Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Lack of Examples in Self-Help Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is a lack of examples in self-help writing.
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Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.

(75 grammar rules for writers.)

Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is a lack of examples in self-help writing.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Lack of Examples in Self-Help Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Lack of Examples in Self-Help Writing

Before I worked at Writer’s Digest, I was an editor/book coach for authors of prescriptive nonfiction (also known as self-help). I helped over 100 authors achieve their dreams of being Amazon bestsellers! Their works spanned topics from navigating familial and romantic relationships to starting a new career to learning a new skill.

In all my time reviewing these manuscripts, one of the biggest things missing from first draft self-help books was usually physical examples. The author would tell the reader the problem and provide the tools to solve it, but they tended not to show the reader how they could implement these fixes in the real world. This is because authors are writing from a place of authority, and since they already know how to solve the problem, they tend to skip over some important pieces that will help the reader, who is not an authority on the subject, put the whole puzzle together.

The important thing to remember about this genre is that your reader is coming to you to solve a specific problem. If they aren’t clear about how to solve the problem, they will get frustrated and quit more often than not.

I like to compare it to taking a child fishing. If a child is hungry, you tell them that the way to solve that problem every time it arises is to catch a fish for dinner.

“But I don’t know how!” they’d say.

Anticipating this, you’d pack up your fishing gear and take them to the stream. You’d lay the reel, the line, the pole, and the bait in front of them. “You now have everything you need to catch a fish,” you’d say. “Good luck.”

The child knows their problem (hunger) and solution (catch a fish), and they even have the tools needed to succeed, but they don’t have the specific direction they need to put the tools into action. They could attempt to put the tools together and cast, and they might even succeed, but more likely, they will either be too frustrated to start or only try for a little while before quitting.

Instead, what self-help authors need to do is give readers specific instruction. Take them to the stream, give them the tools, and then walk them through how to assemble the tools and cast the line—that’s the specific direction needed to understand how to get from the problem to the solution with the tools available. By taking it a step further and demonstrating how to assemble the tools and cast the line, you’re giving them a real-world example of how to do it well, which gives them an even bigger boost of self-confidence and resolve to ensure they’re following your program.

(5 Tips for Writing a Self-Help Book Backed by Strong Research)

Coming away from the stream and onto the page, let’s pretend that we’re writing a book called Wedding Planning Zen: The Couple’s Guide to Budgeting, Organizing, and Styling Their Perfect Day (this is my own creation, so don’t worry about copyright!). In this book, the first chapter is about budgeting. Here’s an example of the chapter outline without specific examples included:

Chapter focus: Asking for family’s financial assistance with wedding costs

Problem: Unsure how to approach family when it comes to money

Fix: Ask them what they’d be okay chipping in for

When you go to write this section, it might come out looking something like this:

Ask Them if They’re Willing to Cover a Specific Cost

This is a great way for you to see what your parents can afford and what they’re willing to put money toward. It’s also a great way to avoid tension between you and your parents; no more grumbling about their money going toward something they don’t deem important.

It is important, however, to ensure that your parents understand what’s important to you. Just because they’re paying for something doesn’t mean they should decide how it’s done.

Managing expectations is really important because the average price of a wedding has changed significantly since our parents got married. The wedding industry is a money-making monster, and parents can be easily baffled and caught off guard. You don’t want to spend the days leading up to your wedding combating the “When I got married” attitude. Let’s be real, folks, it’s not 1980 anymore.

Now, you might be the kind of person who is all set just after reading this. You might even know exactly how to approach your family based solely on the one-sentence fix in the outline.

However, most people coming to a wedding planning guide don’t know how to do this on their own; if they did, they wouldn’t need the guide.

Mistake Fix: Insert Real-World Examples

To continue thinking about the readers of our Wedding Zen book, here’s a chapter outline that includes specific examples:

Chapter focus: Asking for family’s financial assistance with wedding costs

Problem: Unsure how to approach family when it comes to money

Fix: Ask them what they’d be okay chipping in for

Examples: Talk about how I approached my family and then give them sample language for different conversations that could happen

When you write this section, it might come out to something like this:

Ask Them if They’re Willing to Cover a Specific Cost

This is my favorite strategy because it’s very clear without being overbearing. For our wedding, my parents were very honest that they did not want to pay for alcohol because they thought it was a waste of money. Since having alcohol at the reception was important to my in-laws, my fiancé and I asked them if they would cover the cost, and they readily agreed. It was very important to my dad that he pay for my wedding dress; my in-laws wanted cookies from a bakery in Brooklyn and were willing to get them.

This is a great way for you to see what your parents can afford and what they’re willing to put money toward. It’s also a great way to avoid tension between you and your parents; no more grumbling about their money going toward something they don’t deem important.

It is important, however, to ensure that your parents understand what’s important to you. Just because they’re paying for something doesn’t mean they should decide how it’s done. For example, if your parents declare they want to pay for your wedding gown and the wedding gown of your dreams costs $5,000 (which is way more than they were willing to spend), they could become angry and defensive when it comes time to settle the bill. You might feel pressured to get a cheaper dress to satisfy them. You want to avoid this at all costs. In this case, it’s important that when they say they want to pay for it, you’re clear about your expectations. Something like saying, “That’s so nice of you! I really appreciate you wanting to help. The gown I have my eye on is $5,000. I know that’s probably a lot more than you were willing to spend, so whatever you’re comfortable pitching in, I’d really appreciate, and I’ll make up the difference.”

Managing expectations is really important because the average price of a wedding has changed significantly since our parents got married. The wedding industry is a money-making monster, and parents can be easily baffled and caught off guard. You don’t want to spend the days leading up to your wedding combating the “When I got married” attitude. Let’s be real, folks, it’s not 1980 anymore.

See the difference between the two sections? Giving real-world examples, both of what worked or didn’t work for you and also sample language to help your reader handle a situation on their own will make your reader feel more confident about implementing your advice. It will also give them more faith in your work and get them to keep reading!

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