Whether on a Barnes & Noble shelf or the cyber shelf, the self-help section is always packed with plenty of options. From anger management to self-esteem, from spirituality to creativity, there is a self-help book for every individual need.
But does every self-help book actually . . . help? Make a difference? Change a life? Well, that’s up to you and how you prepare the book. I’ve been honored to have worked on countless self-help books (and I’m an avid reader of them too). Here’s what I wish every author would read before starting their self-help book.
1. Outline your book already, people. Don’t skip this step!
In the writing world, there are plotters and pansters. A plotter is someone who organizes every little detail about their book and creates a pristine outline. Then there’s the pantser, who flies by the seat of his pants and skips the outline altogether. He just digs right in.
I believe writers should be both. I want authors to both outline their book and have a good dose of pantser in them so they can still maintain flexibility and creativity. If you’re too rigid about your outline, there isn’t room to have fun. [CLICK TO TWEET]
Before you start your outline for your self-help book, brainstorm the following:
What do my readers need to know that could change their lives?
What are they struggling with? What problems are they facing?
How can I help them achieve their goal or solve their problem?
What’s been said before that I could say differently—from a unique perspective?
If you can answer those questions, then your outline will come together more naturally. Here is an example of an outline you could use as a jumping-off point:
Use a quote that sets the tone for the chapter.
What’s your message? What do you want your readers to learn from this chapter?
Tell a story they can relate to. (See #2 below.)
Why do they need to know this? Why should they care? (Remember their problem/dilemma/need.)
What should they do next?
(Don’t forget your subtitles! See #4.)
Give them specific tasks they can implement to reinforce what they’ve learned. I like to see 3–5 if possible.
Reflection and discussion or key takeaways
What were the main points in this chapter? Sum them up!
For the Soul Balance Devotional by Kenasia Johnson (in progress), we used this outline:
Day 5: Respect the Grieving Process
Quote: “Grief never ends, but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. It is the price of love.” —Author Unknown
Example of someone you lost and how it affected you (story/message)
Words the reader can repeat (positive affirmation—her stellar idea!): “Give your soul time to grieve. Grief is not a sign of weakness . . .”
Action Tip: “Confront your grief. Give your soul permission and time to grieve over the things you’ve lost . . .”
Reflection Page (writing space)
2. Start with a story that captivates the reader.
A well-written self-help book uses anecdotes from the author’s real life or from other people’s trials to convey a point. For example, in Redefine Rich by Matt Ham, he starts off Chapter 10: A Lifetime Legacy with a scene that immediately grips you:
“The sun slowly rises, radiating its warm glow. Shadows cast a blanket on the dew-covered ground. The clouds awaken with illuminated glory. The world wakes up. But she has been awake for hours this particular morning, just like every morning for the past sixty years.”
As you follow along, you meet Ida Jean Mayhew, the owner of Goody Goody Omelet House. Matt describes how he had been eating there since he was a child and the love he had for Ida, who treated Matt like her own grandkid. Then Matt takes you on a journey to describe Ida’s legacy, which is a major point in his book. He teaches his readers that to live richly results in a rich legacy. If he hadn’t told us this story of the incredible Ida Jean Mayhew, would we have understood the benefit of a rich legacy?
3. Have a conversation over coffee with a friend.
When writing a self-help book, you must step away from formal, dry talk. Speak to the reader as if she’s sitting right next to you drinking coffee and enjoying your company.
Here’s an example from the coolest dude around, Gary Vaynerchuk:
“It’s very Wizard of Oz, actually. Let me get a little Glinda the Good Witch on you: You’ve always had the power to achieve your wildest ambitions. There is literally—literally—no reason why you can’t become an entrepreneur and influencer in 2018. It’s my greatest hope that by the end of this book, you’ll feel a lot like nine-year-old me as I hurled myself into the deep end of the pool and realized, “Oh, I can
f——— swim!” —Crushing It!
No, I’m not saying you have to curse. (That’s who Gary is and that’s how he talks.) My point is that he’s informal and funny here. He’s himself. Be authentic! If you use slang when you talk, use it in your writing. If you’re from the country and say y’all, then use it! Always, always, always be yourself in your writing. [CLICK TO TWEET]
