structuring nonfiction


 

Have you completed a memoir, or written a lot of material, and become stuck? A developmental editor can help you figure out what you need to do and how you can reshape your material. I do this work and find it very rewarding because I love helping clients tell their stories. Whenever I can, I offer would-be authors advice on how to get unstuck in the process of writing their memoir or self-help book, and in that spirit, I’d like to share with you an interview I did with a colleague, Al Desetta.

Al Desetta is a ghostwriter/developmental editor I have referred people to when the project isn’t quite right for me or the timing isn’t going to work out given the client’s plans and my schedule. I asked him to shed some light on how he works so that people who follow my blog can learn from him.

 

Nancy: Many people are confused by what a developmental editor does. How would you describe what you do?

 

Al: A developmental editor helps an author develop the true potential in a completed or partially completed manuscript. Unlike a copyeditor who simply corrects a manuscript, a developmental editor looks for ways to help the author improve it, which typically includes helping the writer reorganize the book, rewrite parts of it, add new or additional information, cut or deemphasize parts of a manuscript, etc. For example, I often help memoir writers deepen certain aspects of their stories that they may have overlooked or not considered important. Writers—especially first time writers—are frequently too close to their experience to fully realize the true power in certain events. As a developmental editor, I help authors find the “diamond in the rough” of their experience.

 

Nancy: Who is your typical client? Why do they hire you? For instance, where are they in their process of writing?

 

Al: A typical client is a first-time author who has written a book, but who is uncertain about the quality of the work and seeks me out for objective and constructive feedback. They know they have the germ of a good idea, or even a pretty well-developed book, but they want someone who can offer a professional opinion on the state of the manuscript and ways to improve it.

developmental editor

Stuck on writing your memoir? Hire a developmental editor to evaluate it and help you write it! Developmental editor Al Desetta explains.

 

Nancy: You ghostwrite and you do developmental editing. How do you help a client decide which service is the right one for that particular project?

 

Al: Usually clients are pretty clear about which service they want. Ghostwriting is for people who don’t have the time or skills to write their own books. Developmental editing is for authors who have written their own books, but who are stuck in some way. Sometimes developmental editing also includes some ghostwriting. I’m helping an author right now who has partially completed a memoir. Some of what I do with her is developmental editing—I ask her questions and point out areas where she can improve and develop the manuscript. But I also do a little ghostwriting to help in the process—I interview her about aspects of her life, write chapters based on the interviews, and she then revises these chapters and adds more information.

 

Nancy: When you get full or partial manuscripts from a new client working on a nonfiction book, what are the most common problems you see?

 

Al: Two common problems are overwriting and lack of a workable structure. These problems often surface in memoirs, but are also true of most nonfiction books.

 

Memoir writers often tend to overwrite—they are so close to their experience that they don’t know how to manage or shape it. They think they can write their way out of this problem, but that only compounds the problem. A memoir can’t be about an entire person’s life—it has to focus on an aspect of a person’s experience. What you leave out is as important as what you decide to include.

Related to this is the importance of structure. When an author doesn’t have a workable structure or organization, it’s like driving without a map. Or, to use an analogy that a writing teacher once told me, you set out rowing on the ocean and you lose sight of land. And you keep rowing, hoping to sight land on the other side. But pretty soon you realize you’re lost on the ocean and more rowing (or more writing) won’t get you back to land. Having an organization or structure at the start helps a writer from getting lost, especially in memoir writing, where the author has access to great amounts of information about her life, but often isn’t sure what to include or how to organize it.

 

Nancy: Are there any recent developmental editing projects that stand out for you that self-help mind/body/spirit or inspirational memoir writers could learn from? Any lessons you drew from these recent projects, or were reminded of?

 

Al: One lesson that always stands out is how gratifying the process can be, for both writer and editor. People have life experiences or ideas that they’ve always wanted to write about, but all authors encounter obstacles as they try to write about them. Right now I’m ghostwriting a memoir for a mother and son who were held captive for months by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. It’s been a wonderful experience to help them create the book they’ve always wanted to write, a process that has also helped them to heal.

 

As a developmental editor and ghostwriter myself, I understand Al’s enthusiasm for helping people to tell stories that lead to healing for themselves and others. If you are eager to get unstuck in writing your memoir, consider contacting a professional, experienced developmental editor to get you back on track.

