Writing For Behavior Change — A Checklist

102Most business, self-help, and psychology books have a single purpose — to help readers create enduring and positive changes in behavior.

This usually means appealing to the whole person — our capacity to think, feel, and act. Readers need to know what to do, why they’re doing it, and how to take the very next step. When our writing touches people on all three levels, our odds for success improve.

Following is a checklist that summarizes what I’ve learned over a couple of decades of writing and editing books for behavior change. I hope they prove useful for crafting your next manuscript.

Help readers learn by thinking

  • Include an early and explicit statement of what your material is about and what readers can gain from it.
  • Focus on a single main topic that’s familiar to readers and a handful of closely related subtopics.
  • Create a clear structure and logical flow in your material with advance organizers (previews), summaries (reviews), and strong transitions (turn signals).
  • In each chapter, focus on a handful of clearly stated key points.
  • Include processes (step-by-step instructions) with a clear, logical, and memorable sequence of actions for readers to take.
  • Use words that readers will know—usually shorter rather than longer words.
  • Write sentences with a minimum of internal punctuation.
  • Emphasize key points with visuals such as icons, charts, tables, illustrations, and photos.
  • Create additional emphasis with design elements such as bold and italic fonts, headings, and lists.

Help readers learn by feeling

  • Focus on problems that readers want to solve and goals that they want to meet.
  • Include stories of people like your readers who face the problems you mention and use the solutions that you recommend.
  • Write stories in present tense and first person.
  • Infuse stories with authentic details by including compelling characters, actual events, and real dialogue.
  • Avoid simplistic stories that illustrate the “right way” and the “wrong way.”
  • Avoid stories that offer a thinly veiled lecture.
  • Avoid otherwise flat, generic, and sanitized stories.

Help readers learn through action

  • Include a variety of elements that guide readers to take specific actions. For example:
    • Ask readers to list examples (or counter-examples) of a key point.
    • Present a sample problem and ask readers to suggest solutions.
    • Present readers with a story and ask them to list the key points it illustrates.
    • Ask readers to provide personal stories that illustrate a key point.
    • Ask readers to practice a script or experiment with another new behavior.
    • Ask readers to state a specific outcome and list the physical, visible actions that they will take to achieve that outcome.
    • Ask readers to deconstruct their desired outcome into a series of Tiny Habits.
  • Encourage readers to do any of the above with guidance from a teacher, coach, mentor, sponsor, peer, or support group.
  • For every action that you suggest, ask: Could I actually do this based on these instructions?

For related ideas, see these excellent guidelines from New Harbinger Publications and:

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers to Learn a Process

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Structured Experiences

Writing for Behavior Change — Keep it Simple, Sweetheart

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