How to Write a Self-Help Book: The Complete Process

Life can be pretty hard. Almost as hard as writing a book. (Okay, maybe life is way harder than writing a book.) And since life is hard, it's normal for us humans to seek out the help of others. This is why the self-help genre has such a massive audience. 

In fact, self-help is kind of a misnomer. Because when we seek out a book to help improve our lives in some way, we're actually seeking the author's help. And this is perhaps the most important thing to remember as we dive into this article on how to write a self-help book. 

In this article, you will learn:
  1. Who should write a self-help book.
  2. What to do before you start writing.
  3. Steps for outlining and writing the book. 

Should You Write a Self-Help Book?

There's only one thing to ask yourself to determine if you should write a self-help book: Can you help other people with a specific problem that you have experience overcoming?

If the answer is no, then you may want to re-think writing this type of book. If it's yes, then this article is for you!

Many people think that they need to be an expert with a degree in psychology or some other field to write a self-help book. And while expertise certainty does help by lending you credibility, it's often not as important as personal experience. 

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We tend to learn by doing, and doing requires hard work, struggle, and perseverance. So if you've overcome a problem that many other people face (which is most problems), then you may have a unique perspective that could help readers improve their lives. 

But that's where the work of writing one of these nonfiction books begins. And before you start putting words on your screen, it's important to develop your idea. That way, when you start writing, no words will be wasted. 

Step 1: Develop Your Idea

The idea-development stage is incredibly important. This is where you really nail down your book's central thesis—the problem you're going to solve for readers. Because with so much competition out there, you need an angle that is both unique and attractive to readers, but that also fits into your experience and/or expertise. 

Narrow Your Focus to a Specific Problem

It can be tempting to cast as wide a net as possible with your nonfiction book. After all, you want your book to be able to help as many people as possible. 

Unfortunately, the wide net strategy backfires more often than not. This is because people want specifics in their self-help books. They'll purchase books that speak specifically to them. So if the subject matter is too broad or vague, they're likely to pass them up for something a little more specific. 

Everyone wants to be happy, but happiness means different things to different people. A book about being happier will be too vague. On the other hand, a book about learning to be happier for mothers in their thirties will speak to a specific audience by aligning your practical advice with their problem(s).

So when you're developing your idea, dive down as deep as possible. Find a niche audience that will benefit highly from your book, as opposed to a wide audience that will find your advice too generic to apply to them. 

Define Your Audience

Narrowing your book idea also has the added benefit of helping to define your audience. This can help you develop a picture of your ideal reader. And when the time comes, you can write the entire book as if you're talking to that one ideal reader. 

This is among the best practices for writing a self-help book. Instead of focusing on a huge group of disparate people, you can write to one person, which will allow you to write in a way that will resonate with your readers. 

Part of defining your audience is getting clear on the specific problem you're going to help your reader fix—and how you're going to help them do it. Once you have your problem, solution, and audience in mind, then it's time to think about your title and subtitle. 

Choose a Title and Subtitle

You could arguably choose a title and a subtitle during any step in the writing process. But I find it's better to do it near the beginning. Because your title and subtitle will do so much to help readers find you among the thousands of other self-help books. 

Nonfiction book titles should directly relate to the problem you're trying to solve for the reader. Take the book Joy At Work: Organizing Your Professional Life by Marie Kondo. Both the title and subtitle speak to her ideal reader. If you're not finding joy at work, or you're struggling to get where you want to be, then the book will likely speak to you. And if you were searching on Amazon for phrases like “Professional self-help books” or “work self-help books,” then it would be more likely to come up because the words “professional” and “work” are both in the title/subtitle. 

This is exactly what you want from your title. 

One great resource for researching nonfiction book titles is Publisher Rocket. It can also give you a good idea if the self-help niche you hope to write in is overly competitive or not. It does this by pulling data from Amazon on four distinct categories:

  • Keywords – Brings you information on phrases and words Amazon customers use to search.
  • Competition – Analyzes the competition for a given keyword or phrase by looking at the bestseller rank for the top books that show up (among other data points). 
  • Category – Presents useful data on specific Amazon categories to determine how easy or difficult the category would be to break into.
  • Amazon Ads Keywords – Quickly finds relevant keywords and phrases you can use for advertising with Amazon ads 

You can also get this same information by spending some time researching on Amazon, but Publisher Rocket is much faster and more efficient. To learn more about how to do this, check out my article here

If you do nothing else, look at the top ten bestselling self-help books in your specific niche. Note their titles and subtitles, and let them inspire yours. 

Note: If choosing a title and subtitle at this point in the process seems like too much, move on with the next steps. Just keep it in mind as you do, and come back to it after you’ve written your outline. 

Step 2: Choose Your Publishing Path

Deciding whether you want to self-publish is a big step. Your other choice is to seek out a book deal with a traditional publisher. And given how the traditional publishing system works with self-help books, you may want to shop around your idea first to see if there are any takers. 