 

Al Desetta’s website, where you can learn more about his services and the kinds of books he has worked on, is www.AlDesetta.Com

 

 

In my YouTube video on structuring a self-help book, I described the parts of a self-help book. Each of these parts helps you, the author, to take the reader on a journey, keeping them engaged and oriented as they go through a process of transformation (which is why self-help books are often called transformational nonfiction books). When you divide those parts of the self-help book into chapters, you are likely to end up with more than one chapter per part.

That said, you might find that one of those parts, such as the action plan, just needs to be a section of a chapter. When that’s the case, you probably will have exercises throughout the book.

Self-help books should have exercises for the reader to use to start understanding and applying the book’s ideas and strategies. An action plan in a self-help book gives them an overall strategy for using the individual exercises as well as the strategies over a period of time to build new habits. I’ve worked on books that have an action plan at the end of the book that lays out how to employ the strategies and exercises the reader has learned (an example is Goddesses Never Age by Christiane Northrup). However, the typical place for the action plan is within the book itself after the reader has been set up to truly understand the ideas and strategies they’ll be employing.

Also, consider having a list of takeaway points at the end of each chapter so that the reader can refer back to the key ideas presented in each chapter. 

Here’s a handy guide to the sections of a self-help book and how they can be broken into chapters:

Self-Help Book Contents

 

Introduction: How I Came to Write This Book and Do the Research Plus How to Use This Book/How It’s Organized

Part One, Defining the Urgent Problem

Chapter 1: The Urgent Problem (Don’t Worry—You’ll Solve It Thanks to This Book!)

 

Part Two, History of the Problem

Chapter 2: How You Came to Have This Problem (The History of Your Woes)

 

Part Three, Preparing for Action

Chapter 3: More of What You Need to Know Before Tackling Your Urgent Problem (Trust Me—It’s Important!)

 

Chapter 4: More of What You Need to Know Before Taking Action to Solve the Problem (No, You’re Not Done Learning Yet)

 

Chapter 5: Even More of What You Have to Know Before Taking Action (Be Patient—Each of These Chapters Is Necessary for You to Achieve Lasting Transformation)

 

Part Four, The Action Plan

Chapter 6: The Action Plan (What You’re Going to Have to Do To Transform, Including Exercises You Should Actually Do)

 

Chapter 7: More Details of the Action Plan (More of What You’re Going to Have to Do to Transform, Including More Exercises You Should Actually Do)

 

Chapter 8: The Action Plan in Action (What It Looks Like: Descriptions and Anecdotes So You Truly Understand How to Apply the Ideas and Strategies in This Transformational Nonfiction Book to Your Everyday Life)

 

Part Five, Troubleshooting/Maintenance/Challenging Times

Chapter 9: Troubleshooting When Problems Arise (Somewhat Unusual Circumstances That You Might Face)

 

Chapter 10: Expanding Outward (Maintaining Your New Habits, A Pep Talk to Keep You Going, And Advice on Connecting with Others Who Support Your New Habits)

 

Part Six: Looking Forward (Stay in Contact!)

Resources, Acknowledgements, Appendix, Endnotes Citing Sources, Recommended Reading, Etc., Ending with a Call to Action, Namely, “Stay in Contact and Join My Community” on the Last Page

Of course, you don’t have to have ten chapters. You might have six, twelve, or twenty-three. What’s most important is that the overall structure supports the reader’s journey, or what might be called a hero’s or heroine’s journey, that meets them where they are and takes them where they want to go. They start with identifying the problem (and being emotionally engaged by your book!) to feeling empowered to create new habits and sustain them. The idea is to experience personal transformation and even affect the world in a positive way, applying new strategies to interactions they have out in the community and even connecting with other like-minded individuals who are on a similar path. For example, recently, I worked on a self-help book that ended with advice on how to connect with other women in a sisterhood of support for sustaining the habits promoted in the book—how to communicate with them in ways that support and honor each other, how to overcome old wounds around being betrayed by other women, and so on.)

Readers of self-help books expect to read stories of others who took the journey and had struggles they can relate to. They also expect to receive practical guidance. Your self-help book’s exercises might include guided visualizations, journaling/workbook-type exercises, meditation/body scan exercises, and practical experiments such as trying out a new behavior every day (reciting affirmations, for example).

