the point, say it as simply as possible, and move on without wasting a lot of words.

Fiction writers also suffer a disadvantage when it comes to writing self-help or how-to books. I can think of a number of motivational books I’ve picked up and closed again after suffering through an excess of flowery phrases and superfluous sartorial flourishes.

Speech writers, on the other hand, have an advantage when it comes to self-help writing. They know the #1 commandment of writing…

Make it quotable.

People love to quote inspirational phrases. If you coin a superb turn of phrase or beautiful gem of advice, your readers will remember it and quote it to their friends. That’s how books turn into multimillion-dollar speaking and consulting enterprises: through word of mouth.

If you want to know how to write great quotes, browse through any collection of quotable quotes. You’ll immediately notice several things. Quotable quotes are short, punchy, and clever. You could, in fact, consider them one-line poems – or, in the case of Oscar Wilde, one-line jokes.

Finding Fillers

Once you’ve reduced your key idea to several easy steps and written about them in a memorable, pithy way, you may find that your self-help book is much shorter than you’d planned. You’ve reduced the topic to such powerful, compact insights that you’ve failed to reach your target wordcount! That’s where fillers come in.

In this context, fillers are not extraneous bits of information used to pad out a document. Instead, I’m talking about extra information that you give your readers not because they need this information but because you have other purposes in mind. Fillers can entertain, illustrate, promote, or summarize. Good fillers include stories, examples, sidebars, and exercises.

Personally, I make sure that all my self-help books include numerous examples (purpose: to help clients relate real-life experiences with the concepts they’re learning) and exercises at the end of each chapter (purpose: to help clients apply what they’ve learned). I also like to include a Further Reading page so that clients can learn more about the topics they’re interested in.

You could also consider the introduction and conclusion of a self-help book as fillers, because they don’t really include any useful information. Rather, they serve as a way of having a friendly chat before diving into the serious stuff and then having a relaxing wind-down and farewell hug before the book ends.

Ultimately, you have to remember who you’re writing the book for: real people who hope that you can help them solve their very real problems. If you can put yourself in their shoes, understand the pain they’re suffering, and offer them some relief, they’ll appreciate you for the rest of their life.

In some ways, self-help is the ultimate “volunteer work.” You’re creating something that will help people live better lives. Isn’t that a great motivation?