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Self-Help for Self-Help: 5 Mistakes New Writers Make in Self-Help Books

November 2, 2020

A self-help book should be thoughtful, straightforward and reasoned, with plenty of case histories and examples, as well as an inspiring narrative voice. Yet, in my 30 years as a trade book editor, I have found that, no matter how efficacious the program or credentialed the author, it is a rare thing indeed to find a self-help manuscript that is written with clarity and depth and with just the right amount of encouragement and spirit.

You would think that with a book that is meant to be prescriptive rather than dramatic, the writing and even the structure is less important than in a novel. But this is not true. The reader has to be engaged, convinced in a credible manner, and, yes, entertained. So many professionals and experts who really know their material end up alienating their readers. That’s why it is almost always a good idea to have a co-writer or ghostwriter attached to the project. Here are five mistakes I have run across in editing self-help.

Mistake #1: Heavy selling or promoting

A book is not a sales pitch. One of the most common mistakes I have found is that many writers will focus on selling or promoting their program or belief system to the point where the actual content comes too late. Of course it is okay to tell the reader how great the program is and how well it works – in micro-doses.

But when the sell replaces content, the book is in trouble. You might be surprised at how often, when reading a manuscript, the author’s voice gets stuck being promotional rather than professional. Yes, we do want to present a promise to the reader and even to say how terrific the result will be, but then we want to discuss in a professional manner exactly what that entails. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But so many writers fall into the trap of talking too much about how great an idea is rather than about the idea itself.

Mistake #2: Telling instead of showing

This chestnut it is by far the most common error I have run across. In fiction, “Show, don’t tell” translates to dramatizing a plot point or scene rather than narrating it or talking about it offstage. In nonfiction, and self-help specifically, it means, use examples and tell stories.

So many manuscripts I’ve read will discuss a program in the abstract for pages or even an entire chapter with not one “For instance…” Manuscripts like this cry out for a to work with the author to supply stories and anecdotes that illustrate a situation or problem and, importantly, to provide a solution. These anecdotes need to be written like a condensed short story with a beginning, middle, and satisfying end.

Mistake #3: Too much repetition

A bestselling self-help author once told me that the key to writing successful self-help is for each chapter to “Promise, present, explain. Promise, present, explain. Repeat.” It is fine to repeat a format for every chapter. In fact some readers prefer the simplicity of that. But that is different from saying the same thing in every chapter.

If there is only one idea, then the material might be better suited to a magazine article rather than a book. There might be one program, but there needs to be more than one idea.

Mistake #4: Lack of clarity

While being too on the nose or condescendingly simple can be deadly dull, so many writers I’ve worked with do the opposite. They cram in so many things they know that the text ends up being confusing and unclear. Or they may use one obscure term to explain another. (This seems to be mostly true with doctors!)

But more often, in trying to explain something, they will casually drop a concept into the text that requires at least its own section, if not its own chapter. For example, here is a sentence from a how-to book on overcoming obstacles to success:

“Then, twelve years after my divorce, I got laid off from my six-figure job as a VP/GM for an advertising agency that specialized in recruitment.”

That seems pretty straightforward, right? Except that this is the first time the reader has heard of the author’s divorce or that she had a job, six-figure or not. Further, what is an advertising agency that specializes in recruitment? It also might be a good idea to tell the reader what a VP/GM is as well. (The reader could probably figure it out, but it is not especially clear.)

Her point in this chapter was how she reacted to her getting laid off and where she went from there. That is great, but a few paragraphs on how she got there, that she had been married and then divorced, might help the reader to get involved in what later happened. Authors tend to get involved in what they want to say and often forget that the reader needs to have it all laid out.

Mistake #5: Lack of outline

Chapters need to be linear. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? It’s not. Unless you are Noam Chomsky, you do not want the writer to go off on tangents that have only a limited relevance to their main topic. Each chapter must have its own agenda, and only that agenda.

It is perfectly fine to say, “…which we will explore in greater detail in Chapter 6.” Many writers have trouble sticking to the point. They veer off and only come back when they have lost the reader. While fiction can be more stream-of-consciousness, most nonfiction, and especially self-help, requires an outline. Working with an author on a successful outline before beginning writing is essential in order to avoid having a jumpy, hodge-podge of a book.

I hope these general pointers are useful. It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those of you reading this, but many highly intelligent, successful people have trouble organizing their thoughts and writing cohesive, lively prose or writing it for more than the length of an article. That’s where you, and thank goodness you are there, come in!


  • Andrea Stein

    Andrea Stein has been a general trade editor for over 30 years. She was an editor and Senior Editor at St. Martin’s Press, New American Library, and the Literary Guild. In her career, she has read, analyzed, and edited thousands of books and manuscripts, both fiction and nonfiction, commercial and literary. Originally based in New York, she currently resides in Los Angeles, home to many successful professionals who really need writers.

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