Now, that last piece about affecting the world in a positive way might sound lofty, but many people want to improve some aspect of their lives not just to alleviate discomfort or embarrassment, or make more money or have better relationships, but to expand on their joy by inspiring and encouraging others, attracting new clients and friends and partners, and improving how things work in our families, workplaces, and communities. Increasingly, I’m finding my clients are putting more consideration into what goes into this last part. Asking readers to join your community by signing up for your mailing list or a group you moderate on your site or on Facebook (such as a closed group) keeps people connected to your brand and participating in a larger conversation and movement. We’re all exquisitely aware of how much the world is changing and how strongly we want to affect it positively. I encourage those of you who are writing self-help to give some thought to what would be in the last part of your self-help book and how you will stay engaged on social media and through a mailing list, speaking events including workshops, and other outreach.

 

"Oh no! I have an URGENT PROBLEM I need to solve! Where is the perfect self-help book for me?"

“Oh no! I have an URGENT PROBLEM I need to solve! Where is the perfect self-help book for me?”

howtostructureselfhelpbookcontentshandyguidepeskewordmasonservices

A handy guide to the six-part self-help book structure with chapters listed.

Was this blog piece and handy self-help book structure guide helpful? I hope so! If you do get stuck, contact me at nancy@nancypeske.com and give me details so we can set up a consultation.

Writing a self-help book? Start with this structure:

Define the problem

Give the history of the problem

Explain what the reader needs to know before tackling the problem

Offer an action plan

Expand outward with advice on how to apply the new knowledge and skills in the future, during especially challenging times, and when dealing with others (family, coworkers, community members) who are stuck in old patterns

(more details are available in my video on structuring self-help)

Then look at your outline. Sometimes, you’ll have topics that don’t have to be addressed in a specific order to make sense. Start with the ones that your reader will most want to read about and then delve into trickier topics that require the reader to self-reflect, admit to flaws, do extra work, or face challenging emotions.

Make sure your chapter titles have energy and give a sense of what is in the chapter. In her new book Goddesses Never Age (just released!), Dr. Christiane Northrup used the hook “Goddesses” from the title to create titles such as “Goddesses Know the Power of Pleasure” and “Goddesses Grieve, Rage, and Move On.”

Now, if your titles are particularly clever, someone reading the list of contents won’t know what the chapters are about. In that case, you can write subtitles for chapters to help readers better understand what they will find in each chapter. Julia Ross did this in her book The Diet Cure with chapter titles such as “Chapter 1: Depleted Brain Chemistry–The Real Story Behind ‘Emotional Eating'” and “Chapter 21: Essential Support–Exercise, Relaxation, Counseling, Testing, and Health Care Resources.”

How many chapters do you need? A typical number is 12 to 18 but you might have 8 or even 25. It really depends on the topics of your chapters and how much your text is broken up. If you do not use a lot of sidebars, bulleted and numbered lists, and boxed texts, your reader may be daunted by how long a chapter is–even if you have headers every few pages. Too many headers and other design elements can be distracting, but if you’ve got some breaking up the text, chapters won’t feel quite as long as they actually are.

Do your chapters have to be the same length? No. If you end up with a 7-page chapter and a 30-page one, you should consider whether you don’t want a little more consistency in length, but what matters more is whether the concept holds together for the whole chapter. You never want your reader to suddenly think, “Wait, what am I reading about? What chapter am I in?” Your subtopics have to fit under the umbrella of the chapter.

You might want to help your readers better understand the structure of your book by adding part titles. In my book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, coauthored with Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, Part One is “Recognizing and Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Issues.” The chapters in part 1 define the problem, its history, and what you need to know: Why Is My Child So…Unusual? The Seven Senses, Tuning In to Your Child, and Where Did the Wires Cross? By the time you get to part 2, Addressing Your Child’s Sensory Needs, you already understand sensory issues, how your child came to have them, what sensory processing disorder is all about, and how to better understand your child’s unique sensory issues. You are ready to take action–and most of the book’s chapters are about practical actions to take. Within those chapters in the “take action” section that makes up the bulk of the book, there are plenty of explanations of issues related to sensory processing, from learning disabilities to why children with sensory issues have trouble with transitions and grooming. But the main idea of starting to help your child with sensory issues by understanding what you’re dealing with is set up right away with details to follow in the practical, action plan section.

