What to Look For in a Self-Help Book (Part One)

When it comes to the arts of reading and writing, we live in the best of times and worst of times. Thanks to the Internet and sites like WordPress, anyone can publish a blog.

In addition, almost anyone can become a published author. Self-publishing is easier than ever before, thanks to print-on-demand technology, ebooks, and services such as Kindle Direct Publishing.

The upside: Anybody can publish. We get a true democracy of ideas.

The downside: Anybody can publish. In any democracy, there are demagogues, con artists, and people who are simply unqualified to publish on certain topics.

Traditional book publishing means getting past a series of gate-keepers. These include literary agents, editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers.

True, these people restrict access to publishing. They also screen content and provide quality control.

If the role of these gatekeepers decreases, it’s more likely that factual errors, fuzzy thinking, and untested theories will make their way to your bookshelf and digital devices.

This is a special concern to anyone who reads self-help books. After all, we’re seeking to change our thinking and behavior. The quality of our lives is at stake. We deserve accurate information and sound ideas.

The trick is to be open-minded and skeptical every time that you pick up a book. To keep those two attitudes in balance, look for:

  • Author credibility
  • Good instructions
  • Tone
  • Tested ideas

There’s nothing new or profound about these suggestions. They are simply refined common sense. Yet you will find authors who fail to meet to meet all or most of these criteria.

Author credibility

After checking out a book’s covers and table of contents, turn to to the “about the author” page or its equivalent. Look for evidence of this person’s qualifications, such as:

  • Relevant education and training
  • Work experience with students, patients, or clients
  • Membership in professional societies
  • Articles published in reputable magazines and journals
  • Previous books from reputable publishers

You can also check the testimonials included on the covers or front pages of a book. Take these with a grain of salt, however. Sometimes they are actually written by the author and simply OK’d by the person supposedly giving the testimonial.

Good instructions

People who are qualified to write about behavior change know how to teach. They write clearly. They introduce concepts and skills in a logical sequence. They answer the questions that people are likely to ask.

If you turn to a book for help with changing your behavior, then look for a specific sequence of elements:

  1. Procedure
  2. Example
  3. Practice
  4. Feedback

Suppose that you’re reading a chapter about ways to deal with fear of public speaking. Look for:

  1. A specific procedure for dealing with that fear, such as “get thoroughly prepared.”
  2. Examples of people who prepared thoroughly for a presentation.
  3. Clear suggestions for getting prepared that you can start practicing right away.
  4. Ways to get feedback on your practice—that is, to know that you’re prepared—such as a checklist to follow or series of questions to ask yourself.

Many self-help books are about a complex skill that links several procedures. Expect at least one extended example that ties all the instructions together.

Here’s the main question: Could you actually carry out the suggestions based only on what’s in the book? If not, then the author might be making unfounded assumptions about what you know and what you can do. That’s a sign that the material is untested, or that the author is unqualified to write about the topic.

Therapeutic Tone

A good self-help book is written with the voice of a good therapist—supportive and respectful. There’s no condescension. Instead, you are addressed as an intelligent person who has something new to learn.

Some self-help books are veiled memoirs. They focus on the author’s experiences. They are written mostly in the first person (“I”) rather than the second person (“you”) or third person (“we”). Beware. You might be dealing with an egomaniac.

Tested ideas

There’s a lot to say here. Look for it in my next post.

Photo by stella_v ❤, Flickr Creative Commons

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