structuring self-help


Why should someone buy your transformational nonfiction book? Because you’re going to solve an urgent problem of theirs.

Back when I was an in-house editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons and HarperCollins, I used to evaluate book proposals (selling tools used to try to get editors like me to give authors book deals). The book proposals for transformational nonfiction books—think business books, self-help, parenting, lessons on achieving success, and so on—had to make a compelling case that the book would solve an urgent problem for the reader.

When you write a transformational nonfiction book, you’re promising readers you can help them go from problem to solution. You’ll help them achieve this goal by offering them information and strategies, yes, but you also want them to feel they have to buy your book right now. It’s emotion that draws people in. Make your potential reader experience a sense of urgency about their problem and finding a solution that will end their headaches and frustration at last.

 

And keep this in mind: A reader’s urgent problem your book will solve might actually be a combination of problems.

 

My book, Raising a Sensory Smart Child, was written for the parent who wants to know how to help their child who has sensory processing issues. When I first began thinking of writing the book, there was information out there in bookstores and on the Internet but not enough for a parent like me to have a solid sense of what to do to get my child’s teeth brushed and to prevent him from melting down at the grocery store. Plenty of parents were stressed out and confused about what to do for their kids. My book would meet that urgent problem by offering even more information and strategies than they currently had. However, I knew that beyond needing those things, parents of kids with sensory processing issues are afraid that if their kids are struggling to function well (which is the case when kids with sensory issues don’t have them adequately addressed), kids are likely to become demoralized and give up on themselves. No parent wants that for their child so I knew that addressing that particular fear was important. My coauthor and I reassured potential readers with the promise that the book could help them go from being lost, confused, and worried (as I once was) to feeling competent and capable and actually helping their child manage their sensory issues (where I ended up after learning about sensory issues and developing “sensory smart” parenting strategies).

Problem and promise.

Both were infused with emotion.

My expertise was in going from where they were to where I was—an effective parent of a happy kid who yeah, had sensory processing differences, but that’s okay and even a good thing in some ways.

The narrative arc of my story was emotionally compelling.

I wanted to make sure people believed and felt that if I could do it, they could, too.

 

Increase the emotional reassurance factor of your book and you will have an easier time getting people to buy it.

 

Your narrative arc of going from your worst point to your greatest success increases the emotional factor of your book if you make your readers feel your fear, shame, and distress back when you were at your low point and feel the excitement of having reached your high point. Make them feel you empathize with their plight. That will help you attract readers who are in crisis or nearly frozen with anxiety about what will happen if they don’t fix their urgent problem.

If your readers have the problem you’ve identified but you’re concerned it might not feel very urgent to them, you can increase the emotional impact of your book by warning them of what might happen if they don’t make a change now—they might end up where you did! Simultaneously, you can encourage them to believe they can get to where you are—success!—if only they read your book and use your strategies for addressing their problem. In sum, you can make their problem feel more urgent. And you can offer the tantalizing promise of solving it at last.

 

Effectively convey the urgent problem and your promise of helping them solve it.

 

Once you have identified your potential reader’s problem or problems, and you’ve offered a promise, you’ll need to make sure you clearly and effectively convey them. Use your title and subtitle combination, your book’s jacket, the short description of your book they’ll find on its back, and copy and images on your author website to get across the problem and promise. Also, spell out the urgent problem and your promise for solving it at the beginning of your book. Keep in mind, too, that you’re going to want your chapter titles to reflect the reader’s ability to go from where they are (having an urgent problem) to where they’re going to end up (problem solved or nearly so because they’re now better informed, have a clearer sense of what they need to do, and feel more confident). What’s the promise? What can they actually achieve? What will their journey from problem to promised outcome look like as they read your book?

As you try to identify the urgent problem or problems you reader has, consider the following:

How long has your reader had this problem? Is it ongoing and frustrating? Has the amount of stress the problem has caused them and is causing them enough to make them, well, pretty desperate for help now?

Does your reader feel he has tried everything? Has he become skeptical about whether the problem can be solved or at least addressed sufficiently that it no longer bothers him? Can she start believing there’s hope because of your inspiring story that led to your writing your book?

Have you anecdotes about working with people just like your reader who thought there was little hope for change and who discovered that by using your ideas and strategies, they were able to achieve it after all?

What’s your reader willing to give up or do to make the urgent problem go away at last? Is he willing to commit to an action plan for change? Is she willing to question old ideas that have her stuck in a failure mindset?

The greater your reader’s frustration, the greater her urgency to finally find a solution. The greater the impact of the problem on your reader’s life, the more motivated she is to give your book a try.

Maybe you have the right action plan and approach that no one else has offered.

Maybe your personality, voice, and approach will make your book the game-changer for your reader because unlike other books, your book gives them hope for the first time in a long time.

Maybe your hand-holding, compassionate way of talking about their problem will make them set aside their shame and embarrassment and tackle their problem at last.

Increasing the emotional impact of your book’s message will definitely give you a better shot at having your transformational nonfiction book sell. Even more than that, it will make your book more effective at helping readers to transform their lives for the better. Believe me, hearing from a reader that your book changed their life feels fantastic. THIS is why you’re writing your transformational nonfiction book!

 

Need help writing your business book, self-help book, life lessons book, or other transformational nonfiction book? Contact me and let me know what your expertise is, what type of book you have started to write, and what kind of help you feel you need.

 

transformational nonfiction books solve an urgent problem

 

As you structure your transformative nonfiction book, whether it’s a self-help book, business book, life lessons book, or something else, here’s a tip: Don’t forget to keep a list of contents at the beginning of the manuscript in all drafts.

 

The list of contents (no longer called a “table of contents” but just “contents”) belongs at the beginning of your manuscript even before you begin writing chapter one. Why? Because you want to offer a roadmap to where you’re going.

 

What are you planning to write? How many chapters will you have? Will you take your reader on a hero’s journey or heroine’s journey of self-discovery, struggle, mastery, and triumph? If you’re writing a book of life lessons, what are the life lessons and in what order will you present them?

 

Check your contents list against the actual chapter titles before submitting to an editor and a publisher. Having the up-to-date contents list at the beginning of the document file provides guidance for the developmental editor or acquisitions editor at a publishing house, who will check the contents against what you had your book proposal (if you submitted one).

 

Will they find differences? Not if you double-checked your contents!

 

Chapter titles almost always change in the writing of a book—ditto the order of chapters. For example, you might split a chapter into two or combine two chapters. You might come up with a more clever chapter title, one that better captures what you wrote about.

 

Help your editor out by saving her the time she would spend cutting and pasting chapter titles and querying any differences.

 

Is there anything you want to change about the order or titling of your chapters?

 

Note that while it’s not strictly necessary to have consistency in chapter titles (or even header titles, for that matter), it can help the reader feel a sense of familiarity. Many of my clients have had double chapter titles similar to a title and subtitle combination, in other words, CLEVER CHAPTER TITLE: Subtitle for the Chapter Title That More Clearly Explains the Concept. If you can come up with clever chapter titles that also clearly explain the concept, fantastic!

 

Struggling with your chapter titles and order? You might want to check out my article on structuring self-help books.

 

And as always, if you need help pulling yourself out of the weeds while writing your book, contact me about my services.

List of contents self-help book transformative fiction roadmap reduces confusion

Maintaining and updating a list of contents in your self-help book or other transformative nonfiction book means always having a roadmap.

Are you feeling lost as you’re structuring chapters in a how-to or self-help book you’re writing? Did you get lost as one section of chapter one started to grow like creeping Charlie on your lawn, taking over the grass? Do you feel as if you’re repeating yourself over and over again, but you don’t know where to first introduce an idea and how to acknowledge that it’s familiar to the reader when you mention it a second or third time? Developmental editors like me help authors out of the weeds when they have trouble structuring chapters or sections. If you aren’t working with a developmental editor, here are some simple tips for structuring book chapters that might help (and of course, you can check with me to see if I’m available to get you out of the weeds, too):

First, don’t try to cram in too many ideas. Aim for five to eight topics per chapter. That’s true whether you are writing a full-length book or a mini-book. If your book is a “life lessons” book of transformational nonfiction, and the title is something like Fifty Ways to Make Your Fifties Fabulous, one topic per chapter makes sense since you’ll have fifty short chapters. However, if the number of lessons is smaller and you want each lesson to be a chapter, you’ll want subsections in each chapter to break up the text. For example, if you want to write The Six Laws of Marketing to Millennials, you’re probably going to need several sections for each law or chapter.

Second, arrange your ideas in a logical order. You might want to write your ideas on cards or simply type them into a document and move them around to get a feel for what order might work. In a book chapter, consider making an emotional connection or offer them a provocative idea at the beginning. Start with a story or some a startling statistic, statement, or fact. That can lead the reader into your first topic. You want to meet the reader where they are to get them where you want them to go, so make a connection right away.

Third, justify or change your order. Explain to yourself why you want to cover one topic before you cover another. You probably have a good reason and don’t realize it! As you justify to yourself why topic 2 comes before topic 3, you will get a better sense of how to write a transition from that topic to the next when you are writing the actual chapter. If you realize your order doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work quite right, it might be that a topic is a subtopic of one of the others. You can write it up as a subtopic in your outline for the chapter and perhaps give it its own header that is a different size from the headers for your main topic. You might even end up placing some material in a sidebar or boxed text that can be read after a section of text has been read. Sidebars and boxed texts are a convenient workaround when you have material that doesn’t smoothly fit into the main text. You might use a sidebar for text that is focused on resources (how to find a practitioner, nutritional or educational testing that can be done, etc.) or that serves as a warning, practical tip, or fun fact.

developmental editor nonfiction

 

Fourth, keep in mind that your entire book doesn’t have to fit into chapter one. It’s easy to get bogged down as you think about all the things you want to write about in your book. Remember, chapter one’s purpose is to meet the reader where they are and make a connection with them and then offer the main points that will be explored in detail later in the book. Phrases such as, “Later in this book,” and “As you will learn,” can help you cut yourself off before you go into too much detail on a topic that you want to explore at length later on. You don’t want to overdo the references to what’s coming, but you also don’t want to pile everything into chapter one.

Again, if you get completely stuck in your structuring and writing, consider hiring me as a developmental editor. I can pull you out of the weeds and convince you that you truly can conquer the task of writing a how-to or self-help book, business book, parenting book, life lessons book—or even a memoir. You might want to check out my services and testimonials pages to learn more about how I work with clients and what their experiences have been.

I especially love this endorsement from a recent client:

“I am an experienced author who has sold 1.1 million copies worldwide. Nevertheless, I got stuck on book number four and was paralyzed for five years. In one conversation, Nancy gave me a piece of advice that simplified a complex problem and actually got me excited about the book once again. Thank you, Nancy!”—Randi Kreger, Author of Stop Walking on Eggshells

Need help structuring your transformative nonfiction book? Contact me.

 

“What’s in it for me?” That’s a key question on the mind of a potential follower/book buyer who is interested in mind/body/spirit nonfiction, the type of book I work on. (Editors, like ghostwriters, specialize in certain genres.) Whatever you are writing, it should sit firmly in that sweet spot where you and your work meet up with someone else’s need or desire to become informed, amused,  inspired  invigorated, etc. When you conceptualize a memoir or self-help book based on your story of overcoming challenges, you need to remember the needs of your potential reader. She wants to learn how she, too, could be like you, and do what you have done. She wants to feel a bond with you. If you want to write a story about a series of terrible situations you survived, do that because it has meaning for you and because it can be a valuable step in your healing process. But don’t assume people want to share in your trauma. They have their own traumas to process. If you want to write mind/body/spirit nonfiction that inspires and educates others, you have to step back from your story and imagine what your reader wants to read. She wants to share in your recovery from abuse, low self-esteem, addiction, and so on. The story of your trauma should be just a small piece of the book you are writing for her.

 

self-help book or memoir

The story of your trauma should be just a small piece of the book you are writing for a reader of mind/body/spirit nonfiction.

 

I hear daily from would-be authors who want to write their story of trauma, and I tell them that if they want to write and inspire others, they need to focus on how they overcame the trauma. As a reader, I always want to know the answer to “What’s in it for me?” I hope the answer is, “An engrossing story that educates me on how I can overcome trauma in my own life.”

 

Karin Volo’s memoir, 1,352 Days, tells an absolutely harrowing tale of how she survived nearly four years of being locked up in a county jail fighting extradition to a foreign country where you’re presumed guilty, not innocent. When I worked with her as a developmental editor to tell the story in an inspiring way, I encouraged her to maintain riveting details about her painful experiences, including the shock and fear she felt when hauled away from an airport gate in handcuffs or locked into a cell with strangers who could have committed a horrific crime for all she knew. However, the story that resonated for me, and that I knew would resonate for readers, was the story of how she got through those years in which she was separated from her young daughters and family, how she kept sane and optimistic, and how she came to forgive herself and her ex-husband for their roles in bringing about this frightening series of events. The book is a memoir, but as a reader, you  will feel it’s about you and what you can do to own your role in bringing about difficulties in your life, and what you can do to change your habits of mind and behavior and let go of anger, resentment, and shame. It’s her memoir, but in essence, it’s about… YOU.

 

Other nonfiction books I’ve worked on are in the self-help vein, and have practical strategies, tips, exercises, and action plans for transforming your life. They incorporate stories and anecdotes, but those stories don’t go on page after page in exhaustive detail. I took my own story about discovering my son had sensory processing disorder, and learning how to help him, and wove it in my book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, but I kept the stories short. I deliberately tried to paint the scenes emotionally so other parents could relate to my experience. I made myself vulnerable on the page, because it’s always easier to take advice from an author who admits to her own failings. In short, in telling those stories, I was always aware of how my reader would feel reading them.
Here’s a trick for making sure your stories are as much about your reader as they are about you. Watch how often you write “I” compared to how often you write “you” or “we.” My general rules are as follows:

 

Consider using “we” to create a bond with your audience: “We parents know what it’s like…” “We all try and fail at times…” Consider using “you” to give advice or create an intimate conversation with the reader. “You can consult with an occupational therapist…” “You might want to look at how you approach your child when he’s totally absorbed in what he’s doing…” “You, too, might be feeling overwhelmed by all the choices…” If you use too much “we” language, it can start to sound as if you’re pontificating, so be cautious. In self-help, I favor “you” but will often switch from “you” to “we” when I’m concerned that the author might take offense at the assumptions I’m making about her.  Rather than write, “You play a role in your child’s inability to control his temper”–ouch!–I would write, “If our children are unable to control their tempers, we parents need to know that we play a role in that” or “We might hate to admit it, but we parents always play at least some role in our children’s inability…” I might stick with “you” language and write something like, “You may not realize it, but you could be playing a role in your child’s inability to control his temper.” People don’t like to read about their failings, and they don’t want you to be the expert on high telling them what they are doing wrong and never admitting you screw up, too, so make sure that your language reflects their need to feel connected to you instead of judged by you.

 

Never forget that you are writing for a reader, not just for yourself, and your writing will be much more engaging, and much more likely to attract followers to your work.

(P.S. Want more helpful advice on getting started writing and publishing your book? Sign up for my email newsletter!)

In my YouTube video on structuring a self-help book, I described the parts of a self-help book. When you divide those parts into chapters, you may have one or more chapters per part. However, 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 have exercises throughout the book. Self-help books 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 exercises and 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.

Here’s a handy guide to remembering the way the parts of a transformational nonfiction book are commonly broken into chapters in a self-help book:

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 Shoudl 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, allowing them to experience personal transformation and even affect the world in a positive way. Along they way, they hear stories of others who took the journey while also receiving practical guidance. Self-help books have exercises that can 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.

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