So while this self-help structure may seem formulaic, you actually have a lot of creativity within it. Sketch out your outline, make sure your structure works, and then start coming up with more clever titles for the chapters (and parts, if you use those). And don’t forget to calculate what your word count will be. You want 50,000 to 85,000 words for a full-length self-help book, half that for a self-published eBook. Divide it up by chapters so you remain aware of how long each should be.

Was this helpful? If you do get stuck, contact me at info@nancypeske.com and let’s set up a one-hour phone consultation so I can be your wordmason and get you unstuck!

 

Wrapping up a book project is always bittersweet for me. As a developmental editor, I’m like a book’s “midwife”: I’m happy to see the baby born into the world, but sad that my role in helping the author go from a book idea to a book is over. After a book is completed, I try to take some time to revel in the pleasure of having helped yet another author get that book written and ready for publication. Then, I take some time to ponder what I learned from the experience. One of my most recent projects yielded the following testimonial, which hints at five keys to making your self-help book a huge success:

 

“I have longed dreamed of the day when writing a book wouldn’t be so difficult. When I discovered Nancy, that dream became a reality. She is a treasure whose organizational, research, and editorial skills are unmatched. Plus she’s fun!!” Christiane Northrup, MD, author of Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being 

 

What a marvelous endorsement! I’m deeply grateful to Dr. Christiane Northrup for her enthusiastic words. She’s always been a cultural innovator and knows how to connect her message with a book-buying audience.

 

So what are the five keys to making YOUR self-help book a huge success?

 

1. Have fun. Seriously, have fun. Don’t believe all those quotations by writers who talk about the agony of writing. If writing is agony for you, you need to look at why you’re doing it and what you need to heal in yourself to make the process a joy. Does your inner critic need to pipe down? Maybe you need to say, “Thank you for your concern, but I’m an excellent writer, and I need you to go away right now.” (Do a little “goblin work,” as Colette Baron-Reid describes in her book The Map, and see if that inner critic that intimidates you can be tamed!)

2. Don’t be afraid to break with your brand if your followers have given you clear signals they’re with you. Dr. Northrup was willing to take the risk of making her latest book incorporate more spirituality and metaphysics. She is in touch with her loyal followers on a daily basis through social media (she’s very active on Facebook) and tries out ideas to see how her followers react. She notices what resonates for them. That’s what gave her the courage to shift her brand in a new direction. Yes, it’s a risk, but it’s a risk based on her knowing her “peeps”!

 

self-help books developmental editor

Writing a self-help book? Don’t skip the research and outlining! Hire a developmental editor & make the process pleasant and FUN!

3. Be in touch with your followers and treat them like treasured friends. Yes, it’s time consuming to post on social media and interact with those who contact you, and heaven knows Facebook can be a time suck! But if your followers are willing to spread the word about your work, share announcements, and enthusiastically endorse you, take the time to acknowledge them when they contact you. You don’t have to respond to every single comment, but you do have to INTERACT with your fans. On Facebook, even big bestselling authors like Dr. Northrup and Marianne Williamson will reply to their followers. Do the same and when your book comes out, your fans will be eager to spread the word.

4. Do your research. It’s easier than ever to do research thanks to the internet. Check the original source of any quote by using Google Books and Amazon’s “search inside this book” feature. Use Google Scholar to locate original studies (and use ScienceDaily.com to get a sense of what’s out there and read a layman’s version of the research findings). If you want to check a fact or quote and find that the excerpts online are too short to allow you to see the context, order the book from your library using their website. Don’t just rely on your memory about something you “read somewhere.” Check your facts and see if there’s new research, too.

5. Organize and structure your book before you get too far into writing it. I can’t emphasize this enough: Don’t just write and write and then try to figure out how to structure what you’ve written. Get clear on your chapter outline first. Know what goes within each chapter. Work off outlines for each chapter. Writing an expanded chapter outline for a book proposal, even if you end up self-publishing the book, is a great way to start organizing and structuring your material.

