How To Write About Self-Help Without Selling Your Soul

And Just About Any Other Topic Too

Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash

We’ve all seen the diabolical, unrealistic, and pie-in-the-sky self-help articles with titles such as this.

7 Things To Do Before 7 AM That Guarantee You 7 Million Dollars By 7 PM

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean.

There’s plenty of backlash against these stories, much of it well deserved; detractors target anything remotely pegged under self-improvement. The truth is a little different than what the self-help haters claim. There is no topic beyond the reach of exaggerated promises and unrealistic expectations. I’ve seen the ridiculousness in entrepreneurship, sexuality, dating, personal finance, writing, business, health and a myriad of other topics.

We clamor for self-help stories

Why can’t we resist these stories, even the ludicrous ones? Because we all want to improve our lives. We crave total transformation in some areas of our lives. In other areas, we look for that slight edge, for whatever reason. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself.

The problem with the topic of “self” is one of authority. It’s easy to laugh at an article that claims to hold the secret to making ten million dollars when the writer struggles to pay his electric bill. Stories like these from folks who lack credibility produce the eye-rolls and jeers we associate with this category.

The legitimate path to writing self-help

Your background does not matter. Your financial or social status means little. There is value in hearing from people in different backgrounds and life stages.

The best reason to write about this topic is because of the benefit it provides to you. You learn something new about yourself every time you go through the process. I’ll show you how.

You can write about improving yourself with authority and conviction in a way that nobody can ever question. Readers may disagree with your perspective, but they will have to accept your authority to speak of the matter.

It’s not magic or trickery, but you must open up a piece of your life to others. It’s uncomfortable at first, but you grow accustomed to it. Authenticity is a piece of the equation, but you cannot be too authentic, as I’ll explain later.

I use two variants of one simple approach. They both follow the same process. I also developed a handy template which helps crystalize your thoughts.

Write about your experiences

Where do you get the authority and standing to write about self-improvement? You earn it through living. You own your experiences. Your experiences are unique. That gives you the ultimate authority.

Here’s the good part.

The combination of your life experience makes YOU unique, but your problems are not unique.

It might feel like we’re alone in the world facing our unfathomable issues. No matter what your struggle, you are not alone: anxiety, fears, lack of confidence, overconfidence, self-esteem issues. Everyone battles some combination of these struggles.

We all benefit when we hear about someone else fighting through the same issues as us. Even if you haven’t succeeded in defeating your demons, it’s helpful for others to hear about what effort you put forward. Failures provide us with useful information about what not to do.

Plus, it’s a common trait of human nature: hearing about someone else’s struggles gives us perspective. Knowing other folks are going through the same thing gives us comfort.

Where do you start?

I start my pieces by writing about the experience. Sometimes it’s a memory of an experience. It doesn’t need to be something recent. I created the story below from a journal entry about my decision to try CBD oil. I wrote a brief narrative about why I made the decision.

Then I asked myself a few questions to find an idea for a story.

What is this an example of?
What’s interesting about this?
What’s the lesson behind this?
What’s the connection between this story and life?

The best answer came from the first question. It was an example of experimentation to solve a problem. It reminded me of several other experiments I’ve tried. I realized I enjoy the experimentation process. That was the seed of the idea. I began to write. Everything flowed into place.

By writing about your experience, you create a natural constraint that keeps your writing from making too big a leap into the unbelievable.

Write about aggregate experiences

Sometimes an experience will remind you of other experiences that seem different but somehow connect. It starts a cascading effect that leads to a pattern of clues. It’s like solving a riddle. All of the similar ideas roll up into something more significant. These situations, though rare, result in big idea stories.

Here’s an example.

I once wrote about a morning routine activity. It reminded me of various other failed attempts at complex morning routines.

Here’s how it developed.

What is this an example of? Things to do as part of a mourning routine.
It triggered other memories. Several other morning routines I’ve tried and jettisoned.
Roll up: I questioned the value of elaborate morning routines. It blossomed into a story that examined the overall idea.

What about authenticity?

You need to be authentic about your experiences and feelings. You can compress and trim for readability but don’t make shit up. At some point in your story, you must transition to professionalism.

Think of yourself as a teacher, doctor or therapist. Put aside your personal feelings and focus on delivering. That’s what a professional does.

You wouldn’t want a surgeon fretting over a personal issue before he cuts you open. You expect professionalism. Your reader deserves the same.

The “self” formula and template

The idea of writing self-improvement authentically and professionally can seem daunting. Let’s break down the recipe.

Observe and journal

Record your experiences and thoughts in a journal. Track them during the day on your phone or a notebook. Transfer them to your journal before bed, so you don’t lose the essence of the experience. Don’t think that you can keep all this information in your head and recall when you need it. If it’s worth remember, it’s worth recording.

Select and write

Select an experience or memory that resonates with you. It’s tempting to pick out something humorous or odd, but these don’t always result in meaningful or exciting story ideas.

Don’t worry about your big idea yet. Sometimes it comes to you before you write. Other times it evolves as you write. This is a process. Do one step at a time.


In this stage, you begin the transition from authentic to professional. Ask yourself about the significance of the experience. What does it mean to you? What is it an example of? What is the lesson behind it?

Questions like these force your brain to engage and search for meaning. Write bullet points of whatever comes to your mind.

Select the big idea

Review your work. What sticks out? What’s meaningful to you? Forget about picking something with shock value or broad appeal. That will lead you astray.

Fill in this template

I experienced/remembered [fill in the blank]. It’s an example of [fill in the blank]. I hypothesize/conclude that [fill in the blank]. This is significant because [fill in the blank].

That simple template will help you fill in the gaps and formulate the idea in your mind.

Here is a recent example.

I experienced a situation where I didn’t want to go out with the group after a conference. It’s an example of disinterest in socializing with strangers. I hypothesize that I’m just not a people person. This is significant because society pressures us into feeling social and people pleasing.

And the story that resulted.

You can apply this formula to any category. You are the ultimate authority over your experiences and perspectives. Let’s hear what you have to say.

Experimenter in life, productivity, and creativity. Work in Forge | Elemental | Business Insider | GMP | Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com.

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