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



Back when I was an insecure high school freshman, I worked on a school play in the costumes department, and looked up with admiration to the senior girl in a lead role. She seemed so sure of herself, so confident on stage. I hoped someday to have those qualities she had—and wouldn’t you know that many years later, the universe would bring us together again in collaboration through our professional lives? Susan Wehrley came to me as an editing client through my colleague Stephanie Gunning when Stephanie and I were both living in New York City.  When Susan and I realized we remembered each other from our little high school and that play long ago, we knew we were destined to work together—and eventually, we became good friends. Her work and mine are simpatico, and I think there’s much you can learn from Susan and her insights into how we hold ourselves back from living the lives we desire and enjoying the success we deserve.

Susan Wehrley’s new book, EGO at Work, will be released this spring, and she is currently offering a related webinar called EGO Challenge. It will run Wednesday nights, April 8 through July 15 from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. CST and includes live Q&A sessions so you can get coaching for success from Susan, who has worked with business leaders and teams in Fortune 500 companies such as Pepsi-Cola and Harley Davidson, as well as helped build companies from the ground up! Susan  is the author of several books on personal and business success and has been featured in an hour-long PBS special on WMVT-TV in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is brilliant at getting people to play well together in the sandbox—and we all know how important that is! Moreover, she gently but firmly coaches people into finding their purpose and passion so that they can be more effective at work and at home. Susan’s a dynamic coach and business innovator who created her own company. called Biz Remedies, to help entrepreneurs collaborate with each other. I asked her about her book and her insights into EGO at work.


 I think many of us, particularly if we’re authors or in the mind/body/spirit field or both, second-guess ourselves about our egos—we worry, are we being egotistic, or should we embrace our ego?

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the EGO.  I have written a book about it because many people, not just authors in the mind/body/spirit field, have this same concern.  The book explains how I see the EGO in three ways:

1)      Little EGO, which is our insecurity and self-doubt that keeps us from attaining our purpose and goals. It tends to blame others and circumstances and finds it hard to be compassionate, collaborative and innovative with others because it is easily offended and takes disagreement and difficulty personally.

2)      Big EGO, which is our mask of grandiosity that covers our fear and self-doubt. It keeps us from attaining our purpose and goals, because it tends to blame others and circumstances and gets easily angered when things aren’t going as it thought it “should.”  It tends to push people towards what it deems as the “RIGHT” way (our way)!

Both of these aspects of the EGO come from our fear-based thinking and way of being. We are   egocentric or self-absorbed when in little EGO or big EGO.

3)      Ego-strength, is our authentic self that knows who we are and what we are called to do or say. It is the part of us that is resilient and doesn’t take others’ opinions personally, because we are not focused on safety, security, love, and belonging like we are when we’re in the other two aspects of our EGO.  As a result, we are more focused on purpose, passion, power and peace and can be more compassionate, collaborative, and innovative with others.


 I LOVE that you took on this topic of the ego at work–meaning the workplace but also in our lives. Why did you capitalize EGO in your book’s title?

I capitalize EGO to remind us that when we are in our little and big EGO, we are Edging our God-like Self Out and also Edging the Group Out because we are so absorbed in our own thinking of what is right or wrong or how things “should be.”

Susan Wehrley's new book, EGO at Work. Consider attending her webinar!

Susan Wehrley’s new book, EGO at Work. Consider attending her webinar!



How does our “little ego” prevent us from being compassionate, collaborative, and innovative?

Many believe the little EGO is being humble, but it is not. The little EGO is very self-absorbed and insecure.  It tends to be more focused on pleasing others because of its concerns with safety, security, love and belonging. With this focus, it is hard to be compassionate with others who may think differently, and to agree to disagree, which is the essence of collaboration. If we don’t get out of the scripts in our mind, how could we possibly create something new and be innovative?


You talk about being in our “ego strength.” What is that, and how does that help us to be compassionate, collaborative, and innovative?

When we are in our Ego-strength, we respect that we all have a different point of view and are open to agreeing to disagree.  We don’t take others’ opinions personally and instead of being offended or angered by a different opinion, we are curious to discover another person’s point of view. It takes Egosstrength to stand tall in who you are and allow someone else to do the same. The conversation, when it is this open and honest, can lead to an “a-ha” moment (a heightened awareness) that helps all parties realize something neither of you realized before. This compassionate, collaborative and innovative connection is, in my opinion, the most spiritual connection we can have with others, because we are stretching even beyond our Ego-strength and connecting with something bigger than our selves: our Intuitive Self.


What’s an example or story of ego strength allowing someone to achieve these three goals?

I actually tell four great stories and examples in the book. The one your audience would likely love the most is about the spiritual author who is just launching her book and falls in love with a fireman.  It starts out hot and heavy, but then he pulls away from her because he fears losing himself. Her EGO gets activated as she is thrown into the unknown, wondering if she is “enough”–not only “enough” to make him happy but to be a success in her book launch and new business.  Everyone can relate to this EGO story, as it is about how stretching ourselves to reach our purpose can put us in the unknown and back into our deep-seated insecurity and EGO-scripts. The moral of the story is: “It’s not about him. Every relationship is an extension of our relationship with self—so what is the insecurity about within YOU?” That is what we solve in the story!