 

Are you inspired to get help with structuring and conceptualizing your book? Are you ready for a vision plan call with me?

Thinking of self-publishing? Should you choose the editing or editorial evaluation package from the self-publishing arm of a publisher, or from self-publishing houses?

As a former in-house acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, a current ghostwriter and developmental editor, and the coauthor of several successful books, I can help you make the right choice for yourself and your book based on your goals (and your budget). You need to know whom you are hiring (and yes, you want to hire someone who knows why I used “whom” right there!). You also want to get the most bang for your buck, and that means making sure your book’s structure, approach, voice, and concept are solid before you start line editing it. You don’t paint the walls of a house before you’ve installed the plumbing and wiring correctly!

Many editors don’t know anything about structuring and editing books, which is a skill of its own. Also, those of us who are developmental editors do not work on every type of book there is. I am well read in many areas, but in some, I admit, I know next-to-nothing! I do turn down and pass along projects I know for certain I’m not the right editor for because I don’t have enough background in working on that type of book. My clients benefit from being able to work with someone who keeps up on what’s going on in the publishing world, the book marketing world, and the worlds of wellness, motivational speaking and writing, business, health, and more.

Peggy McColl

Some of the books I’ve worked on include business books, self-help, inspiration, life lessons books, and memoirs.

 

ADVICE FOR NONFICTION AUTHORS

Here’s what I recommend for authors who want to self-publish nonfiction: Work out your outline and the beginning of the book, looking to other successful books as your guide, and then call in a developmental editor who can evaluate the material and advise you BEFORE you get off track. Write a clear description of each chapter whether or not you do a whole book proposal before contacting an editor. Don’t make the editor guess at what’s in each chapter based on the chapter titles. If you’re looking to sell the book to a publisher and need a book proposal, follow the standard instructions for creating one (you can use the guidance on my website, and please pay close attention to the all-important comparative books list). Then, ask a developmental editor with an acquisitions background or success in shaping proposals that sold to evaluate it. A developmental editor will alert you to writing issues you need to be aware of, and will guide you on structural changes you need to make. If you’re writing a memoir, you will want to be sure you know what the purpose of the memoir is. Memoirs by non-famous people have to have strong themes and titles to capture the attention of readers who aren’t friends and family members.

When you’ve gotten the manuscript into the best possible shape, hire a copyeditor/light line editor to clean it up. He or she should simultaneously create a style sheet for a proofreader to work from (a style sheet lists all the proper nouns and the grammar and punctuation rules you decided upon, such as whether or not to capitalize the first word in a full sentence that follows a colon). Hire a proofreader and ask a friend or fellow author to be another set of eyes.

ADVICE FOR FICTION WRITERS

If you want someone to evaluate your novel (or your completed memoir or other nonfiction manuscript), recognize that it will take hours just to read it, much less to read it, make notes, and correct those notes afterward. How often have I thought, “Oh, I see—now I understand what she was talking about back in chapter 2. Let me go back and change that note.”! If you want to get an evaluation and save money, create an expanded chapter outline and a plot description. Otherwise, the editor has to skim and skim to get the big picture. I was trained to do this as an in-house editor and had lots of practice reading for literary agents, book clubs, and publishers, and I regularly met with other editors doing the same sort of work to compare notes. We became masters of skimming and evaluating. But even masters need time to go through a manuscript whose entire cover letter with plot description is three sentences long! Make it easier for an editor to evaluate your book by creating the one-page synopsis at the very least. And if you can also write up a list of chapters with short descriptions, that’s even better. It will help the editor and it will give you a big picture view of your book in the process. Maybe in preparing the chapter outline, you’ll spot sections that need to be edited down, for instance.

If you decide that you really must write the whole book and “get it on paper,” so to speak, before getting direction from a developmental editor, don’t let me stop you. Just know that if you go that route, you are likely to have to do a lot of cutting and restructuring, and you may end up spending a lot more money paying an editor because you’re presenting that person with a manuscript and no “cheat sheet” with plot description or chapter summaries. Don’t be married to what you wrote.

I hope this helps! I really don’t want any of you feeling you must approach the book writing process a certain way, but I also don’t want you shocked by how much money and time it takes to shape your very raw manuscript.

Good luck on your writing and editing!

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