9 Tips for Writing and Editing a Self-Help Book

Self-help books are popular because they carry a promise to help motivated readers learn skills and introduce positive change into their lives without needing to visit or pay a professional. Because self-help books try to replace the one-on-one therapy, coaching or consultation of certified professionals, savvy readers and certified professionals are critical of the ability of self-help books to deliver on their promise in a way that measurably improves the lives of readers and delivers on the book’s promise.

The following tips will help you write a self-help book that can deliver on its big promise to help readers.

Tip #1: Write Your Self-Help Book on Your Topic of Expertise

One of the biggest criticisms of self-help books is that they are written by people who don’t know what they are talking about. To avoid becoming one of those authors, only write a self-help book if:

  1. you have academic credentials that prove your expertise on a topic,
  2. you have a certification from a group of professionals,
  3. you have successfully helped a significant number of people using the same steps you are sharing in your book (i.e. You have helped dozens of business owners double their profits using the web design system you plan to share in your book.),
  4. you have interviewed dozens of people who are experts on the topic and your self-help book distills what you have learned from them or
  5. you have a large body of scholarly secondary research to support the theory you’re sharing in your self-help book (This is not the preferred method of building credibility, but it is possible. Keep in mind that the book created this way will ride the line between being an informative book on the subject and being a self-help book. The incorporation of the rest of the tips will help categorize it as a self-help book.)

If you don’t have one of the five credentials listed above, consider writing a memoir that allows you to share tips based on your personal story or writing an informative book on your subject. If you use one of these self-help book alternatives, you can still add a self-help style activity, questionnaire or exercise to your book platform as a mailing list incentive while you work on building your credibility.

Tip #2: Assume Your Reader Knows Nothing About Your Topic

As explained in the publishing guideline New Harbinger Publications shares with aspiring self-help authors, self-help books should be comprehensive enough to include all the information readers need to complete the entire process outlined in the book. When readers invest time and money in your book, they should not need to look up jargon and unexplained theories so they can understand what you are saying.

Your challenge is to explain your topic and the steps you are sharing in language that can be understood by readers who have never heard anything about your topic. Even if your goal is to have both professionals and first-timers read your book, write your book to the first-timers and the professionals will appreciate it. It’s easier to follow this tip when you have a specific muse in mind.

Tip #3: Research Your Topic Thoroughly

Although you are already an expert on your topic, you will want to get the latest information on your topic to make sure that what you write represents the latest developments. This means talking to other topic experts; asking professional associations about the latest information and techniques; and scouring bookstores, libraries and the Internet for the best information on your topic. You want to have sources that support claims like “people are spending more time in front of their television than reading.” As New Harbinger Publications explains it, you also want to “See how other authors have approached the topic, and learn from both their successes and their shortcomings. Be sure your book hasn’t already been written, and figure out how your book is going to be different and better.” I call this process creating your unfair advantage.

Tip #4: Organize Your Research and Concept Before You Start Writing

Choosing your working title and table of contents before you get far into the writing process will prevent a organizational headaches later when you are working with an estimated 45,000-50,000 words to fill 200 pages of content divided into 10 chapters like the average self-help book. I highly recommend using the table of contents in the books you’ve read as inspiration for creating your own table of contents.

Tag Publishing recommends an organizational formula that I refer to as a problem/cause/solution pattern.

