Who Asked You?

How many times should you should feature yourself in personal examples? While that depends on the type of nonfiction book you are writing, my usual advice is to avoid it as much as possible. There are several major reasons why.

The first has to do with breadth. The point of many examples is to illustrate how widespread a problem or solution is. If you are discussing the causes of elbow pain, for instance, a reader will be more impressed if you feature people of different ages, engaged in different activities, such as playing tennis, and occupations. That assures the reader that you are being comprehensive in your approach. If you use yourself, a reader is more inclined to think that your solution is home-brewed. Lucky it works for you, pal.

The second is self-indulgence. However altruistic a writer’s motives toward the enterprise overall, you cannot be blamed for telling stories you know intimately, and who do you know better than yourself? The excuses given for such stories run the gamut. If you are writing a history of your Army unit in Iraq, you might spin out a chapter on high school flame Daisy, who wrote a Dear John letter while you were overseas—then tell yourself that lots of others received Dear John letters as well. The fact of the matter is, however, that you wasted the reader’s time for 10 pages. Did I really need to know about the creaking hotel bed?

The most important is laziness. Going out to find examples, unless you have a busy practice or program, is hard work. I know because my field so often involves ghostwriting, and I’ll look up examples for authors when the text becomes too self-referential. It’s much easier to lean back in your chair and recall the time when...

Some books are better than others, and by far and away the main reason is that some authors stuff their books with research and/or examples. Amid examples about so many others, your own experiences can become highlights for the reader. When used occasionally, a story about, say, your fear prior to a specific battle can make the reader feel included in that inner turmoil. That is why personal examples often work well in an introduction, when you’re making a case for why the reader should bother to read the book in the first place. Feeling included is a good reason to keep reading.

Exercise: Comb the manuscript with an eye out for personal examples. Is each one really germane to the topic you are discussing just before the example? If not, do you have another example on file? Even if it does not segue directly from the previous topic, you may find it helps the book gain authority because you are citing yet another person who makes your case.

“We are apt to forget that children watch examples better than they listen to preaching.”
—Roy L. Smith

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.