5.30.2017

Promises, Promises

Among the categories of nonfiction books, self-help occupies a popular space. Whether the object of fixing is mental or physical, a reader purchases the book based on the hope that this program will make her wiser, richer, sleeker, or what have you. In the forefront of her mind runs a question: what will I get out of this book?

On the writing side, the author needs to be a huckster. That is not necessarily bad, if you really do have the goods to offer. You need to be encouraging, to say, “You can do it!” That is basic psychology: the more the audience is fired up, the more likely he will actually get off his duff and make some changes.

One way to inspire readers is to provide examples of others who have succeeded, either in using the book’s program or in a similar endeavor. For instance, a famous Hollywood actor may have used a star trainer’s high-impact running regimen, but the one you’re advocating has the same sprint-jog-walk cycle. You use star power to fire up the masses, along with examples from ordinary walks of life.

Past a certain point, though, the exhortations should be backed up by an actual regimen. That is the crux of the matter. What are you offering that is so much better than all of the hundreds of other programs? If you are trying to achieve better self-control, for example, what variation of counting to ten before speaking do you provide?

This is where your grand promises have to be anchored by utility. I mean that literally: how can a reader use the steps you provide? Laying out Step 1 through 5 is fine, but how can the reader interact with the advice? Let’s say you’re showing how to change careers. You have a number of distinct phases: recognizing you’re unhappy in your present career; sorting through other career options; researching the industry; education or retraining; and then the job process itself, from resume to interview to salary negotiation. Is your program showing the reader how to navigate these different steps? Or are you still throwing out platitudes of how much better you’ll feel when you find a job you really love?

Exercise: Examples of others’ success are most useful when accompanying practical steps. If Lou once did a tour in Japan, and that influenced his choice of importing tea ceremony pottery to the U.S., that example might be most valuable if placed within the phase of sorting through career options. As a reader, now I feel motivated to search within my own experience to see what I have enjoyed in the past.

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”
—Abraham Maslow

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


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