Friday, January 19, 2024

Self-Help Stumbling Blocks and How to Overcome Them #4: Insufficient Materials

Having a great idea for a self-help, psychology, or spirituality book is one thing. Having enough material to write that book--in the form of research, anecdotes, thought experiments, and personal stories--is quite another.

Many times, writers set off on an epic quest to the top of the mountain, only to discover that they only packed enough snacks to make it to the bottom of the tree line.

Stumbling Block #4: Insufficient Materials

If you dashed off Chapter One, outlined Chapter Two, made a few notes for Chapter Three, and have a blank page for Chapter Four, you either have insufficient materials to do your book idea justice, or you may simply not know how to expand the materials you do have into a book.

Although self-help, psychology, and spirituality books vary in length, 30,000 words is usually the minimum, with 40,000-50,000 words much more common. Many first-time authors feel frustrated and confused when they type out their epic book idea, only to find themselves running out of material after five or six thousand words.

Expand Your Scope

Is the scope of your book too limited? For example, let's say your first idea is to write a book about conquering insomnia by cutting out caffeine.

If your entire message is "stop drinking coffee and you'll sleep better," it's no surprise you'll have a hard time writing a compelling full-length book, no matter how much research you bring in, or how many anecdotes and case studies you share!

If you expand the scope of your book to be about the benefits of cutting out caffeine, you can now write about lowered anxiety and lower blood pressure, not just better sleep. 

An experienced ghostwriter (like me!) can help you find an appropriate scope for your book.

Once you've established the proper scope for your book, you can apply these techniques to each chapter to make your material go further:

Break Things Down

Can the actions in your book be broken down into smaller steps? Can the overarching principles be broken down into a set of concepts? 

Give Examples

Are you supporting your main points with enough anecdotes, case studies, thought experiments, and other examples? Are you building a convincing case for your arguments, or just stating them and moving on?

Bring In Research

Are you sharing pertinent and reputable research that supports your point? Are there interesting studies your readers might want to know about?

When you find the right scope, and apply simple techniques to get the most out of your material, you'll never have a hard time hitting your word count again.

Are you writing a self-help/psychology or spirituality book? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me, and we'll chat about ways to maximize your book's potential to change readers' lives.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Self-Help Stumbling Blocks and How to Overcome Them, #3: Missing Pain Point

All too many self-help, psychology, and spirituality manuscripts end up in the dustbin because their authors never identified a clear pain point. Indeed, in my years working in non-fiction publishing, I’ve lost count of the number of self-help submissions that might as well have these titles:

Random Insights I’ve Collected Over My Years As a Therapis

•Astonishing Spiritual Experiences I Have Had

•I Know I Want to Write Something Mystical About Nature But I’m Not Sure What


Stumbling Block #3: Missing Pain Point

A book ends up vague and unfocused when you have a mountain of material that you’re determined to turn into a book—research, case studies, anecdotes, personal experiences—but you haven’t spent enough time defining your book’s pain point and accompanying promise. 

In general, readers reach for self-help, psychology, and spirituality books because they are trying to overcome an urgent problem in their lives. Your mountain of materials needs to help them solve that problem, or they'll pick up a different book.

Identifying Your Pain Point

You should be able to state your book's pain point in a single sentence: "My book will help/teach/show readers how to do/achieve/overcome/be/start/stop BLANK."

For example, My book will help readers conquer insomnia and sleep eight hours a night.

Although your book may cover a dozen or more facets of insomnia, from childhood trauma to caffeine addiction to light pollution, there is only a single overarching pain point, and that is the reader's difficulty falling and staying asleep.

Filtering For Your Pain Point

Let's say you've realized your book's pain point concerns insomnia and how to overcome it.

Now, sift through your mountain of materials, selecting only those stories, anecdotes, and research tidbits that directly and powerfully relate to solving this problem for your readers.

If it doesn't relate to solving the problem, it goes.

When you identify a clear pain point, then put every single word into the service of solving that pain point, you get a book which is clear, focused, compelling, and likely to have a meaningful impact on your readers' lives.

Are you writing a self-help/psychology or spirituality book? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me, and we'll chat about ways to maximize your book's potential to change readers' lives.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Self-Help Stumbling Blocks and How to Overcome Them, #2: Overgeneralizing From Your Own Experience

In yesterday's post, we talked about the pitfalls of making your self-help or psychology book overly autobiographical. 

Today, I want to talk about another potential downside of drawing too heavily on your personal experience, and that's the risk of overgeneralizing: assuming the tools and techniques that worked for you will work for everyone else (or at least for a whole lot of people). 

Stumbling Block #2: Overgeneralizing From Your Own Experience

Overgeneralizing from your own experience is a very understandable tendency: after all, if doing a certain thing really, really helped you, of course you’d want to shout it from the rooftops! 

But drawing too many conclusions based solely on your own experience can lead to a book which feels unprofessional, limited in scope, or only applicable to people who are exactly like you. 

