When Self-Help Writing Fails: Avoiding the Temptation of Personal Journaling

Today I received a request from a successful relationship counselor, asking me for a quote on what it would cost to have me edit her book. But the book was not ready for editing yet. Like many nonfiction manuscripts I receive, its problems were too pervasive. The author, although a very intelligent person, didn’t understand the style a self-help book needs to be written in. She was also blind to a serious mistake she was making—one I find in at least half of the self-help manuscripts that come across my desk.

Because this writer’s problems are so common among aspiring nonfiction authors, I’ve decided to share my reply to her with you, my blog readers. Here’s what I wrote to this lady:

“Let me tell you about the big problem I’m finding in this manuscript: the whole first half or more is your personal story. You only move into giving the reader real advice toward the last part of the book. And that advice is what consumers of self-help books come to get—not an author’s detailed personal history. It’s okay to have SOME personal story, peppered throughout a self-help book by way of example, but your whole first half appears to be almost solid personal story.

“That’s a no-no in this sort of writing, because readers want the author to ‘get to the point.’ There are so many self-published books on the market, where writers just complain ad infinitum about their unhappy childhoods, that readers are worried about accidentally purchasing one of these diatribes, because they’ve been burned by making that mistake before.

“Diatribes are painful to read, and boring, to everyone except the person writing them. To the writer, the diatribe is useful, because they’re working through processing their own personal experience, and healing their spirit. But readers want to read about the wisdom they came to at the end of their challenging experience, not be taken, blow by blow, through all the pain that happened to the writer along the way.

“Your manuscript differs from a diatribe, a diary-like catharsis, because eventually you do get around to presenting your ideas on how to have a healthy relationship. But readers will never realize that fact, because they’ll stop reading long before they get that far. They’ll toss the book aside thinking they’re reading someone’s depressing-sounding journal, instead of the useful self-help book they thought they were buying.

“Journaling is beneficial in helping a person process the pain of their past, of course. But what’s useful as personal therapy is not the same as what’s useful in self-help genre writing. Journaling focuses on personal catharsis, helping the writer heal himself via the writing. It’s a place to dump it all out and walk away free of the pain. And because it helps a person to do that, journaling has value.

“But readers of self-help don’t want to be dumped on by someone else’s pain. They’ve got enough to handle of their own. They don’t want to read what sounds like someone else’s personal diary and catharsis-in-progress. That makes them feel overwhelmed. Instead, they want the writer to focus on the message, to summarize their past (if they’re going to mention it at all)—not deal it out to them, wound by painful wound.

“So if you truly want this book to succeed, I advise you to regard what you have here as a rough first draft. Re-organize the book by idea or by therapeutic tip. Create an outline for the book, chapter by chapter. Then rewrite the idea or therapeutic-advice parts of the book in that context, merely inserting occasional and BRIEF examples from your own life, and discarding the rest of your personal narrative. If you truly want to tell the story of your life, you can do that, but make it a memoir — another genre, and another book. Trying to combine self-help and memoir writing doesn’t work. (See this article on memoir writing.)

“In addition, when you do the rewrite, try to insert examples from other people’s lives (your clients?), changing the details, of course, to protect their identity. For every example you give from your own life, you should give at least three examples from the lives of other people. Otherwise the book dumps down into personal journaling again, and loses its self-help focus. It’s important that the book not be ‘all about you,’ which is how it comes off at present. Make it not about you, but about the reader.

“And instead of telling readers, ‘I do such-and-such in a therapy session,’ talk directly to the reader as if she’s in a therapy session with you. DO with her, in the book, what you do in the therapy session, rather than talking about what you do in therapy sessions in the third person. Write in the second person, TO the reader, when you’re giving advice, rather than using third person (talking about how you give advice to other people).

“Most self-help authors include exercises with each chapter (generally at chapter’s end), so the reader can have a direct experience much like they’d have in a therapy session (or as close to that as can be approximated in a book). Exercises would elevate the value of what you are offering.

“To get the feel for the style you should be writing in, I suggest you visit a bookstore and go to the self-help section. Randomly pick up some books off the shelves for examples of what I’m talking about here. Notice how the books focus on the reader, not on the author, and use examples sparingly, never making the examples stories about the author exclusively.

Observe how the author speaks directly to the reader, writing in ‘you’ sentences and ‘we’ sentences—which appear in the writing way more than ‘I’ sentences. Notice how the chapters are both named and numbered, and organized sequentially to present the ideas or advice in a certain, preordained order. There’s no ‘writing off the top of the head.’ Rather, there’s a logic to the presentation, and this is achieved by starting with an outline. (For how to outline, see this article.)

“Bottom line: this book isn’t ready for editing yet, not if you want it to really be a success. You have an important message to share, but right now it’s buried beneath all sorts of stuff that obscures it. A major rewrite is necessary.

“I hope these observations were helpful. Once you work the manuscript into better shape, I’d be happy to take another look and to give you a quote for an edit.”






Jessi Rita Hoffman …. book editing by an industry professional