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Publishing Guidelines

How to Write a Self-help Book

A self-help book must be complete. It must include all the information the reader will need to acquire the skill you’re teaching. For example, if the first step of systematic desensitization is to learn relaxation techniques, you need to teach relaxation techniques first.

To effectively teach skills, a self-help book must proceed step-by-step. Put the first step first, the second step second, and so on. Don’t leave out any steps.

Include only as much theory, history, and motivational writing as the reader needs to understand and acquire the skill at hand. A few sentences of inspirational or motivational writing can help, but keep your focus on the practical and factual. When you have the option of explaining a complex theory or giving a simple instruction, give the simple instruction. If you must discuss theory, give a brief, clear explanation.


Many of our books are double-targeted: they’re meant to be read by both general and professional audiences. The best way to reach both groups is to write your book directly to the client—to the person with the problem you’re writing about. Use simple language and a supportive tone. Mental health professionals buy our books for the same reason laypeople do—because our books are clear, simple, and complete. Professionals report that they prefer our step-by-step approach over the abstract material usually offered to the professional audience.

Assume your reader knows absolutely nothing about your subject. Explain every step so that a person who is completely uninformed can follow your directions. After each instruction or exercise, ask yourself, “Could I do this if I’d never been exposed to any of these concepts or methods before?”

Getting Started

Research your topic

First, do your homework. Check out bookstores, libraries, and the internet. Talk to colleagues; query associations and other professional groups. Find out what is already available on your topic and get copies of the best materials. See how other authors have approached the topic, and learn from both their successes and their shortcomings. Be sure your book hasn’t already been written, and figure out how your book is going to be different and better.

Organize your book

Decide on a working title and a table of contents before you start writing. For a 200-page book, you should have at least ten chapters to break up the book and provide resting points along the way.

Arrange your content according to a single organizing principle. For example, you could organize a book on relaxation according to the various techniques that can be employed to reduce stress. A book on a specific treatment strategy could focus first on the general theory and then on each step of the process. Whichever organizing technique you choose, make sure it is logical and easy to follow. Too many ideas presented all at once can be confusing.

After you complete your table of contents, outline each chapter. Make a brief listing of topics included in each chapter. This may save you significant revision in the future.

A good way to work is to build your outline using headings and subheads. So, after you’ve decided on your chapters and their titles, start filling in what the headings would logically be. Headings act as a sort of outline or guide within the book. A-heads are the largest (“Relaxation”), followed by B-heads (“Relaxation Can Be Learned”), C-heads (“Relaxation Techniques”), and finally D-heads (“Progressive Muscle Relaxation,” “Release-Only Relaxation,” etc.). Creating a table of contents complete with headings (even just A-heads) will give you a ready-made outline from which to work.

Start writing

Write the chapter you’re most familiar with first, regardless of where it is in the table of contents. Write the introduction last. You have to know what the whole book is like before you can introduce it.

Each chapter should focus on a concept, skill, theory, problem, or technique. Use A-headings and a lot of B-heads and C-heads so that the reader can know at a glance where the chapter is going. In a chapter that teaches a skill, proceed step-by-step in exactly the sequence the reader should follow to master the skill. Teach any prerequisites first or in a previous chapter. Put the most important, general, and applicable rules or concepts first. Leave the special cases, exceptions, and special considerations for last.

Teach through instruction, example, and exercise

To effectively teach an individual step of a skill, follow this sequence: state the rule or instruction first. Be clear and to the point. Then, give an example of how someone else did this step. Lastly, provide the exercise for the reader to perform. This gives the reader three ways to learn the skill: intellectually by precept, emotionally through modeling, and experientially through action.

You can use one long-running example throughout a chapter, give several different examples, or do both. For a complex procedure with many steps, give one long example at the end of the chapter to show how it all goes together.

Note that examples are not case histories. In fact, you may not be able to find enough real-life case histories to illustrate all the material that needs examples. You might have to make them up, striving for enough quirky details and complications to make them realistic. Don’t feel guilty about making up examples; it’s perfectly acceptable in a self-help book. The purpose of a self-help book is to teach, not to provide case monographs.


Tone:  from me to you

Write directly to the reader, referring to him or her as “you.” This is one of the best ways to achieve the personal and supportive tone that is so important in a self-help book. If using “you” seems confrontational or accusatory in certain circumstances, you can refer occasionally to “people” or “everyone.” Avoid references to “one.”

Refer to yourself as “I” or, if possible, don’t refer to yourself at all. This will create an authoritative persona.

