writing self-help books


 

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.

writing self-help books


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 at info@nancypeske.com and give me some details.

writing self-help books


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 scattered throughout the book.)

Here’s a handy guide to remembering the way these six parts 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, And How It’s Organized

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Chapter 4: More Stuff You Have to Know Before Taking Action to Solve the Problem (No, You’re Not Done Yet)

 

Chapter 5: Even More Stuff You Have to Know Before Taking Action (Be Patient—Each of These Chapters IS Necessary!)

 

Chapter 6: The Action Plan (What You’re Going to Have to Do)

 

Chapter 7: The Action Plan, More Details (It’s More Complicated Than You Thought, So We Need Another Chapter)

 

Chapter 8: The Action Plan in Action (What It Looks Like, With Lots of Anecdotes So I’m Sure You TRULY Get These Ideas)

 

Chapter 9: Troubleshooting When Problems Arise (Those Special Times When You’re Stressed Out or Things Get Complicated)

 

Chapter 10: Expanding Outward (Maintaining Your New Habits, A Pep Talk to Keep You Going, And How to Connect with Others Who Support Your New Habits and Deal With People Who Don’t)

 

Resources, Acknowledgements, Appendix, And All That

 

Of course, you don’t have to have ten chapters. You might have six, or twelve, or twenty-three. What’s most important is that the overall structure supports the reader’s journey from identifying the problem (and being emotionally engaged by your book!) to feeling empowered to create new habits, sustain them, and affect the world in a positive way. Now, that last piece may sound lofty, but don’t all of us want to improve some aspect of our lives, not just to alleviate discomfort or embarrassment, or make more money or have better relationships, but to expand on our greater joy and confidence by inspiring people around us, 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. 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 put some thought to what would be in the fifth part of your self-help book.

 

"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?”

The sixth part, “the future,” is your opportunity to help the reader connect with your work, your future advice, and other resources. It can include the author biography page with your contact information and resources. This is also the place where appendices (typically, charts and lists) go, and where acknowledgments typically go. (Sometimes, they’re in the front, but do you really want to hear all the “thanks to so-and-so”s before YOU read a book? Probably not. Stick it in the back of the book if you can.) You’d also add an index here if your book needs an index. But for pitching a book, you just need to list what’s in the sixth part; you don’t have to include it. I definitely urge you NOT to include acknowledgments in a book proposal–and don’t put in a dedication, either. Those are final touches for when the book has been written and edited.

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

Self-help book structure by chapter

An example of chapters that fit into the typical six-part structure for a self-help book

An example of chapters that fit into the typical six-part structure for a self-help book

 

writing self-help books


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!

 

writing self-help books


“Don’t judge a book by its title”—but that’s what we do when we’re looking at books and considering whether to buy them. A title can make or break your book. Here are three utterly mindblowing tips for titling a nonfiction book.

 

 

1. Think holistically. Your title, subtitle, and jacket work together to sell your book. I coauthored a book that got all three right: Raising a Sensory Smart Child is clearly is aimed at parents (hence “child” in the title and subtitle, and “raising a … child”). The title presents an intriguing concept (what are “sensory smarts”?). And the jacket features a happy, active child that has emotional appeal to parents who are stressed out and worried and want their child to be joyous and full of life. Sensory kids often can’t sit still so the picture puts a positive spin on that phenomenon.

 

Does your self-help book deliver on its title and promise? Does it solve a problem? Does it offer "takeaway" for readers that they can apply to their own lives?

Jacket, title, and subtitle work together to make a great book package.

2. Speak to the heart and mind. A great title will make you laugh, intrigue you, touch your heart—in short, it will speak to your mind and your heart. Here are some of my favorites:

 

That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week. If you laugh and say, “Yep, that’s my kid,” you know you have to check it out, right?

 

Eat More, Weigh Less. My boss at HarperCollins, editor-in-chief Susan Moldow, acquired this New York Times bestseller by Dr. Dean Ornish. We used to joke about variations such as “Work Less, Earn More.” Talk about a simple, compelling promise!

 

Mindblowing Sex in the Real World. The author, Sari Locker, PhD, wanted a twist on “The Real World,” which was an MTV hit at when the book was in production (I was the acquisitions editor). I thought a contrast would be good and came up with the word “mindblowing.” One of the suits at the publisher pushed hard against it but we pushed back. The book and title were hits, and years later, the title was mentioned in the New York Times. That is a title with staying power! (Pun intended.)

 

3. Switch It Up. Bev West, my coauthor and cousin, came up with “cinema therapy” and “mood movies” or “movies to match your mood.” Our book proposal’s cover sheet shows what we settled on. Someone in-house at Dell, our book publisher, suggested making “cinema therapy” one word, Cinematherapy, and using it as the title, relegating the “mood movies” concept to the subtitle. We also wrestled with “girl” vs. “gal” and other alternatives (“girlfriend’s guide” was taken). Contrast the proposal title/subtitle to the final jacket.

 

 MoodMoviesOrigTitle

Cinematherapy, movie therapy for women: a vision turned into a successful book series and television show

Cinematherapy, movie therapy for women: a vision turned into a successful book series and television show. Original title and subtitle were flipped around.

 

 

So as you’re titling, start picturing your book’s jacket. Look at other books—not just online but in a bookstore. Look at their jackets. Which ones do you respond to, and why? What are the title and jacket trends in your genre? Do you want to match them or buck them?

 

Do you have a one- to three-word “hook” that works for your brand and your book? Cinematherapy spawned Bibliotherapy, Advanced Cinematherapy, Cinematherapy for Lovers, Cinematherapy for the Soul, Cinematherapy Goes to the Oscars, Gay Cinematherapy, TVTherapy, and Culinarytherapy. How can you use your “hook” within your title as in your brand to emotionally engage and intrigue readers?