I’m routinely approached by writers who are interested in starting a self-help blog or writing a self-help book. I have toyed with the idea of writing a career advice book many times, too. I keep abandoning the project based on what I know, which is why I’d like to share my insights on self-help with you.
The first principle of offering advice is simple: nobody cares about your story.
Readers only care about how your story makes them feel about themselves. Too many of us believe that the formula for a self-help book looks like this: here are my mistakes + here are my lessons learned = you, too, can avoid failure.
That formula (M+L=AF) is a myth.
The real formula is much more complicated. The writer must present a universal truth in the form of a story. The story must be relatable and allow the reader to see how we all make the same mistakes. And the writer must show us that you can overcome adversity. There’s no shame in fucking up.
That’s it. Successful self-help books de-stigmatize shame.
Here’s the second principle for writing a self-help book or blog: your advice isn’t valid unless you’ve truly learned from your mistakes.
How do you know that you’ve learned from your mistakes? That’s an excellent question that only you can answer for yourself. I would tell you that great writers are patient listeners. If you jump into conversations and over-emote when someone shares a story similar to yours, your wounds are still fresh. You aren’t ready to publish.
The third principle comes from Elizabeth Gilbert.
It’s from her latest book, which all aspiring self-help writers should read. Gilbert tells her readers to write self-help books because they need to tell a story, not because they want to impart wisdom on others. In that spirit, the self-help author is just like every other goddamn writer from the poet to the novelist: you must be driven to tell a good story.
Do you have a good story? Do you have a series of stories that lead up to an overarching thesis? Get yourself to a writing workshop and get to work.
So what I’m saying is that the world doesn’t need another self-help book or blog.
Personally, I don’t want to read about the fifteen lessons you learned by overcoming an eating disorder or enduring sexual abuse. The universe isn’t asking for a list of ways to launch a successful business, especially from a guy who made it rich in the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.
The world wants stories.
Dirty, humble, truthful stories told with integrity. Stories that lead us down a path to greater personal awareness. Help me overcome my sense of guilt and shame by exposing your own, and you’ve got a reader for life.