Self-Help and Memoir Books: Do’s and Don'ts

We receive quite a few memoirs, a good number of self-help books, and, unfortunately, far too many that straddle the line between the two. And there is a line. There is a natural tendency to take an inspirational story and try to weave lessons into it, but the problem is that consumers are generally looking for a memoir they find uplifting or a self-help book with actionable, structured advice written by an appropriately credentialed author. A book that tries to be both of those things usually fails at one or the other.

Based on the difficulty we see with these two genres, I’ve put together a distinct profile of each genre that may help guide you as you write or revise your book. Try to make your book fit into one of these categories without creeping into the other.

Self Help

DO THIS: Target a specific area of personal improvement. It’s all about focusing your content and providing unique direction to readers. Pick a topic like changing a habit, letting go of anxiety or fear, becoming more confident/organized/patient/etc.

NOT THIS: Speak broadly about happiness, achieving goals, or spirituality. Writing on vague ideas like “life goals” provides no marketing hook and little helpful advice to your readers—plus, the market is saturated with books on these topics.

DO THIS: Use your professional experience and credentials to establish yourself as an expert in the field pertaining to your book. It’s crucial for the retail success of your self-help book that you have a certification, degree, or career in fields like therapy, psychology, or holistic healing. Alternatively, it can be helpful to have significant experience as a life coach or professional mentor or own a successful business that relates to your content.

NOT THIS: Write a book solely based on overcoming a personal struggle. Publishers, retail buyers, and consumers are generally not interested in reading a book by an author whose sole credentials are personal experience.

DO THIS: Structure content in a clear progression towards an end goal for the reader. For example, your book may be divided into three sections: 1) Acknowledging the problem and developing a plan 2) Implementing the plan and overcoming the problem 3) Following through and sticking with the plan. Despite my trite example, the point is there needs to be forward momentum and ideas that build to a solution.

NOT THIS: Write free-form thoughts about self-improvement without a sense of order and advancement. Writing this way provides little help to the reader in solving the problem they bought the book to address.

DO THIS: Offer clear, actionable advice such as bulleted to-do items at the end of each chapter (or interspersed throughout) that build on the content and require reader involvement. This is the imperative for a successful self-help book. People buy self-help books so that they can learn tools to better themselves, so you absolutely must give readers a takeaway. Otherwise, the content is just fluff. For example, if you ask your readers to answer questions, make sure to give them guidance as to how to interpret their answers or what to do based on the results.

NOT THIS: Give your readers vague questions and platitudes like “Think about a time you struggled and how you overcame it” or “The power of positive thinking will help you achieve your dreams.”

Memoir

DO THIS: Establish a story arc. Even though it’s a story about your life, it still has to have some of the elements and structure of fiction to make it compelling. Consider how you will tell your story based on what elements you’re trying to emphasize. Remember, you still need character development, a compelling struggle, and a resolution.

NOT THIS: Include every detail of your life in your memoir. If you’re focusing on your relationship with your siblings, don’t put unnecessary details in about your college years or your European vacation with friends unless it relates directly to the story.

DO THIS: The inspiration needs to come from the story. If you’re writing an inspirational memoir, it’s the story, the characters, and the action that should incite emotion. When you read an amazing memoir, it’s not uplifting because the author is telling you it is; the inspiring nature of the book is written into the story.

NOT THIS: Tell the reader why the story is inspiring. Don’t say things like, “In overcoming my illness, I finally realized how strong I was.” Show your readers how you felt, and let them infer from your storytelling the lessons you learned. This is an important distinction between self-help and memoir, and a key place where authors unintentionally blend the two.

DO THIS: Find your hook and emphasize an element of your story that makes it unique and marketable. Telling about your struggle isn’t enough. Research comparable titles and figure out an angle for your book that is new and different from what is already out there.

NOT THIS: Write a very broad book about overcoming a difficult situation. For example, instead of a book about addiction, write a book about beating alcoholism with your supportive, madcap Southern family at your side.