  • The first two chapters focus helping readers understand the characteristics of the problem and the factors-often learned ways of thinking-that cause the problem. The real challenge is taking on all this while using language that helps you build a personal connection with readers and addressing the problem-related fears and concerns readers have. These chapters don’t talk about your promise yet, but they should strategically point out all the problems and long-term consequences of the problems readers have that will make them desire the promise that is attached to the solution you will share in the book.
  • The third chapter introduces your solution. If you have a special name for your solution, like “The 7 Steps to (fill-in-the-blank),” this is the place to present it. This is also the place to share the theory it is based on and the research that supports it, describe what it does for the people who use it and why it works, then you’ll want to share any case studies you have that highlight the success of people who have used it in addition to sharing your success with using this step-by-step process or system. This chapter is where you are  really selling your promise of what readers will learn from your book.
  • Chapters four through eight are where you explain the concepts and action steps you want readers to take so they can put your solution at work in their lives and get the promise your book offers. This solution should go step-by-step and give them everything they need to complete your winning process. Do not skip any steps, so if you need to add more chapters to your book so you can cover everything, do so. Each chapter may focus on a different concept, step, key or stage of your process. Be as specific as possible and don’t share any more theories or research than is necessary to help readers complete the action you are directing them to take. New Harbinger Publishing recommends that you structure these chapters so that the first part tells readers about the step you are challenging them to take, then give examples in the form of anecdotes or case studies that illustrate how that step works in a real-life setting, and then present readers with an exercise they can do that will help them apply the information to their situation. This business book by Michael Port is a great example of a self-help book that inspires action while generating sales for his coaching business by offering value beyond the pages of the book.
  • Chapter nine is where you tell readers how to get back on track if their schedule or other life situations get them off course before they have a chance to finish the action steps that lead to your promise. Everyone has doubts and fears about trying something new or adopting a new method, even if it leads to something they really want. Encourage your readers to let them know that it’s okay, and let them know how they can regain their focus.
  • Chapter ten is your strong call-to-action that reminds readers of the benefits of starting your process immediately and tells them what their first step will be. Because this is the last chapter, you want to leave your reader on a positive note so that when they finish your book they are thinking, “I can really do this, now!” If your self-help book is part of your sales cycle for a business service like coaching or consulting, let your readers know about your next level offer and how it can help them take what they have learned through your book to the next level.
  • After you write everything else, write your Introduction. This is does not need to be long at all-Tag Publishing recommends 5-7 page with 1200-1800 words-and this is where you give a quick overview of who you are, what made you decide to write the book, and how the reader will benefit by reading it. Talk about benefits that your muse would find valuable, like finally losing that stubborn weight from the last pregnancy, reducing stress, getting peace of mind, building wealth, starting a new career, or improving relationships.  Your book’s topic should inspire the benefits you feature.

Find out how I can help make organizing and writing your book easier.

Tip #5: Start Writing The Easiest Chapter First

Now that you have an outline to structure your book, it’s okay if you start by writing your information for chapters four through eight and then go back to write the rest. In addition to the organization strategies you used in the last tip, you can write three to five questions on each chapter topic as writing prompts for your chapters.

For example, if you are working on the first chapter when you focus on the nature of your problem and your book is about helping people learn to invest in real estate as a wealth-building retirement strategy, then your questions might be:

  1. Who should be interested in a wealth-building retirement strategy? (This would be your chance to talk about who your book is for and who this book is not ideal for.)
  2. What is a real estate-based wealth-building retirement strategy?
  3. How is the real-estate based retirement strategy better than alternative retirement strategies?

Don’t let these three simple questions fool you. Experts who have a lot of research often have so much information to pour into their book that the answer to these three questions will be more than enough to fill an entire chapter. Notice that these questions use a few of the famous “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” “Why” and “How” words. If you create three to five questions for each chapter that start with “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” “Why” or “How” that match the theme for your chapter you will have all the content you need to fill each chapter in no time. You can even consider repurposing each segment where you answer the questions into subheads that help break down your chapters and make it easy for readers to digest all your information.

Your readers will respect you more when they know the source of your information, so when you write remember to cite your sources according to the preferences of your publisher. If you don’t have a publisher yet or you plan to self-publish, use the publishing industry’s standard for citation: Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). You can organize your cited sources into a “Notes” section at the back of your book using the CMOS rules for using an endnote.

Tip #6: Edit Your Book So That Your Tone Makes It Easier to Build A Relationship Between You and Your Readers

A 2010 study cited in a Psychology Today article about self-help books suggests that good self-help books follow the same principles as good therapy relationships. Of course it’s not possible to build a genuine one-on-one connection with each person who reads your book, but I encourage you to try by letting your personality come through in the book. For example, when you write your introduction and you’re introducing yourself and why you wrote the book, take your time and share your story about the major life event that inspired you to write your book. This is not a full-sized memoir, but you can still take your time to share your story in a way that helps your readers see just how passionate you truly are about your topic.