We like an informal style. Use occasional contractions like “won’t” and “you’re” instead of “will not” and “you are.” A little slang or vulgarity is desirable in examples of how people really talk.

Literature citations

Citations are necessary any time you are quoting or referring to a concept or opinion that is directly attributable to another source. (Please avoid unnecessary citations.) When a reference is needed, cite the author’s name and the date of the work. If possible, work the citation into the sentence: “In 1986, Joyce Williams found that white rats like rock and roll.” Otherwise, it should look like this: “Research has shown that white rats like rock and roll (Williams 1986).”

Include a references section at the end of the book. In books intended exclusively for a professional audience, New Harbinger uses the American Psychological Association documentation style. For all others, list books in your references section like this :

Smith, A. B., and Z. Jones. 1986. Title of Book. New York: Publisher.

List journal articles by date, volume, and page numbers:

Wolfe, N. 1971. “Title of Article.” Name of Journal 6(1):16–23.

Be sure that the references section includes complete and accurate listings for all works mentioned in your text. Only books cited in the text should go in the references section. Any other books that you recommend can go in a recommended reading section.

Sentences and paragraphs

Keep subordinate clauses to a minimum. When you use long sentences, alternate them with short sentences to give the reader a rest.

Each paragraph should have just one idea. Don’t be afraid of short paragraphs—if you’ve completely covered the idea, end the paragraph and start another one.

It’s best to begin paragraphs with a general-idea sentence and then move on to sentences with specific examples or exceptions to the idea. Moving back and forth between the general and the specific confuses your reader.

A general-idea sentence can end a paragraph when the sentences before it give specific evidence for the general conclusion.

Avoid repetition

A little repetition is okay for emphasis, but don’t overdo it. Try to explain things as clearly as possible the first time; re-explaining yourself can lead to confusion. Also, beware of your favorite expressions, sayings, aphorisms, and clichés cropping up too often.

Obtain permissions

If you use someone else’s copyrighted material, it is your responsibility to obtain written permission from the original publisher to reprint or adapt the work. Permission is always required for song lyrics, poems, very long quotations, questionnaires, assessment tools, exercises, illustrations, and photos. Also, explanations of general concepts or theories should be scrutinized to avoid unintentional copyright violation. We can help you decide if permissions are needed and supply a form for you to use. Generally, the author is responsible for any permissions fees. Keep in mind that obtaining permissions may take several weeks or months. All signed permissions letters must accompany your final manuscript. We suggest that you begin the process of requesting permissions as soon as your book has been accepted for publication.

Procedure for the Average Book

These are the stages the average book goes through on its way to publication:

  • You submit a proposal (see “How to Submit Your Proposal”).
  • An acquisitions editor pitches your book to the publication committee for evaluation.
  • Once your book is accepted, you and your editor choose due dates to review and develop six chapters, along with a final manuscript deadline.
  • We send you a contract. You sign and send it back.
  • Your acquisitions editor and an experienced developmental editor evaluate up to six chapters for organization, tone, content, and clarity. Feedback and comments are sent to you, including specific suggestions. Because we are passionate about the quality of the books we publish, we tend to devote more time than most publishers on the editing stages.
  • During the developmental editing process, we provide you with an exact word count to help you reach your plan book length.
  • After the first six chapters have been reviewed, you complete the remaining chapters, applying the global aspects of earlier feedback to produce an effective, clear, and helpful book.
  • After completing the manuscript, you send us (via e-mail) the table of contents, acknowledgments, dedication, chapters and appendices, references, illustrations and graphic elements, and proof of permission to reprint or adapt material if necessary. Your entire manuscript (including the references list) should be typed and double-spaced in Times New Roman twelve-point font. Use one-inch margins and number the pages consecutively. If there are any illustrations, we need them in both hard copy (printed format) and electronic format if possible. Please do not send original copies.
  • Your manuscript is assigned to a copyeditor. You will be in contact with a copyeditor for several weeks as the book is edited. Please plan to be readily available to the copyeditor during that time. Let us know if you plan to be traveling or otherwise unavailable for more than a few days during the twelve weeks after turning in your final manuscript.
  • You return the final manuscript, and we typeset it and send you page proofs.
  • You approve the page proofs and return them to us; we make final changes and send the book to the printer with the cover and illustrations.
  • The printer sends us proofs and we approve them.
  • The printer prints the books and ships them to us.
  • Once we have a completed manuscript, the book will be copyedited, printed, and made available to the general public in about nine months.
  • Congratulations! Your book is in print and ready for sale.