One Size Rarely Fits All

Overgeneralizing from your own experience can lead to embarrassing mistakes: for example, a lifestyle change that worked wonders for you might be harmful to another’s person health, or it might simply be unaffordable or out of reach for people who don't have the same amount of time, resources, connections, or sheer good luck as you do.

"But It Worked For Meeee!"

If your book is solely based on your personal experiences with a certain self-help or spiritual practice, it might leave readers wondering if there’s really a scientific basis to your claims, or if you’re making it all up. You also run the risk of writing a memoir rather than a true self-help book (see Stumbling Block #1).

Drawing solely from your own experience can make readers skeptical that your advice is truly universal—if you’re the only guinea pig in the experiment, why should they trust that your techniques will work for them?

Solution: Broaden Your Book's Scope

The solution to this common stumbling block is to bring in research, anecdotes, and other supporting material to bolster your claims--and to always test your advice on a wide range of subjects before assuming it will work for anyone and everyone.

• In 10% Happier, Dan Harris tells the story of how learning to meditate transformed his life, while backing up this personal experience with fascinating research and stories of his conversations with experts in the field. 

•In Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, Mira Kirschenbaum includes a broad range of anecdotes from her therapy clients, showing how a diverse selection of people successfully applied her techniques. 

•In The Anxiety Toolkit, Dr. Alice Boyles makes the occasional reference to tips she discovered in other authors’ books (with full attribution, of course!). 

These authors are all essentially saying, “These things work! But don’t take my word for it—look at what all these other experts have to say about it.”

If your book is tunnel-visioned on your own experience, you can broaden its scope by using one of the following techniques:


-Round up some more guinea pigs. Can you test out your practices on willing students, clients, and friends who agree to let you write about the results? Do you have the humility to adapt your book if you discover that the results you promised aren’t as universal as you thought?

-Include research from reputable sources. More science is usually a good thing. Can you bolster your claims with hard data?

-Interview experts in the field. You don’t need to be a journalist to reach out and ask questions. Have other writers, thinkers, and experts arrived at similar conclusions to you? Where do their opinions conflict with yours?

-Acknowledge how different factors like gender, race, geography, neurotype, or socioeconomic status might cause a reader’s mileage to vary from your own. 


Are you writing a self-help/psychology or spirituality book? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me, and we'll chat about ways to maximize your book's potential to change readers' lives. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Self-Help Stumbling Blocks and How to Overcome Them, #1

Writing great self-help and psychology books doesn't have to be hard. In fact, once you've mastered a few basic techniques, it's incredibly easy. 

However, there are a handful of common pitfalls that can easily derail first-time authors. 

As an editor and ghostwriter, I see these problems all the time, turning what could otherwise be life-changing books into unfinished and/or unreadable manuscripts that never see the light of day.

In this series, we'll look at self-help stumbling blocks and how to overcome them.

Stumbling Block #1: Your Book is Overly Autobiographical

Think about your favorite self-help or psychology book. Does the author go on and on about their life, exhaustively detailing every moment that led to their great discovery, realization, or awakening? 

Or do they highlight a few key scenes and turning points, using their personal stories as a vehicle for explaining and illustrating the book’s pain point and promise? 

Or do they refrain from using personal stories at all?

Many first-time self-help authors make the mistake of putting way too much of their life story into their book, distracting readers from their book's purpose. In extreme cases, you may find yourself writing a memoir, not a self-help book--and no, a hybrid of the two is rarely a good idea.

When used appropriately, personal stories can greatly enhance your book's impact. But how much is too much?

Option 1: No Personal Stories

The author and spiritual teacher Don Miguel Ruiz had a fascinating life which is surely worthy of a memoir. However, his mega-bestselling book The Four Agreements has essentially zero autobiographical content. In fact, he barely uses the word “I” at all!

By leaving out his life story, Ruiz lets his teachings speak for themselves--a confident and powerful position that helped propel this book to incredible success.

Option 2: Personal Stories with a Purpose

In contrast, another mega-bestseller, Dan Harris’ 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, makes liberal use of the author’s life story—opening with a dramatic scene in which the author has a panic attack on live TV, and sprinkling further anecdotes throughout the book.

Harris selects these anecdotes carefully, making sure that each one supports the book's mission of educating readers on how to use mindfulness to live better lives. He doesn't throw in a story just because it's exciting or he's emotionally attached to sharing it--he can save those for a memoir or legacy book down the road. Instead, he makes sure that every personal story is fulfilling the specific purpose of showing how mindfulness can change your life.

Remember Your Reader

There’s nothing wrong with writing a memoir if that’s what you’re setting out to do. But if you’re writing a self-help book, the personal anecdotes you include need to be carefully selected to illustrate the pain point and the promise—and the ones that don’t need to go. 

Remember, readers aren’t picking up your self-help book because they want to know your life story—they’re picking it up because they want to solve their own problems. A self-help book is not a place to tell the story of your life, except as it pertains to a specific goal related to the pain point.

Yes, this usually means leaving out many fascinating stories. Yes, it’s hard. But by disciplining yourself to put the reader’s needs first, you’ll get out of the overly-autobiographical trap and write a great self-help book!