How to Tell Your Story AND Teach a Lesson

Don’t make readers dig for the lesson in your writing.

A writer recently asked me for advice on how to make her writing more effective.  She’s working on a book about her personal story, and a smart reviewer suggested that she continue to share her story (descriptive details), but also add in how-to’s (prescriptive details) that others could use to overcome the same issues she dealt with in her life’s journey.

She wanted to know how to best combine descriptive and prescriptive details. That’s a great question! When you succeed in blending the two, you engage the reader with your story and help them apply the lessons you’ve learned along the way.

People often read inspirational or personal-development books because they desire a change in their life. They want to know what others in their situation have done, so they can figure out how to make positive changes in their own life. Only our friends and family members read stories about us because they care about us. Unless you’re a celebrity, just about everyone else is asking the famous question, “What’s in it for me?”

WIIFM is the important phrase to keep in mind when you’re writing. What’s In It For Me? Consider your story from the reader’s point of view. They may want to be entertained, but if you are a coach or expert, they really want to learn from you. So help them out! Here are a few tips on how to do that.

Get Practical

So much of today’s personal-development or self-help content talks in generalities and offers trite advice like “improve your attitude.” The question is… HOW do you do that? Consider the following questions as you write:

  • How can my story help someone find what they’re seeking (health, hope, happiness, etc.)
  • What were some of the actions I took that helped me?
  • Can I outline an action plan that someone could use?
  • Can I offer a template that helps the reader develop his/her own action plan?
  • Can I offer probing, self-discovery questions – things I had to answer for myself that would be helpful for the reader to answer for him/herself?
  • What practical steps did I take to change my behavior/attitude/situation, etc.?
  • What tools did I use or habits did I develop to change my circumstance? How could those things be applied in others’ lives?

Break it Down

Weave in bits of your story and then provide a bullet point or step-by-step list.

Use subheads to break up the copy and guide the reader through the process.

Limit the number of paragraphs between the subheads. One study found that if the copy was longer than nine paragraphs, three out of ten readers stopped reading by the fifth paragraph.

Keep it Real and Relatable

You may be an expert in your field, but your reader probably is not. We’ve all fallen asleep listening to college professors or even preachers droning on using words that we barely understand. If you managed to keep your eyes open during that talk, you were probably acutely aware of the fact that the speaker wanted to sound smart. Unfortunately, that high-brow language kept you from really engaging. The result: You listened (or slept) for an hour or two, and walked away thinking, What was the point?

Don’t be like that.

Watch your vocabulary for industry jargon that makes you sound “in the know” but leaves your readers out of the loop. Most popular works are written between a seventh- and ninth-grade level. You can check the reading level of your copy in Microsoft Word by turning on the readability statistics. The point is to keep the content relatable to your readers. Write for their benefit… not to make yourself appear intelligent.

Share Your Story

Weaving the prescriptive and the descriptive details together is what makes your story unique. Some of the prescriptive comments may be in other books, but by combining them with your story, you are offering the material in a context that the reader may not have heard or understood before. Sometimes, hearing a message in a new way or with new details can trigger an “aha” moment. That’s what you want for your readers.

Are you working on a book? Do you want to write a book but don’t know where to start? Get started with these 7 Simple Steps and make plans now to attend an upcoming workshop and writers’ retreat.

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Betsy Izzo - September 20, 2012


Thank you for all of your help. The information in your blog will be helpful to so many of us.

Erin K Casey - September 26, 2012

My pleasure, Betsy!

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