Every author struggles with how much of their personal story should be in their book. Some want to put a lot of their story in their book. Others don’t want to put any of their story in.
So how much is correct? The basic answer:
Your book should have enough of your story to help the reader get what they want out of the book, but nothing more.
Let’s examine both mistakes authors make with their story independently, and that should make the balance clear.
Don’t Put In Too Much of Your Story
This is going to sound harsh, but it’s the most important thing you’ll learn from this post (and I will repeat this many times):
Your readers don’t care about you, your story, or your book.
They’re not buying or reading your book for you. They are buying it and reading it to get something they want. So yes, this means that your readers only care about what your book will get them. They view your book and you and your story in terms of that lens only.
We have some authors who want to make their book about themselves. They want to write all about their lives and their personal stories and go on and on about themselves, their fears, their anxieties, their accomplishments…no one cares.
Don’t get me wrong, they absolutely have the right to write a book that is a monument to themselves. But no one will read it or care about it. (Yes, there are some exceptions for certain types of memoirs, but that’s beyond the scope of this book.)
I say that not to judge memoirs or books that are very self-focused. Just know that if you do this, you’re writing that book only for yourself. If you know that and accept it, then it’s fine. Go do it.
But if you want your book to find an audience and have an impact on readers, then you must start with the intention that the focus of the book is on what’s relevant to the reader.
Yes, you are the author of your book…but it’s not for you. It’s for the reader.
Put The Parts of Your Story Important To The Reader
What I’m about to tell you will seem contradictory. But it’s not:
The reader absolutely does want to hear your story…but only the parts that are relevant to why they are reading your book.
We have many authors who don’t want to put any of their story in the book. They think it’s arrogant, or they don’t want to talk about themselves, or they’re afraid to be vulnerable or to share emotions. These authors seem to think there is a bright line distinction between memoir and business book, and that a business book can’t have anything personal in it at all.
This is not true, and in fact, a book with nothing about the author rarely works well.
If it helps the reader to understand why they should read the book and how the book can relate to them by hearing about specific parts of your story, then you should absolutely put those parts of your story in the book.
This is because of a simple fact of human biology: humans learn through story and example.
Readers pick up your book because it has knowledge and information in it that can help them solve a problem they have or get something they want.
But they read it and engage it and use it because of the stories in it that teach them, inspire them, motivate them, and help them understand and apply the knowledge.
As much as possible your book should encase your teachings and knowledge in stories. Those can be your stories, or they can be stories of other people. Either one works.
What Parts of Your Story Should Be In Your Book?
This is a pretty simple test to help you understand if a specific story should go in the book:
Does this story add value for the reader?
Literally just ask yourself that question. If it adds no value for the reader, then it doesn’t belong in the book. If it does, then it stays in.
The exchange between you and the reader is they’re giving you their attention and you’re giving them a knowledge and wisdom they find valuable. So your story needs to embody that and display that, and if it does, it’s in.
How Vulnerable Should You Be? How Much Emotion to Show?
The other thing authors ask is how vulnerable they should be in their stories. The answer is, again:
Be as vulnerable as you need to be to write the most impactful story for the reader.
For example, if you write a book about managing money, it would be great to tell a story about how you filed for bankruptcy. That’s a hard thing to admit, and is a vulnerable thing to say in a book.
Telling that story in a book about managing money will greatly benefit the reader. It will make them trust you, and you will seem credible because you let them know that you’ve been there and can help them get over their shame and their issues of money.
But if the book is about knitting, I’m not sure how much sense it makes to talk about bankruptcy. That doesn’t get the reader anything. In that case, it feels like an emotional release for the author, but irrelevant to the reader.
Your book should never be a place for you to dump your emotions on the reader. If writing the book is therapy for you, that’s okay. But you should not ask the reader to be your therapist.
Think about it like any sort of sharing with a friend. If your friend has a bad day and tells you about it, you listen and empathize. Then if you had a bad day, you share that as well. You’re sharing, you’re empathizing with each other, that’s okay, right?
But if you just talk about all of your problems, and then once they start talking, you get up and leave—that’s not empathizing. That’s dumping.
There is a big difference.
There is one last thing I’d recommend though: speak from your scars, not your open wounds.
Meaning, don’t put stuff in your book that you haven’t worked through. Your book is for sharing what you know, not working through things you haven’t processed yet.
Even if you process by writing, that’s OK, just make sure what goes in the book is hard-earned wisdom, not emotional release that only serves you.
Showing emotion—especially in writing—can be very hard. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve worked with authors and they describe a horrific scene—some sort of major trauma—with total detachment.
Maybe they had a bankruptcy where they lost everything, or they had someone in their family die, or they lost a business to a cheating partner, and we’ll hear them talk about this and they’ll just describe the facts. They won’t talk about how they felt or how it affected them.
We’ll push these authors to then talk about their feelings. When that happened, what did you feel? What was it like? How did it affect you?
If you are going to tell stories like that, then you should absolutely talk about your emotions, to the extent that it is relevant.
In fact, for many authors, we have to first tell them that their story deeply impacts us, before they give themselves permission to talk about their emotions and feelings.
And when you do that as an author, you give the reader the permission to feel that emotion and engage with that emotion. Which is what you’re trying to accomplish with your book.
You are not there as an author to just give the facts. Facts are great. Facts are important, facts are the bedrock of your book—but people don’t learn through facts and people don’t engage through facts.
People learn through story and example. They make decisions about how to change their life with emotion. And that’s what you need to do to have a great book. It’s got to have both of those things in it.
If you’re unsure about this, answer these questions:
What’s your favorite book?
What is your favorite part about your favorite book? What was the thing that impacted you the most?
Right now you’re probably thinking about a part that was a profound in the book that elicited a deep emotion in you.
It wasn’t a fact. It was a story or an anecdote or a scene that brought something up in you.
Do the same thing with your book. Tell stories and anecdotes that elicit emotion, because that will draw the reader in and make the facts stick to their brain.
The more you show the ugly stuff, the more you say the things that everyone thinks and no one says, the more you show your true self and true thoughts—the better your book will be.