As someone who writes books and gives people advice in a public way, I open myself up to being called a narcissist or egotist. And I don’t want to let my little EGO get in the way of being compassionate toward people who don’t agree with my advice and who might take potshots at me as a person because hey, who am I to put myself out there as an expert? So many authors, whether they’re beginners or have been writing books for a while, struggle with being vulnerable when they are in the public eye. Any advice?

That is a normal concern because our EGO chatters, “Little missy…who do you think you are to be an expert?!” It is not really others’ opinion of you that makes you worry about being a narcissist or egotist. It is an insecurity script in your mind that is getting pulled up for you to look at and work out. I have a tool in the book called, “EGO Workout” that helps us look at the trigger to our fear, the judgment we have and where it came from, and how to problem-solve to reach our purpose and goals.


Your books are always so rich in practical takeaway—it’s one reason I’ve loved working on them and I recommend them to other authors! And EGO at Work is no different. But if you could give us just ONE technique that is core to the book, what would it be? And how would it benefit anyone looking to be more successful with their work?


It is the EGO Workout tool I just mentioned. I had a client use it the other day and here’s what she said: “I realize now that doing the EGO Workout is no different than doing my physical workout every day. If I don’t,  I’m stressed, don’t feel good about myself, I’m not focused, and I believe the lie that the issues are outside of myself—which  by the way—I  can do nothing about! But when I do the EGO Workout I realize what is really bothering me, where it came from, and what I need to do about my situation.  It is really empowering!”


Thank you, Susan. I’m looking forward to your webinar based on EGO at Work!


And if you’d like to attend the webinar and receive the benefit of Susan’s coaching, the cost is $585 UNLESS you sign up through THIS LINK, which allows you to save $100, allowing you to attend as many nights as you like for $485.


Interested in learning more about Susan’s work and her book EGO at Work? Follow Susan K. Wehrley and Associates on Facebook

In my YouTube video on structuring a self-help book, I described the six 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 that 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 haven’t already, sign up for my blog on your right (the big red tab) and you’ll be sure to get more of these blog pieces designed to help you write YOUR book! If you have signed up, be sure to follow me on Facebook (Nancy Peske Literary Editor), Twitter (@NancyPeske) and Pinterest (Nancy Peske editor board).

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

How can life go from perfect to insane in a matter of seconds? We all know how the loss of a loved one can turn your life around, but what happens when it’s YOU who gets turned around and you find yourself living a nightmare? That’s exactly what happened to Karin Volo, who she shares her horrific tale in her new inspirational memoir 1,352 Days: A Journey from Jail to Joy. I had the pleasure of working with Karin on turning her harrowing story into a memoir that will inspire, educate, and uplift readers–a goal I know many of you have. I hope you will read her book: You can access the first chapter of Karin’s journey for free here:  volo.ontraport.net/t?orid=11608&opid=4

When I first heard Karin Volo’s story, I was shocked—unjustly incarcerated for almost four years while her young daughters were growing up without her, raised by her boyfriend and family thousands of miles away, overseas?! It all began with signing some papers for her husband when she was nine months pregnant–just a formality, she thought–and then, years later, a tap on her shoulders as she was about to fly home from a John Assaraf workshop she’d just attended in California. What followed was incarceration for what would be 1352 days as she fought for her freedom.

I knew Karin had an amazing hook when she first talked to me. She explained that rather than despair during this time of uncertainty, she treated the experience as a spiritual bootcamp and did all those self-help exercises we mean to do when we read the book–exercises designed to help us let go of our anger, own our choices, and co-create with Spirit a new reality. I was mesmerized as she told me about working A Course in Miracles, using the edge of a piece of silverware as her mirror to recite her affirmations! And when I heard she held on to no anger or regrets after being incarcerated for nearly four years, I knew I wanted to help her get her story on the page. 1,352 Days truly is Orange Is the New Black with a spiritual, inspirational twist! I’m not surprised she has collected endorsements from inspirational authors Colette Baron-Reid, Carmen Harra, Jacquelyn Aldana, Marcy Shimoff, and Peggy McColl! And here’s the most inspiring part of Karin’s story: Karin is donating her profits from the book to Not for Sale, a not-for-profit organization for helping people escape the slavery of human trafficking. 

There are many lessons you can draw from Karin’s story of jail to joy, told in her page-turning memoir 1,352 Days. One of those lessons is to take control of the power of your mind to envision something better for yourself starting in this very moment. Karin used visualizations, affirmations, and taking care of her body’s needs to keep her spirits up. (If you think you have a hard time getting exercise, sunshine, quality food, and opportunities for self-care, imagine trying to do it when in a county jail with rule after rule designed to take away your freedoms).

Honestly, Karin’s story is so compelling that I must urge any of you who are looking to write an inspirational memoir, or to write a self-help book and create an author platform around your story of survival and triumph over hardship, to read her book. Do something good for yourself and help a great cause. Enjoy a free sample of 1,352 Days NOW! volo.ontraport.net/t?orid=11608&opid=4


Inspirational memoir 1,352 Days is like Orange Is the New Black with a spiritual, inspirational twist.

Inspirational memoir 1,352 Days is like Orange Is the New Black with a spiritual, inspirational twist.

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.

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