Like many other nonfiction topics, self-help is a genre where you don't necessarily have to have an entire book written to get a book deal with a traditional publisher. In the self-help genre, you can shop around a book proposal instead of an entire manuscript

And writing a book proposal takes significantly less time than writing an entire book. For many aspiring authors who dream of landing a deal with a big publisher, this is an attractive prospect. The problem is, it can take years of shopping your proposal around before you learn whether a literary agent or publisher is interested in your book. 

If you don't want to wait years or simply want the freedom and control of self-publishing, then you can start the writing process. And it all begins with a thorough outline.  

Step 3: Outline Your Book

Before you can get to writing, you'll need to spend some time outlining your book. When it comes to self-help books, outlining is an essential part of the book-writing process. 

Spend Time Getting the Outline Right

Every section needs to be pertinent to the thesis of your book—the problem you're helping the reader solve. While you should certainly share personal anecdotes, you're not writing a memoir. So writing an outline can keep you on track by making sure every chapter and section provides value to the reader by helping them understand how to overcome their problem. 

Most of these books start with an introduction, where you introduce yourself, discuss your credentials and pertinent life experience, and generally tell the reader why they should listen to you. This is also where you can prepare the reader for the structure of the book by explaining the layout and emphasizing how you aim to help them solve their problem. 

Doing an outline for a self-help book can almost be like writing a first draft. While every author tends to outline differently, you'll want to be as detailed as possible. Most of these books are somewhere around 50,000 words. Keep this in mind as you outline your chapters (you don't want them too long or too short).

Research and Research Some More

While you're outlining your book, you'll want to do extensive research to support your solution. Personal experience counts for a lot, but it's important that what you're saying is grounded in reality with studies, research, other people's firsthand experience, and data. 

Not every self-help subject will lend itself to this, but many of them can and should be supported with research. This is yet another way to gain credibility in the reader's eyes.

Telling a reader that standing on their head for an hour a day will contribute to their personal development could stretch credulity. It may have worked for you, but most readers will want to see some evidence before they get a sore neck from taking your advice.  

Step 4: Write It!

After all that, it's time to write the book! Depending on how much detail you put in your outline, this step could be just a matter of filling sections in and making adjustments. Or it could involve getting the meat of the book down. Either way, it's the fun part!

Write it Like a Long Essay

The basic structure of a self-help book is similar to that of a college or high school essay. You want to start (after the introduction) with the problem in the first chapter. In the second chapter, you'll give an overview and some real-life stories on how you're going to help solve that problem. 

After that, you can dive into the step-by-step guide to solving the problem before wrapping everything up once again at the end of the book. 

You really can't go wrong with this format no matter what self-help topic you're tackling. 

Include Personal Anecdotes 

Humans naturally gravitate toward stories. We see our lives as stories, and it's how we make sense of the world. This is why sharing personal experiences and anecdotes in your self-help book is such a powerful thing. 

Not only is this a way to further demonstrate your credibility, but it's also a way to get the reader to glean valuable insight from your book. Stories help us internalize lessons. And that's just what you want your reader to do as they read your book. 

Additionally, personal anecdotes help you keep the writing personal, like you’re trying to help a good friend. Whether it be financial struggles, mental health issues, or some other problem directly related to the subject of your book, readers will identify with you. This can not only help them, but it can also help you when they spread the word about your work!

Impart Your Style

As the writer, it's up to you to make your book stand out not just in terms of its unique angle on a problem, but also in its style. And by that, I mean your style. 

Just as in writing fiction, the author's voice really does a lot to make the writing engaging. Of course, the specific style of your book will depend not only on your writing style but also on the angle you're taking with the whole book's presentation

Take The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. The title of this bestselling self-help book gives you a pretty good idea of what you're going to get inside. Mark Manson's comedic voice and irreverent tone make it both a pleasure to read and an entertaining look at how we've perhaps been thinking about self-help wrong all these years. 

While your book may not be so extreme as to have a curse word in the title, you certainly don't want the writing to be dry and impersonal. Be yourself and impart your style to the book. You can bet that people will respond to it. 

Include Actionable Advice 

Giving the readers actionable advice in the form of exercises or steps that can help them is essential to an effective self-help book.

People don't want to just hear your success story (although that's part of it). They also want to hear what exact steps you recommend they take so they can get to where you are. 

Many authors do this by including a section at the end of each chapter with a recap of the points covered in the chapter, followed by steps of practical guidance that the reader can follow. 

After all, one of the main complaints self-help books get is that they’re not specific enough in their advice. 

Self-Help Books to Read for Inspiration

As with any other genre, you need to know what works well in the self-help genre. The following are excellent examples of self-help books done right:

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Writing a Self-Help Book: Wrapping Up

Being a self-help author is wildly rewarding. Helping people is one of the fundamental joys of life. And making a career out of helping people is something many dream of. Luckily, there's never been an easier time to do it. 

Whether you want to go through traditional channels or self-publish, you'll have to make sure you have a great book that solves a specific problem for people. And to do this, it takes time, research, writing skill, and marketing savvy. The best part is, these are all things you can learn. 

Whether you're a life coach looking to expand your reach or someone with a unique life experience you want to share, I hope this article has provided you with a self-help template for your book-writing process! 

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