Many people feel they have a how-to book in them but have trouble getting started. Or they’ve started but can’t finish.

I’ve written books but didn’t want this article to be limited to my own input. So I enlisted two experts on how-to writing. I spoke with Richard Nelson (Dick) Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute: the most successful career guide in history, having sold more than 10,000,000 copies and named by Time as one of the 100 best and most influential non-fiction books since 1923. I also interviewed George Young, a long-respected editor at Ten Speed Press, now a Random House imprint specializing in how-to books.

First steps

Need an idea for your book? Ask yourself, “What do I know well that hasn’t already been sufficiently written about?” If nothing comes to mind, just stay on the lookout. Bolles said, “Sometimes, a book comes as a visitation.”

After you’ve found an idea, then what? We all agreed: Start writing--anything. Bolles said, “Even if it’s ‘I don’t know what I want to say.’” Something may well emerge. Stay with it long enough to give yourself a fair shot. Not everyone is meant to write a book but don’t prematurely deprive yourself of the opportunity.


Bolles said, “Check your ego at the door.” Sure, be smart, be wise, but not to show off. Your goal must be to serve, to give your best, most honest ideas. Young adds, “If you’re writing for ego’s sake, readers will see right through you.” Readers are more likely follow your advice if they like you. Also crucial, Young says, “Always keep your reader in mind. What is your target reader really looking for?"

As you write, if humor emerges, great, but don’t force it. It risks appearing contrived. But what if you’re writing about a serious topic? Young suggests, “The more serious the topic, the more important humor is.” Of course, beware of slipping from funny into poor taste.

Especially if you’re artsy rather than rigorously analytical, you may wonder, “But I’m afraid my book won’t be logical.” Young reassures: “Start writing. The coherence will emerge later.” That coherence needn’t come just from you: Show your disjointed work or describe it to an analytical friend. The more people you explain it to, the more coherent it will become.

This article’s best nugget

Bolles urges, “Write assuming how people do behave, not how we wish they behaved.” Countless how-to books make recommendations that only someone with the drive and moxie of a book author would implement. Write what’s realistic to ask your target audience to do.

Getting unstuck

Of course, along the way, a writer can get stuck. What should you do if you find yourself procrastinating too much, with a painful case of writer’s block?

  • Get out of your chair, pace (which Stanford research finds improves thinking) and explain aloud what you’re trying to say.
  • If that doesn’t work, perhaps insert “???” and go on. Later, with fresh eyes, you may see a way around the roadblock.
  • If the problem isn't that you’re stuck but that you’re feeling lazy, Young suggests, “Think of  how good it will feel to get the book done.” For example, you might picture your readers’ improved lives or your getting praise and maybe even a few bucks.
  • Bolles offered unexpected advice. “Maybe stop writing for a while and, instead, do something you can get into, for example, help someone.”

Write on

Don’t write expecting fame and fortune. That’s rare. But writing--whether article or book--is usually worth it. You'll learn more about your topic and about yourself. And even if you self-publish and give copies to just a few people, as long as you write clearly about what’s important and not often-enough discussed, you'll help people. A most worthwhile activity. Write on!

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's  bio is on Wikipedia.


You are reading

How To Do Life

"I Wish I Stopped Trying to 'Fix' Myself 20 Years Ago"

Jamie Baier, a self-described recluse, candidly talks about his life.

So You’d Like to Make Big Money in Sales

An edited transcript of an exchange with a caller to my radio program.

"Malone Alone"

A reclusive person's story.