It’s one thing to know how to get to the nearest post office, but it’s another to be able to tell someone else how to get there. If you are like me, when you need to complete a familiar task you simply go into autopilot and get it done. You don’t stop to think about each step and each decision you make along the way. But when you need to give someone else directions, you have to go back to basics to help them understand what you have learned to master and handle on instinct.
Ultimately, there is no one right way to write or edit a how-to book just like there is no one right way to give directions (have you ever received directions from someone who doesn’t know the name of the roads but they give you enough landmarks to help you find your way?).
So the following tips are not intended to limit your creativity about how you write and edit your book. They are simply offered as a guide through the wilderness to help you create your book outline (or table of contents) and start writing your how-to book.
And now it is time for the tips:
- Set the record straight about who it is for. One of the first messages in your book should point out who your target audience is. For example, one of my favorite DIY home repair books clearly states that it is a beginner book for those who need pictures and written descriptions to help them tell the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver. I’m not exactly that bad, but I appreciated the sign that the book’s instructions would not assume that I know anything. Some homeowners might be offended by such an elementary book, but it was a key selling point for me. Help your readers decide early on whether or not your book is the best one for them.
- Acknowledge and address reader objections. People are afraid of the unknown and of what they do not understand. So one of your first challenges is to help them feel comfortable with your topic by addressing their objections up front. I never thought of myself as the “gardening type,” but when I found a book that explained that: 1) I would not need to learn anything about soil types or understand pH or even till the ground to have a great garden, 2) I could set up my garden in only a day, 3) and I could build a garden in literally any amount of space, 4) I would not have to spend hours upon hours in the garden to manage it because there would be no weeds to pull, and 5) People from all around the world-even children-have managed gardens successfully using the square foot gardening method, the book held my attention until the last page because my first objections were addressed.
- Live the process then write it. You will probably stress yourself out if you try to sit down and write out the process. It is much easier to give someone directions to the post office if you drive to the post office and pull over to take notes about the streets, signs, landmarks and distances on your way there. Your directions will be able to include a lot more detail than if you had simply tried to write the entire thing from memory.
- Let a novice use your written process. Using the same example of giving directions to the post office, if you sit in the passenger seat and read the directions to a driver who is using the route for the first time, you will be able to get immediate feedback on how effective your writing is. Use this feedback to improve what you have written.
- Polish the written process until a novice can execute efficiently solo. It would be wise to recruit more than one driver to test drive your directions. Take the feedback from each driver into consideration with your revisions.
- Include a section about most common mistakes and how to avoid them. This section of your book is really another opportunity to overcome your reader’s objections to putting your directions into action. It does not matter how clear your instructions are, most of your readers will probably be afraid of failing. Based on some of the mistakes you saw your test drivers make, list the most common mistakes and how to avoid them.
- Direct your reader towards their first step. After all that talking about the process, your readers might become overwhelmed with awe of your information. Help them convert the information into directions by telling them what their first step will be. Now that they have read the overall directions, what should they do right now to put it all into motion? This may seem obvious to you, but the easier you make the process for your readers the more likely they are to actually convert your instruction into action.
If you have already written your book and you are open to editing it, use the tips above to help you revise your message. If you haven’t written your book yet and you are looking for a place to start, let the tips above by your step-by-step guide.
Remember, you can do whatever you want to make your book unique, but the tips above are designed to help you produce a book that stands out from the rest…in a good way.
Question: What is the best how-to book you have ever read, and what was it about the book that made it so great?
Image by: carmichaellibrary [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons