how to structure a self-help book


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.

how to structure a self-help book


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!