As an author, your goal is to give instructions that consistently help people produce a specific outcome. This means offering credible evidence for your claims. And evidence means something more than personal anecdotes.
When I talk about this with prospective clients, the conversation typically goes through certain stages. I’ll illustrate with an extreme (and fictional) example:
Me: Your book lists 123 techniques that readers can use to change their self-defeating habits. Where did those techniques come from?
Author: Well, I read a lot of self-help and spirituality books.
Me: Great. Me, too. Readers will want to know what’s new or different about your book.
Author: Well, I put my own spin on everything. Plus, the techniques worked for me.
Me: Really? You personally tested all 123 techniques?
Author: Well, not all of them. Most of them.
Me: What about the techniques you didn’t test?
Author: Well, my friends like them.
Me: Your friends? How many?
Author: Well . . . actually, my wife read the first draft of the manuscript. She really likes everything.
Me: Did anyone else read it? Maybe someone with a more objective point of view?
Author: Ahhh . . . ummm . . . well, not yet.
Me: OK. No problem. We can work on that. Now, did you do a literature review?
Author: Literature review? What’s that?
Me: It means you look through any research that is relevant to the subject of your book. There are hundreds of published studies about habit change.
Author: Really? Where do you find that stuff?
Me: In professional journals that publish peer-reviewed papers.
Author: I don’t bother with that stuff. It’s too dry.
Me: So as of right now, we don’t have solid evidence that your techniques work.
Author: Of course they work. They worked for me, and my friends, and my clients. I can give you lots of good anecdotes.
Me: Well, anecdotes aren’t quite enough. They are useful as stories that you can use to lend a human touch to your writing. But a few isolated anecdotes don’t count as evidence for your ideas.
Author: No? Why not?
Me: For lots of reasons. Because anecdotes are only based on the experiences of a few people. Because they’re often embellished when retold over time. And because anecdotes don’t involve careful observation or isolate any variables. When you produce a new result in your life, how do you know that one of your 123 techniques created it? Human behavior is complex. Events have more than one cause.
Author: Hmmm. . . . (Thinks to himself: This guy is going to be a pain in the ass. I need another editor.) . . . . Well, this is all real interesting. I’ll get back to you.