5 tips to start editing non-fiction

Making your first forays into editing non-fiction? Awesome. There are some subtle but key differences between fiction and non-fiction, and so there are differences in how to approach these two types of writing as an editor.

The difference between fiction and non-fiction

First, it’s worth remembering that non-fiction writers are already in the world they’ve been writing about. They already have a solid foothold in that sphere and have already established some kind of authority or following.

Now, they need to get all that expert knowledge on paper with your help.

Unlike most fiction, non-fiction isn’t pure entertainment. As an author, you’re providing a clear service—the reader is looking for what, in a practical sense, they’re going to take away from the book.

From the title to the last word, they’re looking for value that goes beyond enjoyment or relaxation.

Things to remember

Before we jump into the actual editing tips, here are just a few bits to keep in mind when you go into a non-fiction edit.

1. Trust your gut

You’re coming to the text with fresh eyes, as a first-time reader. That is priceless. Trust your own response to the text and convey that to the author as part of your feedback.

Gauge your response to the text as a reader would, while analyzing what’s working well and what needs to be addressed from an editorial standpoint.

2. Be human

This industry is as much about the words as it is about the people behind them. Don’t be afraid to be human, and be friendly. Offer advice on things beyond the writing if you have it, whether that’s in the form of marketing tips for their social media, or making an introduction to others in your network who might be able to help them on their journey.

When you’re feeding back on a draft, don’t just focus on what needs work. Take a moment to give praise where it’s due and compliment the bits you particularly enjoyed as a reader. It’ll make their day.

Let’s go back to memoirs again as an example. They’re sharing something very intimate with the reader. They are vulnerable. That gentle, compassionate approach to feedback here is crucial.

They want to tell their story as effectively as they can, it’s your job to help them do that. Explain that the edits you’re suggesting are there to help them be understood more clearly by the reader.

3. Fact-checking

Remember, it’s not necessarily the editor’s job to fact-check non-fiction, but your client might not know that. Very often, clients aren’t even aware of a difference between proofing and editing, so communication on this front is key.

Fact-checking should be a separate task, ideally given to someone who is knowledgeable about the topic being discussed.

4. Submitting to publishers

If your client submits a full draft of their book for editing, it’s worth asking if they’ve got a book proposal ready to go with it.

A book proposal is a document written to ‘sell’ or pitch a manuscript to publishers. This document should present a short summary of the core book idea, a flavour of the chapters and topics, and an overview of a proposed marketing plan for it.

Some first-time writers might think that once the manuscript is done, it’s done. Book deal, sorted. So, do give them a heads up that if that proposal is accepted, it could take them down a bit of a different path from what they expected.

Having a full draft of their book ready to rock is still very useful. Let your author know it’s a great way to help them fast-track writing their proposal.

Editing non-fiction: 5 tips for getting started

1. Look at author voice

Are they coming across as an authority on the subject? Can the reader trust them? Does the author come across as confident in what they’re saying?

A non-fiction author has a wealth of knowledge and resources about their specialism, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re comfortable sharing it in this format yet. As an editor, you can help guide them through this in a developmental edit.

Remember! You can have a fun, approachable voice without losing authority. The language doesn’t have to be stiff or jargon-heavy to be taken seriously.

2. Review logic and structure

A non-fiction piece still has a plot, just in a different way to fiction. And that plot should make sense. Does the sequence of events make sense to the reader, or are things jumping around a bit too much?

If it’s the latter, sit with the author and work together to find the right structure to guide readers through their writing and get the most out of it.

A messy plot distracts readers from the value the author is trying to deliver, and will likely leave them feeling disappointed.

3. Consider the legal side

When you’re editing something like a memoir or medical text, things can get a little tricky on the legal side of things.

When your client is writing a difficult story involving a crime, for example, make it clear that you can’t give legal advice, or conclusively flag any potential issues in the book that could open them up to legal issues.

You can make some light suggestions (e.g. changing names/places/dates), but be very clear that someone qualified should look at it before moving closer to publication.

4. Get a cover summary from the author

At the very start of a project, ask the author to share the cover summary first, or write one if they haven’t already.

The summary is a blurb that sells a book to a potential reader. What will be covered? What will the reader gain from the book? Why are you the right person to give this advice or tell this story?

This is a useful exercise for the writer. The summary encapsulates the entire point of the book in a short snippet in the hopes of persuading a potential reader to buy it.

This gives the author an opportunity to distill the core message of their work into a short paragraph, and if they can’t do that effectively, then they might go back to the drawing board or come to you with questions around structure.

5. Be compassionate

This is probably the most important part of being an editor, no matter what kind of text you’re working with.

A lot of writers might feel apprehensive about getting their work edited, especially if it’s their first time doing this or they’re still finding their feet. And it is a scary place for a first-time author to be, so have compassion and be supportive throughout.

Let’s go back to memoirs again as an example. The author is sharing something very intimate with their reader. They are vulnerable, potentially sharing some pretty harrowing experiences.

From an editing perspective, that gentle approach to feedback here is crucial.

Let’s say the current plot isn’t quite working; how can you work with the writer to tweak it?

Unlike fiction or other types of non-fiction, memoirs are a touch more limited from a plot perspective. It’s a real story so we can’t make the changes we might want to.

  1. Think about what naturally occurring plot points you have and how you can work those into an engaging structure that makes sense to the reader.
  2. They want to tell their story as effectively as they can, and it’s your job to help them do that.
  3. Take the time to explain that your edits are there to help them get their story across to the reader more clearly.

These small considerations will help you nurture a more positive environment for you both to work in together, I guarantee it.

That’s a wrap! There are entire books filled with what we haven’t covered today, but I hope this piece gives you a good starting point for your non-fiction editing.



How to write a book proposal, Masterclass

Developmental editing for non-fiction, Claire Beveridge via CIEP

The copyeditor’s handbook: a guide for publishing and corporate communications, Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz

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