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!


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.

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