Writing For Behavior Change — A Checklist

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

This usually means teaching a skill, such as reducing stress, responding constructively to a craving, or speaking assertively.

The challenge as we write instructions is to appeal to the whole person — our capacity to think, feel, and act. Besides knowing what to do, readers want to know why they’re doing it. When our writing touches people on both levels, our odds for success improve.

We can do this by writing instructions based on a three-part structure:
– Present the key points.
– Give at least one example of each key point.
– Suggest ways for readers practice related new behaviors.

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Following is a detailed guide to fleshing out that structure. This checklist summarizes what I’ve learned over a couple of decades of writing and editing books for behavior change. I’ve geared it to the process of writing books, but the core principles apply to creating instructions in other media as well.

I hope that this checklist proves useful for crafting your next manuscript.

Embed Your Key Points in a Table of Contents

  • State the purpose of your book in one sentence. For example: The purpose of this book is to help readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review of their current projects.
  • Restate your purpose as your “big question”: How can readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review of their current projects?
  • List smaller questions implied by the big question:
    • What is productivity?
    • How do we measure productivity?
    • What is a weekly review?
    • How does a weekly review boost productivity?
    • How can I build the habit of doing a regular weekly review?
  • Arrange your questions in a logical order and restate them as chapter headings:
    • Chapter 1. A Definition of Productivity
    • Chapter 2. How We Measure Productivity
    • Chapter 3. What a Weekly Review Includes
    • Chapter 4. How a Weekly Review Boosts Productivity
    • Chapter 5. Making Your Weekly Review a Habit
  • Turn your key points — your answers to your original questions — into subheadings within chapters.
  • Limit each chapter to a handful of key points that are previewed, illustrated, applied, and summarized.
  • Remember that divisions — chapters and subheadings within chapters — allow readers to take breaks between major chunks of content and enjoy a sense of accomplishment as they progress through your material.
  • If you’re creating instructions in different media — print, audio, video, online — then create a style guide to ensure consistent content, structure, terminology, voice, and design across the entire program.

Make the Key Points Clear to Readers

  • Begin with an introduction that clearly states:
    • What your material is about
    • Who it is written for
    • What readers will be able to do as a result of following your instructions and why that matters
  • Create a clear chapter structure with advance organizers (previews), clear transitions (“turn signals”), and internal summaries (reviews).
  • Flag the key points in each chapter with design elements such as:
    • Boldface headings
    • Lists
    • Charts, tables, and diagrams
    • Illustrations, photos, and cartoons
    • Icons that signal major points and recurring elements
    • White space between sections

Illustrate Key Points With Examples

  • Immediately follow each new point with at least one example and prompt to practice.
  • Include non-examples as well — errors in applying a concept or performing a skill.
  • Turn some of your examples into stories, remembering the power of stories to entertain, inspire, engage emotions, and make your material relevant to readers.
  • Write stories in present tense and first person.
  • Infuse stories with the elements of good fiction: compelling characters, realistic events, authentic dialogue, and gritty details:
    • Whenever possible, use real-life examples and verbatim dialogue in your stories.
    • Avoid stories that are flat, simplistic, sanitized, jargon-laden, or thinly veiled lectures.
    • At the same time, avoid stories that are too complex or contradictory to support your key points.
    • Alternate brief anecdotes with longer stories that reflect a variety of situations and continuing events in a character’s life.
    • In longer stories, include characters who reappear at various times to reinforce key points.
  • For a complex skill with many phases or steps, include running examples and one long example at the end of a chapter to demonstrate the whole process.
  • Offer stories in several media — text, audio, video.

Include Prompts to Practice New Skills

  • Remember the purpose of exercises and other prompts to practice — to help readers discover personal insights and transfer their learning to real-life situations.
  • Include a variety of prompts that readers can do individually and in pairs or groups.
  • Choose from the following options for prompts:
    • Ask readers to restate the key points and provide relevant examples from their own lives.
    • Present exemplar case studies — stories that demonstrate how a process works, followed by questions that direct readers to the key points.
    • Present problem case studies — stories that leave the main character with a problem to solve, followed by questions that invite readers to suggest solutions.
    • Offer sentence completion exercises that prompt readers to restate key points, offer examples, and plan their next steps.
    • Provide checklists that include key points and specific ways to apply them.
    • Provide scripts for what to say or do in specific circumstances — for example, how to defuse conflict with “I” statements.
    • Guide readers to create their own scripts, such as Tiny Habits.
    • Suggest that readers rehearse their scripts in the presence of other people (peers, instructors, counselors, mentors) and get immediate feedback on their performance.
    • Suggest that readers carry out personal experiments where they practice a new behavior, observe the outcomes, and share their insights with another person.
    • Help readers troubleshoot their behavioral experiments by listing possible breakdowns and ways to deal with them.
  • Remind readers to practice with an experimental mindset — as scientists who pose hypotheses, collect data, interpret the results without self-judgment, and revise their scripts as needed.

Revise for Completeness, Simplicity, and Authenticity

  • Review your material to make sure that all the key points are included, previewed, made obvious to the reader, illustrated with examples, summarized, and followed by prompts to practice.
  • At the same time, edit for unnecessary repetition.
  • Express each action step in specific and concrete language — visible, physical behaviors that readers can actually do in daily life.
  • Use a simple vocabulary — words that your audience will know.
  • Write many simple sentences with a subject-verb-object structure and a minimum of internal punctuation.
  • Write concise paragraphs that start with a clear topic sentence, focus on one idea, and move from general to specific.
  • Include references to theory and quotes from experts only if they will engage readers and help them acquire the relevant skills.
  • Write to the reader in second person, as you — except when it might come across as confrontational.
  • In general, avoid references to yourself.
  • If you do refer to yourself, do so in the first person, as I.
  • Write with an informal style, including contractions and any slang that will engage readers.
  • Cut unnecessary technical terms, jargon, and motivational “pep talks” that ramp up enthusiasm in a phony way.
  • Review examples and stories to make sure that they demonstrate key points and that they will “ring true” with readers.

Bottom Line

Whenever possible, test your draft by asking members of your target audience to use it and give their feedback. Then keep revising until you can answer yes to this question:

Will my readers — with their current knowledge, attitudes, and skills — actually carry out my instructions and achieve the intended outcomes?

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

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