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The Confusing Definition Side of Writing a How-To Book

Put on your plaid. Strap on your overalls. And get ready to get the job done, whatever that job may be. Because this week, we’re all about the very popular yet seldom referenced “How To” book genre.

As in how to do it yourself, whether “it” is learning or doing or some other such action-verb. Maybe it's even writing.

To get us started on this latest round of adventure and discovery, go to and toggle the “Books” only category. Then type in “how to.” When you do, you might find such titles as:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People

  • How to Change Your Mind

  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

  • How to Raise an Adult.

All very good questions, I think, particularly considering these snippy, snappy societal times we’re living in.

It’s also easy to say that the “how to” book genre category is looking pretty necessary considering these technology-addicted times we’re living in. Nobody knows how to do anything apart from add apps to their smartphones, it seems.

What are we going to do with ourselves if the internet ever crashes and burns? The answer might be to scurry on over to the bookstore and buy as many “how to” books as possible.

Or maybe we could properly prepare for said apocalypse and write out our own…

How To:

The “How To” book category both is and isn’t a genre depending on who you ask and what you ignore. Which makes sense considering the wide array of topics “How To” can cover. These books are simply detailed step-by-step explanations on various topics of choice.

Just to make things even more convoluted, you can also possibly, kinda sorta consider reference books to be possibly, kinda sorta in the same literary category. That means all of those Idiot’s Guides and for Dummies books can be catalogued right alongside our step-by-steps.

To further illustrate that first paragraph above, let’s revisit our “how to” results from up above.

In the case of How to Win Friends and Influence People, written by Dale Carnegie, it makes sense that it's a self-help book.

In the case of How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, it apparently fits into the “medical books” genre, the “biographies & memoirs” genre and the “religion & spirituality” genre.

And How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is, it would seem, a self-help book, parenting & relationships book, and conflict management book. All wrapped into one.

Naturally, How to Raise an Adult is going to fall into similar categories, so we won’t even bother with it for the purpose of this post.

But throw in the Idiot’s Guides and for Dummies books to our definition… and you can literally add in every single other nonfiction category under the sun to this kinda sorta genre.

The Idiot’s Guide to Chemistry is obviously science nonfiction.

U.S. History for Dummies is obviously historical nonfiction.

And Dieting for Dummies obviously falls into the health, fitness, nutrition, dieting book section of the shelf.

Hence the reason why “how to” is such a debatable book genre classification. How can you have a genre that fits perfectly into so many other genres?

So perhaps it isn’t quite a genre after all. Even so, it’s a category we’re going to explore.


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