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.
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 undermining your expertise in self-help writing.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Undermining Your Expertise in Self-Help Writing
One of my favorite aspects of the self-help genre is that a well-written book can feel like a friend sitting across from you at a café and giving you advice. But the reason why I read self-help instead of sitting down with a friend is that I have a problem that my friends can’t help me fix. I need to call in an expert.
As a former editor of self-help books and a reader of the genre, one thing that never fails to disappoint me is when the author undermines their expertise. Trust me, I totally understand the impulse. It can be scary to stand up in front of the imaginary readership and say, “This is exactly what you should be doing,” especially if you haven’t been “professionally trained” in this area and don’t have a bunch of letters after your name. It’s OK to acknowledge that lack of “professional” expertise in your work! But a lot of writers (especially self-published writers who braved this writing and publishing journey alone) tend to mistake hiding and denying their expertise as a disclaimer.
A proper disclaimer should look something like this:
- Before making any changes to your eating or exercise routines, it’s always safest to consult a medical professional familiar with your unique case.
- If this exercise doesn’t work for you, that’s okay! Here are some other avenues you can explore…
Hiding and denying look something like this:
- This is just what worked for me … please don’t judge me.
- I know this seems crazy, but I promise that it works!
When you undermine yourself by telling the reader you’re not an expert, asking them not to judge you, or calling your work crazy, silly, or strange, you’re pulling back emotionally from the reader. Remember, you’re asking the reader to step into a vulnerable space—they have a problem and they’re asking you to help them change something about themselves or their life to solve that problem. When you pull back emotionally, they will feel that, and they’ll do the same thing.
Many times, this means they’ll lose faith in your process and won’t continue.
Mistake Fix: Stepping into Your Role
Whether readers are looking for spiritual guidance, help in their careers, tackling a home project, or healing from trauma, there are plenty of books out there for them to get advice. However, what makes your self-help book unique is that you’re writing it from a unique perspective—your own!
An expert isn’t always someone who went to school and earned a degree on the topic, or even someone who built their career off of solving the problem. If you’ve solved the problem for yourself, and a few other people have tried your advice and found success, you are an expert. Don’t let anyone else tell you differently.
I recommend you go through your manuscript (or hire an editor to do it for you) and identify places where you need to rewrite to claim your role as an expert. Look for places where you might have felt some embarrassment or anxiety around writing—did you use self-deprecating humor or try and anticipate the reader giving you a side-eye?
When you identify the places where the impulse to hide was too strong, ask yourself why. Is it because you’re feeling self-conscious about not having “professional” training in this area? If you’re writing about a medical, psychological, or spiritual issue, you can always add in a disclaimer like, “I want to note before we move forward that the safest way to identify and change these habits is under the purview of a [medical professional/psychological professional/religious teacher].” If the issue you’re writing about isn’t as intense, I recommend keeping a note near your writing station where you can write down the name of that one person you’re writing for (even if it’s an imaginary person or even your past self). When in doubt, hold that note in your hands and think about what that’s person’s life will be like if they never get your advice.
If you find resistance coming up around telling personal stories, ask yourself why. Are you worried someone in the story will identify themselves and be upset with you? If so, I would encourage you to reach out and ask this person permission to share the story. If you’re uncomfortable with that, consider removing as much identifying information as possible. If that still leaves you feeling anxious, I recommend removing the story altogether—you can always write about an imaginary person and/or situation that will get the same point across without putting anyone in your life on the hot seat.
If your reluctance to share a personal story has to do with making yourself too vulnerable, it’s OK to revise the story or remove it completely. Especially when my authors were writing about traumatic incidents or still-healing emotional wounds, I preached caution. It’s important to help your readers understand what you’re saying, but it’s not more important than your emotional health and well-being. Again, you can write about an imaginary person or situation to help your reader better understand what you mean.
For example, I once worked with an author, Tanya, who was writing about healing from a traumatic injury. She was not a medical professional; instead, she was someone who had poor experiences with medical professionals while healing from a traumatic injury and was sharing with her reader things she wished she’d known to make the recovery process easier. When it came time for her to write about her injury, she experienced writer’s block. While we talked it over, she mentioned that she was worried about triggering her PTSD. Once we realized that this was where her resistance came from, we decided that she should write about a friend whom she’d met in recovery while stripping all identifying information from the story. That way, her reader could see how Tanya’s advice would help to solve their problem and Tanya wouldn’t retraumatize herself in the process.
SURPRISE! I’ve never worked with an author named Tanya. And while I’ve worked with authors who write about recovery, I’ve never worked with an author who ran into this specific problem. I wrote this so you could see how a personal example can help the reader (your problem is that you’re experiencing resistance; my solution is to find another way to work around that resistance), but it doesn’t need to be 100 percent true for your readers to find it helpful. An imaginary person and situation can work just as well.
In conclusion, it’s totally natural to feel an impulse to hide or downplay your role as an expert when writing self-help. However, you’ll best serve your reader by working around or with that resistance. They’re coming to you because they need your unique perspective! Own it!