4. Be clever with titles, but not too clever.
Your book title should be clever but not so clever that I don’t have a clue what the book is about. Since you’re writing nonfiction, you should also have a subtitle. Examples:
Then you have chapter titles to come up with. I love to see these stick to a theme if possible. Here’s an example of what Barbara Walters (not that Barbara) did with her self-help book for working with employees:
Chapter Five: Put the Pedal to the Metal
Chapter Six: Time for a Tune-Up
Chapter Seven: Don’t Crash and Burn
Chapter Eight: Inspect the Engine
Chapter Nine: Driving on Bald Tires
Chapter Ten: Be the High-Performance Coach
Did you pick up on a theme there? Then, within those chapters were theme-specific subtitles:
Successful Drivers Take 100 Percent Responsibility
Rally Your Pit Crew
Time for a Team Meeting
5. Repetition is (still) the key to learning.
There’s a reason we had to learn the same ole things over and over again in school. It’s because repetitive learning sticks in our noggins. In self-help books, I love to see some kind of repetition so I can apply what I’ve learned. I’m a huge fan of action tips too. Here are some ideas:
Add reflection & discussion questions (Quarter-Life Calling: Pursuing Your God-Given Purpose in Your Twenties by Paul Sohn)
Use fill-in-the-blanks sections (Joyfully Ever After: Your Destiny, God’s Delight by Becky Rosty)
Offer key takeaways at the end (Get Picked: Tips, Tricks, and Tools for Creating an Irresistible Speaker Proposal by Aurora Gregory and David Pitlik)
Give a specific challenge (Too Busy, Too Bored for Prayer: A 7-Day Challenge to Reconnect with God and a Friend by Concetta M. Green)
6. Get permissions and cite your sources for the love of all things pure and holy.
This is a frustrating one for me as an editor, because it seems to be ignored or done so incorrectly that it should’ve been skipped anyway to make my job easier.
If there is a lengthy quote, a table or illustration graphic, song lyric, poem, assessment tool, exercise, or photo that you want to include in your book, then you will need to get permission from the author/creator/designer to include the copyrighted material in your book.
You will also want to cite your sources using footnotes or endnotes. If you don’t know how to do that, watch my quick how-to video, How to Insert Citations in Microsoft Word in under Two Minutes.
For more on this topic, see Jane Friedman’s resources:
7. Collect endorsements and get a foreword for ultimate credibility.
Endorsements show readers you’re a credible source on the book’s topic. You’ll want the endorsers to have knowledge in the subject area of your book. For example, when Aurora Gregory and David Pitlik needed endorsements for their book on public speaking, it made sense for Peter Shankman, corporate keynote speaker and founder of ShankMinds Business Masterminds, to write an endorsement. He knew the subject matter and was an influencer in that industry.
Who can endorse your book? Make a list and get the ball rolling before you publish. You can include endorsements on your:
book cover (front and/or back)
Amazon page (book description and/or editorial reviews section)
inside the book after the title page
While you’re at it, secure a foreword for your book. A foreword (not forward) is written by someone other than the author. The foreword introduces the book and the author and gives the reader reasons to turn the page.
8. (Let your designer) Have fun with the design and formatting.
In Bosses Who Kill: Six Toxic Leadership Behaviors by Kimbretta Clay, the beginning of each chapter uses the same knife-boss illustration from the cover (designed by Melinda Martin). In Create Your Me Movement by Patricia Wooster (technically a journal for young girls, but still a fantastic example), her book uses a hot-pink design with a chalk font (designed by Kate Smith).
You’ll want to work with a professional designer who understands the psychology of your genre, your book’s message, and the target audience. I’m not going to belabor this, because y’all should know better by now. Yeah, I said it.
9. Think way outside the box.
I think what makes self-help books more memorable is when they implement out-of-the-box ideas that keep me engaged throughout the book. Here are some cool examples of what authors did to make their books more remarkable:
True-or-false quizzes (Create Your Me Movement: An Empowering Guided Journal for Girls by Patricia Wooster)
Definitions in their own boxes (Redefine Rich: A New Perspective on the Good Life by Matt Ham)
Coordinating workbook (Teach Your Child to Fish: Five Money Habits Every Child Should Master by Holly D. Reid)
10. Enjoy the marketing process, please.
I love, love, love helping authors market their books. With nonfiction, there are so many different and fun methods for marketing a self-help book. Here are some of my favorites:
Use your book’s title as a hashtag to promote it
Make a series of how-to videos that have to do with your book’s message and offer them for free with an email sign-up
Host a Facebook Live Q&A and answer questions about your book’s topic(s)
Take part in a blog tour wherein bloggers review your book
Promote an Instagram challenge from your book
An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has edited over 300 books and has launched several Amazon bestsellers for her clients. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, The Rotting (in Shivers in the Night), and The Suicide Tree. In her not-so-free time, she acts as organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society, volunteers at the Oklahoma County Jail, and obsesses over squirrels. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel, Wednesday, and Baker.