The perils of writing a self-help book

Screenshot of Googe results: how to write a how-to book

I spied with my little eye at least three reasons for baulking at the prospect of writing a self-help book. When I wondered why I’d been so slow to get started on my current book (Life is long: my boot camp for the bonus years) I figured that the genre was one reason for getting writer’s block.

Let’s examine my reservations. Do they make any sense at all to you?

  • Type of book. The book might turn into a self-help book, which holds many dangers such as being bossy and being smug.
  • Selfishness. Self-help books are for the privileged, a self-indulgent form.
  • Narrowness. Self-help books ignore powerful social forces that oppress the majority of people.

The first charge is personal and particular. It says more about me than the self-help genre. After all, I’ve written books about writers and a fun guide to “Real Writing”. In my working life I’ve written manuals on corporate writing, plain language, global English and especially writing for the web. The manuals are openly instructional. I tell you what to do and how to do it. That’s perfectly appropriate for business skills of this type.

But no way would I want take that tone when it comes to something as personal as preparing yourself for a long life and old age! Sure, I do have much to share after paying close attention to these issues in my own life and putting myself through a solitary twelve-month, twelve-task programme. But—there are many good ways to be old and you must live your own life in your own way.

OK, there’s an obvious anomaly here. I chose a carefully structured programme, treating it like a formal project complete with purpose, scope, timeline, budget, methods, documentation and evaluation. That’s ridiculous, right? It happened to work rather brilliantly for me, but I’m me and you’re you.

The potential selfishness and narrow focus of a self-help book were also on my mind. Anyone who has the energy and motivation to read a book like this is by definition, like me, comparatively privileged. Also, such a book risks presuming that a happy, healthy old age is within the reach of everyone, a purely individual aim. It risks implying that if I can do this, so can anyone. Perhaps even now you are bristling and thinking, “How about my brilliant, sporty, happy, sociable, healthy friend who got demential at 50? He never had a chance. How about my cousin who got Multiple Sclerosis at 36? And the homeless and mentally ill and refugees and unemployed?” See what I mean?

Well, these are my personal reservations and they certainly were holding me back. A stark lack of logic is staring us in the face, I know that. One book can never be useful for all of humanity. That does not negate the good that it can do for its target audience.

To let these imaginary problems stop me from writing was being too precious by far. I’m laughing at myself now because I’ve committed the kind of pecadillo more common in a beginner-writer. How many times has a new poet told me they’re worried someone will steal their very first poem? (Heaps.) I’m polite but I’m thinking, “In your dreams, darling!” Now I’m doing something perilously close: over-estimating the importance of my book and overthinking the potential consequences.

Still, somehow it helps to tease out imaginary problems and put them under a microscope. When they are exposed, these finickity ideas, we can see them clearly. Then we can either accept them as legitimate and quit pretending that we’re going to write that book, or see them as all-in-the-mind scenarios and—write the damn book.

By the way, you might want to consider these same issues in relation to blogging. My writer’s block was exacerbated by a trend for young bloggers to see their role as a life coach. As a writer, I do want feedback from writers I trust and respect, but not unsolicited advice from strangers. Isn’t it the same with lifestyle advice? I don’t know: do you?

Disapproving cat on a shelf of books by Rachel McAlpine

Ursula doesn’t approve of how-to lifestyle books.

20 thoughts on “The perils of writing a self-help book

  1. alison41 says:

    Judging from Ursula’s expression, she finds your current conundrums perplexing !

    1. True. She chides me daily for over thinking.

  2. Eva says:

    Rachel, I loved your bootcamp and own personal Sergeant Major already way back when you wrote about it on the blog here. I thought the idea and the way you went about it absolutely brilliant!
    So dear friend (very friendly kick in the behind) stop faffing (proper word?) about and get down to it. I would love to read it even at the tender age of 47. Go and do it and stop overthinking. What have you got to loose?

