Writing a self-help book can be incredibly rewarding. Who knows if your book will save a marriage, get someone through a divorce, or provide a key insight that radically changes someone’s outlook and self-understanding? Over the years as a reader, I’ve gained enormously valuable, practical guidance from books in the psychology/self-help genre. Who knew there was actually a blueprint for saying no nicely but firmly and not backing down? And why didn’t I learn in my college psychology class that there are predictable roles kids in dysfunctional families play and that can be deconstructed if they no longer serve you when you grow up? Because self-help books made a huge difference in my life, writing and editing them and serving as a consultant to other self-help authors were a natural fit for me.
Self-help books, like fiction or narrative nonfiction books, take the reader on a journey of discovery and transformation. In reviewing many of the most successful self-help books, I realized there’s a standard five-part structure that serves as a reliable map for readers (and for writers who are bewildered in the face of organizing their ideas into a full-length book). It’s hard to go wrong if you follow this template for structuring a self-help book.
Part 1: Introduce the Problem, Premise, and Promise, and Connect with the Reader.
You want to identify the reader’s urgent problem your book will solve and explain why you can solve it: You understand where the reader’s at (because you’ve been there) and where she wants to go.
In chapter one, you have to acknowledge the reader’s problem, remembering that the more urgent it is and the harder it is to solve, the easier it will be to make the case that your book is invaluable.
You also need to establish your expertise and lay out the reader’s journey from problem to solution. Your book’s premise is that your take on the problem and advice on solving it is fresh. Your promise is that your reader will come to understand their problem and how to solve it.
Part 1 is typically chapter 1, although you might also decide to write a preface or introduction that will give the reader a longer version of your expertise and how you came up with your ideas (for example, if you did original research). You might also include in a separate preface or introduction a “how to use this book” section explaining the journey you’ve created for the reader—or you can integrate that section into chapter 1 if you feel it’s needed.
Part 2: Describe the History of the Reader’s Urgent Problem
Readers have to understand how they got to where they are if they’re going to be successful at overcoming any denial that’s blocking their path to a solution. In describing their problem and its history, weave in anecdotes about others who have had the problem and overcome it following the book’s premise.
You may need many chapters or just one to help readers see how they came to have their problem.
Part 3: Set Up the Reader to Take Action.
Part 3 is where you start offering your original ideas and takeaways: insights and exercises that offer practical solutions to the reader. You’re not necessarily asking them to take a lot of actions quite yet. You might simply be prepping them for an action plan in part 4, telling them what they need to know beyond just the history of their problem. For example, suppose you’re writing a book on nutritional interventions for a specific malady. There’s much the reader needs to know before putting all the information together and figuring out what to shop for and what to make for dinner in part 4. In a relationships book, you might have some journaling exercises to get the reader to self-reflect on their beliefs and behaviors. Doing this can help them see what patterns need to change.
Part 3 may be one chapter or many chapters, and as you can see, it can overlap with part 4.
Part 4: Describe the Actions the Reader Can Take.
Knowing what to do to change is quite different from actually making changes. Habits are hard to break, and in part 4, you’re going to shore up your reader’s confidence and, in a motivational voice, offer practical guidance on how to apply what they’ve learned to their everyday lives so they can start seeing changes. The action plan might be a list of actions to take over three weeks or three months. It might be a series of actions, perhaps one per chapter with explanations of why the actions are vitally important and how to overcome any obstacles to taking them. The action plan for a wellness or nutrition book might be summarized in a chart or a list, which can be included after part 5 as an appendix or afterward, or even as a chapter. For example, you might create an action plan based on an eight-week program for doing the work in the eight chapters from the action section, showing readers what to do each week.
Action chapters may mirror part 3 chapters: They have learned about five things they’re doing that need to change, and now, they’ll encounter five chapters on how to make those changes.
Part 5: Troubleshooting, Unusual Circumstances, and Going Out into the Future and the Community.
In part 5, you might have a chapter on maintaining the new habits they began to develop as a result of taking actions they learned about in part 4. You might have one on sticking to a new eating plan when traveling or during the holidays or on dealing with your family’s resistance to the changes you’re making (how you eat, how you set and maintain emotional boundaries, etc.) Maintaining changes is easier with support, which is why you want to acknowledge the challenges the reader will face as they move away from simply trying to change their own life and interacting with those around them who will be affected by those changes (“Ugh, Mom. I HATE vegan burgers!” “I know you’re trying to take on fewer extra tasks, but couldn’t you just this once…?”)
You want to end the book encouraging the reader to feel confident facing the future but also dealing with others’ resistance to their changes. Note that self-help book authors often will find that one of the chapters in part 5 can be expanded upon for a sequel.
You’ll want to follow part 5, at the end of the book, with a biography page that includes information on how readers can contact you and learn more about your work. You might set up a social media group for readers of the book or have a newsletter they can subscribe to, which will give you many chances to remind readers of your products and services other than the book they just read. After all, you may find yourself writing another book in this genre now that you have a clear plan for structuring a self-help book.
Nancy Peske is an author, ghostwriter, developmental editor, and book-publishing consultant who has had a hand in dozens of self-help books including best-selling and highly successful backlist titles. An ASJA member for many years, Nancy lives in Milwaukee, WI. Learn more at www.NancyPeske.com