How to write a how-to book

May 09, 2017

Do you really want to write a how-to book, or d’you want to tell your own story?

A good how-to book tells the reader how to do something now, rather than the way the writer did it in the past.  If as a young person you want to become, say, a landscape gardener, you need a simple  book that invites you to consider your skills and passions, explains what qualifications are demanded and where to get them, tells you how much you can expect to earn when you’re starting out and where the jobs are, and suggests gaps in the market and achievable ambitions. And you’ll buy that book when you’re reassured that the author has some credibility in the field – has restored the acres around a stately home, is a gardening television personality, has remodelled Versailles, or whatever.

A coffee-table book about how the author became a famous landscape gardener and remodelled Versailles is just biography with pictures – interesting and readable, but different.

There’s room for both, how-to and biography. But do make up your mind which yours is going to be before you find your ghostwriter, because a how-to book that only tells you how the author did it thirty years ago can seem like self-congratulation masquerading as instruction. There is a happy medium; a good ghostwriter can build your own key experiences seamlessly into the text while still producing a an interesting and readable how-to book. Think about the kind of cookery book that Elizabeth David wrote, or Claudia Roden; or even the books of Yotam Ottolenghi (none of which, as far as I know, were by ghostwriters). The recipes don’t give you masses of detail about the writers’ private lives – they are not autobiographies – but they introduce you to the worlds that inspired their food.

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