    1. Oh all right then! I thank you warmly for your encouragement. And yes, in my lexicon “faffing” is a fine and appropriate word even though autocorrect prefers “graffiti”.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I would stop thinking of it as a self-help book and instead think of it as a travel book. Along the lines of “here’s where I have been and where I’m going. I suggest the following sights.”

    1. Nice! I will brood on this.

  4. Sounds more like memoir to me – and I’d happily read that whereas nearly every self-help book I’ve dipped into make me feel worse!

    1. Oh dear. Exactly. No, I will soldier on!

  5. Rachel Hill says:

    Hi, I often find the same doubts, but I agree with the people above, you could just tell us what you did, in detail, like a personal memoir, this can inspire people to take or follow bits, or just admire, without you telling them what to do so as to avoid the preachy risk. I have just turned 49 and I will definitely buy it!

    1. Thank you! And by the way, I always enjoy meeting another Rachel.

      1. Rachel Hill says:

        Oh yes, me too! Also, I am very fond of NZ. When I was a child my mum had WWOOFers including two from NZ who became lifelong friends. We spent three months in NZ courtesy of them when I was seventeen. In my mid thirties I went with my son and lived and worked in Wellington for a year and my son went to school there. It was a wonderful experience. Good luck with your book.

      2. Happy to hear all that! I had a life-saving residency at Macquarie University way back when, for which I’m eternally grateful. One of my sisters lives in Brisbane so the link continues.

  6. I was distressed when I learned from my publisher that my book would be classified as “Self-Help.” As a rule, I don’t like self-help books. I’ve started many and finished very few. So many seem to be written by someone who believes they have found the secret to a happy/successful/prosperous/whatever life, and if you just follow their instructions, you will learn the secret and have the life you’re missing. Yech!
    As soon as I realized I didn’t have to approach it that way, but, instead, I could share information and stories, pose questions, show possibilities, and help people to think about how it might apply to their own life—then it became a book I wanted to both read and write. Some people see it as a memoir, and I’m ok with that, too. I’m still not crazy abut the umbrella term “Self-Help,” but under it are sub-categories that are much more appealing and descriptive.
    You’ve got so much to share. I’ll look forward to watching it evolve, Rachel.

    1. That’s very encouraging, Donna. It also makes me scrutinize my role, which is valuable. Thank you for your understanding and support.

  7. JOY journal says:

    Maybe just change the way you think about it. Does it need to be “self help?” Or, is it a book of essays and reflections. The latter isn’t smug or in anyone’s face. It’s just human. Write on, Rachel!!

    1. Thank you! I’m charging on regardless now, so the problem is historic 🙂

  8. You make some excellent points and I’m not sure there is a good answer. Like a few of your commenters, I don’t normally read “self-help” books. I also agree with you about some bloggers who have appeared to have taken on the mantle of Life Coach (what are their credentials, and who asked them anyway?). That being said, I have read a few non-financial books about retirement and have found them interesting, maybe especially the ones that include multiple voices/opinions/paths/outcomes. I’ve never found your writing to come from a know-it-all place so I’m happy to know that you are moving along on your project.

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful answer. It feels like a phone call with a friend, and indeed as I absorb all the comments on this post and belt ahead with the writing, I’m edging closer to a solution. We do all help each other by sharing parallel stories and insights, and that’s a more comfortable aspirants for me to take with something so personal. Thank you.

  9. Such valuable reflections here. I’ve recently been asked to write a (spiritual) “self-help” book (based on my academic work around medieval mystics) and I’m very hot and cold about the idea (and VERY slow at even beginning to put any kind of a draft down). It’s an ambivalence/fear that I never had with my academic and novel writing; and I think you’ve explained the reasons for my reticence. And, really, why not just write it??? Nobody has to read it if they don’t want to. And, I think your book – coming, as you have said, from thoughtful and lived personal experience – sounds like something I would like to read. Be sure to keep us up to date on your progress.

    1. Thank you Carmel for your thoughtful comments. Maybe acknowledging our doubts will clear the decks for action.

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