Are you planning to self-publish your self-help or how-to book?
Good for you! I applaud your gumption, and I want to see you succeed. Really. I’m a big sap and I always prefer the happy ending.
As a ghostwriter/writing coach, I see a lot of non-fiction book manuscripts in-the-rough, and I recognize certain missteps that would-be authors make time and again. They’re the kinds of mistakes that cause a reader to cast aside a book before they finish it, or forget about it promptly when they do finish.
Below, I share three. Take these into consideration and trust me, your manuscript will be better. (And if you still end up needing my help, you’ll make my job a lot easier!)
1. Failure to Define Terms.
Sometimes your intimacy with your subject can get in the way of teaching a clear lesson. You know this stuff so well, you forget that we, your readers, don’t.
For example, let’s say you’re a computer guy writing a starter manual for seniors on how to use the Internet. If you were to open Chapter One with the instruction, “Open your browser”, I’d have to stop you right there. Sure, you know what a “browser” is, but does the person who’s never used a computer?
Having an editor or even another skilled writer read your manuscript can help you identify places where you’ve taken the reader’s understanding for granted. It can also be helpful to get feedback from a friend who knows nothing about the subject and may also qualify as your “target reader” — that is, the type of person for whom you’re writing the book.
2. Sharing Lots of Examples and Anecdotes, But None of Your Own.
Some writers come to me understanding that the points they’re making are clearer and more convincing when they include examples and anecdotes. Too often, however, I see manuscripts peppered with other people’s stories, but no reference to the author’s experience.
In the self-help genre, it’s particularly important to establish your authority. As readers, we want to know why we should take this advice from you. How did you come to learn so much about the subject?
Let’s say you’re writing a book about how to use the Law of Attraction to get a job. As readers, we want to know that you have successfully attracted a job. Or if you’re writing about surviving divorce, we need to know that you’ve been in the trenches and crawled out alive.
Tell us your stories. Let us into your world and we’ll let you into our hearts. That’s the kind of book that gets read and talked about. That’s a book that changes lives.
As you read this, you may be reflecting on self-help books you’ve read that didn’t delve much into the writer’s experience. Yes, those books are out there. But they seldom make a real impact – either on readers’ lives, or on the author’s platform, pocketbook or legacy.
Think about this: if a stranger is going to convince you to approach your life differently, would you rather hear it delivered robotically from behind a podium, by the light of a PowerPoint projection — or from across a small table, where the stranger speaks directly to you, looks you in the eye, confesses his frailties and slip-ups – and then reveals his survival secrets?
Most people prefer the latter. That’s a voice they can trust.
So bring your stupid mistakes, your moments of terror, your prat falls, your misunderstandings, your revelations, and your triumphs. Anything else is just blah, blah, blah.
3. Using a Too-Formal Tone and Big Words.
If you’re writing a book to “look smart”, then I suggest you write something on quantum physics and do it for the highest high-brow journal you can find.
For all other subjects, stick with a conversational tone.
When humans read, we “hear” the words in our heads. You’re reading this right now. And it’s almost like I’m speaking inside your brain, isn’t it? You’ve given me a voice and you can “hear” me.
Remember that when you’re writing.
Imagine yourself sitting on a park bench with your reader. In that setting, would you speak formally and break out the big vocabulary? Maybe you would, but your new friend might suddenly remember he has an appointment. Waaaay across town.
You’d be boring.
But not just boring. You’d also be difficult to listen to. Instead of simply hearing your story, your listener would have to work harder to understand you, and perhaps listen more closely, than they would if you were using everyday language.
Using a conversational tone when writing self-help or how-to isn’t dumbing things down. It’s a smart thing to do. You’re allowing your reader to relax and simply take in your words. A relaxed mind more readily accepts new information. If you’re trying to persuade your reader to think, feel or behave differently in some area of life, then their relaxed brain will be more suggestible, and you’re more likely to have the impact you want.
Reading — when it’s good — puts us into a trance. Like when we get “lost” in a novel and the room around us disappears. Complex language and “big” or uncommon terms yank the reader out of her trance. Suddenly, she’s back in her living room, wondering, “What does ‘paronymous’ mean?”
When passing on life lessons via self-published book, it’s important to make a quick connection with your reader — and most readers will likely be total strangers. So how does that work?
By being honest and open, and letting your vulnerabilities show; by addressing your reader like a friend, and remembering what it was like to be at the beginning of your own journey, without the benefit of today’s wisdom.
To get one-on-one help with your book, request a coaching session by phone.
Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).