How to Edit Your Nonfiction Book

I spent nearly a year discussing the Elements of Fiction, with 92 posts altogether on the topic. Those of you who are writing nonfiction may have wondered when I was going to get to you.

As it happens, I’m teaching Edit Like a Pro: Elements of Nonfiction at the Speak Up Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this week, and as is my habit, I’ll share with you here what I’m teaching there.

Just like novelists need to address character and plot before looking at description and dialog, nonfiction writers need to look at major elements before tackling minor ones. Take each section in turn, because if things in the first section change, they are likely to have a cascade effect on the other elements. But the reverse is rarely true.

Illustration © Natalia Merzlyakova • Fotolia

I strongly recommend you finish your manuscript before you edit. I’ve heard tell of writers who edit partial manuscripts before proceeding, but I advise against it because you can get stuck in an editing loop, endlessly revising…

So first, finish. Besides, many problems with your manuscript will not be apparent until you can look at the whole thing. So finish first.

When your ms is complete, let it sit for a while—a week or three—then do a fast read-through of your first draft in as short a time as you possibly can. Two or three days. Do this on paper or an e-version, whichever is more comfortable for you, but in a way that’s different from how you write. If you write on a laptop, don’t do your read-through on it. Put the book on an e-reader or print it out.

On this first read-through, you’re not looking for typos or other small errors. You’re looking to see that the major elements are in place. Consider whether you’ve included information that’s extraneous (especially a hazard for memoirists) or whether you’ve omitted information that’s needed. If you’re an expert in your field, you may assume that everyone knows what you know. But how many of your readers will be amateurs or rookies? You may need to include basic information for their benefit.

Don’t edit yet. Just make notes. And compare your manuscript to the checklist.

Of course I have a Nonfiction Editing Checklist.

You may not be able to check off every item in this list, but you should be able to check off most of them.

Nonfiction for the general market is usually simpler than fiction, so there are fewer elements. Here I list them in order of importance according to me:

Personality—The nonfiction equivalent of Character.
Information, Facts, and Historical References—Some of this will be the equivalent of Plot. Double-check everything.
Presentation and Flow—The equivalent of Structure and Pacing.
Narrative voice—Write as you speak, but with more polish.
Mechanics—Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling.

What about memoir? Along with some other types of narrative nonfiction, to edit memoir you’ll be better off using a combination of the two editing checklists. You have less leeway than a novelist in developing characters, but you’ll need to structure your story, even if it’s a true one, the way a novel is plotted. And you’ll check facts like any nonfiction writer.

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