I remember Brendon Burchard’s personal story that he shared in the opening pages of The Millionaire Messenger. Brendon helps experts who want to help more people earn enough money so they can afford to continue helping people full-time. He started on that journey after a serious car accident during his college years that almost took his life. When he shared his story, he described where he was (on a mission-trip to Honduras I think), who he was with (other students), what they were doing (singing to the radio on a drive home at speeds that were too fast for them to nimbly navigate the sharp turns on the winding road), when it was (in the dark of night), what his last thoughts were before the accident, and what his first thoughts were when he regained consciousness after the accident. By the time he finished sharing his story, I felt like I had just seen the accident and that it was me or my best friend in the car, so when he spoke about how that experience taught him that life is about doing something that matters and helping others, I believed that his book was not just about helping people becoming millionaires because they love money, but it was about helping people become millionaires so they can make whatever it is they do to help people become their full-time occupation so they can help more people and build a business that can help millions just as Brendon has done since his accident.

I read that book over a year before this moment when I am writing this, and I still remember key parts of his story. What’s more important, I remember how hearing his story made me feel and how it helped me connect with him and how it helped me learn to trust his personal motives before I even learned about how he became a millionaire and how many other people he has helped become millionaires by sharing their messages. Learning how he helped others become millionaires helped me learn to trust his strategy, but learning who he was and what made him so passionate about his topic is what helped me trust him as a person and start to build a relationship with him.

In the early chapters of your book-likely in the introduction-invite your readers into your personal life by sharing your story as if you were sharing it with someone who is eager to learn more about who you are and why you are so passionate about your book’s topic. Be genuine, and write the entire book as if it were a personal message from you to a single person who really wants to learn what you are teaching. If you are a person who jokes a lot, include clean unbiased jokes in your book. If you like to tell stories, tell stories. Just remember to be genuine, because the readers who really want to learn from you will recognize when you are being genuine and will respond positively to it.

Tip #7: Avoid Repetition

Repetition can be an effective teaching tool, but don’t overdue it. You’ll also want to watch out for your favorite sayings and cliche’s that may keep popping up in your prose.

Tip #8: Get Permissions

If there is a lengthy quote, a great table or illustration graphic, song lyric, poem, questionnaire, assessment tool, exercise or photo that you want to include in your book, then you will need to get permission from the author to include the copyrighted material in your book. It can take weeks or months to get permission, so you will want to contact the author or publisher of the copyrighted work as soon as possible to make sure you are able to include it in your book before it publishes. Even if you partner with a traditional publishing company, you-as the author-will be responsible for obtaining permissions to use any copyrighted work.

Tip #9: Collect Endorsements and Blurbs Before Your Book Is Published So You Can Feature Them in Your Book Promotion

Endorsements and blurbs from authors of other books in your subject area, content experts, people who have used your system successfully, and other celebrities that your target audience is likely to trust will help your book stand out from the hundreds of thousands of published books on the self-help book market. There is no limit to the number of endorsements and blurbs you can collect, and when you have them you can put them on your book’s back cover, on the first few pages of the book, on your website and on other promotional materials.

It’s one thing for you to say how great your book is and how many people’s lives have been changed by your message, but it’s another when others write detailed commentary on your book. The key is to collect as many as you can before your book is published so you can include it in the book promotion.

Final Thoughts

These tips won’t guarantee that you will have a bestselling self-help book, but they will definitely point you in that direction and help first-time self-help authors avoid the biggest mistakes commonly made by first-time authors in this genre.

If you are confident that a self-help book is right for your message, the best thing you can do right now is to schedule “Book Appointment” on your calendar for a total of at least three hours a week so you will have time set aside to follow these tips. Then during your first appointment, start with the first tip and work your way through the process.

If you’re not sure if a self-help book is right for you, I recommend reading “Is Your Non-Fiction Book About Your Story, Your Readers’ Problems or a Subject?”

If you’d like to partner with me so you don’t have to tackle your next self-help book on your own, then book your free consultation so we can talk one-on-one about on your book. 

Danielle Fetherson

Danielle helps aspiring authors become published authors. She believes that everyone has at least one book on the inside of them that can make a positive impact on someone else's life. If you have been thinking about writing a book, learn how to start your book today with the free resources at DanielleFetherson.com.