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?

 

 

writing self-help books


 

Twenty years ago, I had the honor of being involved in a cultural phenomenon called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Remember that catchphrase? It came from a mega-best-selling book by relationship counselor John Gray, PhD. My boss, Susan Moldow at HarperCollins Publishers (then Harper and Row), signed up the book and as her assistant, I co-edited the manuscript with her. My contribution included a key question that John expanded upon, and insights into how women and men at the younger end of the baby boom might respond to some of his advice. I went on to co-edit or edit his next two books—What Your Mother Couldn’t Tell You and Your Father Didn’t Know and Mars and Venus in the Bedroom (about physical intimacy in male-female committed romantic relationships). Like John’s first book, they became New York Times bestsellers.

 

I well remember calling John’s agent every Thursday morning when I came into work to let her know his ranking on the USA Today bestseller list, which was new at the time. It was a thrill to see him become famous, to watch his hardcover book sell 9.5 million copies in the U.S. alone and become the bestselling American nonfiction book of the 1990s. I learned so much from John that helped me with my own success—and if you’re an aspiring author, you too can learn from him. Here are eleven lessons I draw from his book’s phenomenal success.

 

1. Indulge your curiosity. John Gray became fascinated by male-female romantic relationships after spending nearly a decade in celibacy as a monk working for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the fellow the Beatles took a shine to and about whom John Lennon wrote the song “Sexy Sadie”). Like many great cultural innovators, John Gray was curious—and approached the task of learning how to start and maintain a healthy relationship with a woman by adopting beginner’s mind, as they say in Buddhism. Where can your curiosity take you?

 

 

2. Research your audience as you build your platform. What John Gray learned from formal study and from doing in-person workshops with men and women helped him formulate and refine his ideas. He told me that he’d throw an idea out there in a workshop—like that men are similar to rubber bands, needing to pull away and then snap back to emotional intimacy—and read the audience’s body language. If the men smiled, nodded, and sat forward in their seats while they women’s eyes grew wide, he knew he was on to something universal. And if everyone looked blank and crossed their legs and arms, sitting back in their chairs, he knew he had to refine the idea. This is market research at its very best—you must get your ideas out there and try them out on real people.

 

3. Be true to the needs of your audience. While self-help books typically sell to women, John Gray knew how to make his book appeal to men as well, and knew that if he made it “guy friendly,” women would buy it and leave it on the nightstand or quote from it to their husbands and the guys would pick up on it and recommend it to their male friends. Sometimes when working on his books, I’d make a suggestion to John and he’d say, “But men won’t respond well to that. I have to say it in a way that won’t turn them off OR turn women off.” He insisted that his audience would want key ideas highlighted in boxes—which some readers complained about but the majority loved. He said this element echoed how he would repeat a key idea when speaking—and the audience would want it in the book, too. He’s right; they did.

 

4. Consider self-publishing first. John wrote a book called Men, Women, and Relationships to use with his workshop participants. Its success impressed book publishers who had the opportunity to buy the rights to republish it.

 

5. Come up with an amazing title. Before writing a book proposal to sell to editors via a literary agent, John Gray came up with a fantastic title—the article in USA Today on the twentieth anniversary of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus dominating their bestseller list explains how. He had the concept right—but his self-published book had what we’d call a “working title.” He needed a memorable hook that grabbed your heart, and in this case, made you laugh in recognition. A play on words is a great way to come up with your amazing title. We’ve all heard “Men are from Mars!” It’s the “Women are from Venus” that makes you want to open up the book!

6.  Persevere at building your platform. John Gray built his platform before he wrote a book proposal and he continued building it while writing the book, while it was in production, and after it was published. He used his own advice about wooing women with roses to help him woo Oprah into putting him on her show—and she did it four times. Every time he went to a city, he went into the bookstores and introduced himself. He was a tireless self-promoter because he had a passion for his message. Platform building can never start too early, and it never ends.

 

7. Have a sense of humor and lighten up. People can get very defensive about having their problems or challenges pointed out, and often have a lot of baggage about gender stereotypes and roles. John Gray has always used humor to open people’s hearts and minds, and much of his humor is self-deprecating. Watching him do a lecture is so entertaining that he actually inspired a real off-Broadway stage show and then went to Broadway to do his own one-man show! His book also inspired the movie, What Planet Are You From? by Gary Shandling. Humor engages people and brings out their own creativity!

 

8. Don’t let others tell you you’re not an expert. Many criticized John Gray for not having a PhD from a credentialed university with brick-and-mortar presence (this was in the days before online learning). They dismissed the work he’d done trying out his ideas on real people and honing them, and couldn’t stand the fact that someone outside of mainstream academic circles had achieved success. John Gray was always completely open about his education and his training—he wouldn’t let anyone shame him into silence. Don’t let anyone shame you—trust your inner sense of knowing about how much research you need to do, and of what type, before writing a book of value for a wider audience.

 

9. Expand your brand. A book shouldn’t pigeonhole you. John’s second book, What Your Mother Couldn’t Tell You and Your Father Didn’t Know, expanded on the first by going deeper into how men and women are different and how knowing about and respecting those differences will help your relationships. His third book, Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, was about the physical intimacy piece. Later, he expanded to talking about male/female romantic, monogamous, long-term relationships in other ways—and his new book will be about the role of ADHD in these relationships. Your brand can and should expand over time.

 

10. Put yourself into your book. If you take your ego and personality out of your book and platform, you take the heart and soul out of it. John always talks openly about his return to sexuality after having been a monk, his relationship experiences, and his vulnerabilities. That’s what gives his work heart and soul. Do you have the courage to put YOU into your book?

 

11. Turn your weaknesses into strengths. A celibate monk is the last person to know about how to woo and retain a girlfriend—but John Gray made his situation into a strength by using it as a foundation for learning. Can you imagine how a woman responds to, “I have to tell you, I’ve been a celibate monk for years and I’m hoping you can teach me something about women?”! People who have dyslexia and trouble reading often are told they can’t write, but John Gray didn’t let dyslexia stop him from his goal of writing a book. His ADHD may have made focusing difficult as he was growing up and as an adult, but it also gave him the drive and focus to use his passion to create a cultural phenomenon. And it makes him a dynamic, high energy presenter! What weaknesses of yours are actually hidden strengths that can help you in your goal to write a book?

 

Congratulations to John Gray on the twentieth anniversary of his USA Today and New York Times #1 bestseller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus!