How Much of You Should be in your Nonfiction Book?

Many authors writing a nonfiction book struggle with how much of their personal story to include in their book. The short answer is just enough.

Adding personal anecdotes or experiences can be a way to add personal warmth to a business book. It can be a way of creating rapport with your reader. I say “can” because too much of a good thing can also derail a solid business or how-to book.

If I am reading a weight-loss book about a woman who lost 100 lbs and she is sharing her journey, then I am more inclined to accept her advice because she did it. Her personal story gives validation to what she is saying. But, make no mistake, I am reading the book to find out how I can lose weight. It’s all about me. If her story eats up too much of the book, I will feel that I did not get what I paid for.

Let’s use a shorter example. A marketing email. I get a regular email from a business coach who loves to open with something like, “Hey Barbara, I’m drinking an iced green tea right now. How about you?” … and then he gets immediately to the point of the email. That first intro is never more than a few sentences, it always sounds genuine, and it always sounds not like a mass-mail but as if he’s talking just to me. He doesn’t sidetrack me with how his car wouldn’t start or the puppy peed on the rug, or any other events that might have actually happened as he sat down to write his email. In other words, the personal bit in his marketing email is “just enough.” (BTW, I almost always read his emails all the way through.)

During a recent webinar on Writing a Book Proposal, New York publishing consultant, Jane Friedman spoke briefly about this topic. She said she had noticed a hybrid type of book that combines memoir with self-help or how-to. For instance, the author talks about a tough time in her life and then extrapolates lessons from it for the reader. Unfortunately, the result usually fails as both memoir and how-to. Friedman strongly advises against this marriage as the two are very challenging forms to combine.

That said, if you are writing a how-to or self-help book it is reasonable and expected that you include some of your personal experiences. Just don’t overwhelm the reader with it. Your story needs to be my story. If not, then I am not getting what I came for.

I recently worked with two different nonfiction authors, each working on their first book and each using personal and/or business experiences in their books in different ways.

One of the authors told me she had originally outlined the book with a personal story per chapter, but once she started writing, she felt impeded in delivering the information that she wanted, tied as she was with a style that required a personal anecdote for each point. In the end, she cut that format from her first draft and instead used fewer examples from her own business and personal life spread through the text as amplifiers rather than the story driver.

The second author also used personal examples and mentions from her immediate family in her nonfiction narrative. However, and wisely because it was largely a business book, she balanced this with mentions also from her business podcast. In a book about human interaction, it worked to have examples from both her personal and her business life.

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