How to Self Edit a Nonfiction Book in 7 Simple Steps
The best way to edit a book in the nonfiction genre is to first perform one or more self-editing passes, and then to hand it over to a professional editor to get it ready it for publication.
Let’s discuss next why your book needs both types of editing and why they complement each other so well.
Self Editing vs. Professional Editing
The most efficient way of writing nonfiction is by doing it from a stream of consciousness. That is, by choosing a topic from your book outline and then letting the words “flow out” unimpeded from your mind and onto the page.
The reason this technique works so well is that the content you’re about to write is already stored in your brain. In other words, you don’t need to create something out of thin air but instead tap into a deep well of knowledge and experience.
Now, writing from a stream of consciousness isn’t centered on quality but quantity. The idea here isn’t to pre-judge what you’re writing as you write it but to just let it flow unimpeded.
What this means is that you’ll have to do a fair bit of self-editing when you’re done.
Typically, it’s most efficient to begin your self-editing passes when you complete a sizable chapter section, but not before (say, 1,000-2,000 words long). You want to at least have an idea developed from beginning to end before you begin rewriting it.
But keep in mind that when you’re done self-editing your book, it won’t be ready yet for publication. You’ll need to hire a professional nonfiction editor to bring the quality of your writing up to the standards expected in the nonfiction book trade.
Different Types of Editing
Professional editing is divided into four distinct stages:
- First Stage: Developmental Editing. Developmental editors look at the overall structure of your book. Their goal is to ensure that your message is being successfully delivered to your target audience.
- Second Stage: Content Editing. Content editors are focused more on readability than structure. They ensure that paragraphs and sentences in your manuscript are well constructed and that the flow of your ideas is clear.
- Third Stage: Copyediting. Copy editors make certain that you’re using accurate language in your manuscript with no spelling, punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation, syntax or grammatical errors.
- Fourth Stage: Proofreading. Proofreaders provide the fine-tooth-comb check that catches any typos that were missed in all prior stages to ensure your book is error-free before going to print.
The Importance of Professional Editing
The need to hire a professional editor is not a poor reflection of your self-editing skills, but a demand of the book market. There are two key reasons why you should hire an editor instead of doing the job yourself or farming it out to friends and family.
First of all, your book will be competing with traditionally published books edited by professionals and you simply won’t be able to complete unless you hire one too.
The ubiquity of Amazon as the world’s largest online bookstore, as well as the world’s largest book search engine, has made it possible for savvy self-published authors to prime Amazon’s product ranking algorithm so that their books appear side-by-side with the pros in the business.
That means that a book search on your subject matter will likely bring up your title among many traditionally published books in your niche. Assuming that your title and cover are as compelling as theirs, buyer selection will come down to writing quality.
The second reason is that your nonfiction book will turn you into an expert in your field; therefore, it’ll become a proxy for your expertise and by extension your professional reputation.
Fair or not, if your book is poorly edited your reputation will take a hit, since readers will assume that a lack of attention to detail in the writing (e.g. poor grammatical choices, typos, punctuation errors, etc.) is indicative of your lack of professionalism.
7 Steps to Edit a Nonfiction Book
With this discussion out of the way, let’s now focus on some best self-editing practices that you need to master in order to edit your manuscript as a pro.
Step 1: Correct Grammatical Errors
Nonfiction books are expected to pass a high bar for quality. This must be reflected both in the way your book looks and in the way it reads.
Readers have the expectation that all titles in this genre are written by experts and demand a high level of execution. Grammatical errors reflect the opposite of this expectation.
These types of errors can create some awkward moments (e.g. writing: “He excepted the fact that…” instead of: “He accepted the fact that…”), and sometimes even cringe-worthy reactions (e.g. writing: “Its clear that…” instead of: “It’s clear that…”) which make readers uncomfortable.
Here are some other common grammatical errors:
- Writing: “Lets use this system for…” instead of: “Let’s use this system for…”
- Writing: “A critical element in most illnesses are…” instead of: “A critical element in most illnesses is…”
- Writing: “They tried to quickly extinguish the fire when…” instead of: “They tried to extinguish the fire quickly when…”
To minimize these occurrences, acquaint yourself with the most frequently used rules of grammar before you begin to write your manuscript.
Now, you don’t need to know every possible grammar rule (some can be very obscure); your professional editor will take care of the outliers. But at least you should learn the basics.
The following website is a good starting point:
Step 2: Correct Syntax Errors
If grammar is centered on correct language, syntax is centered on correct structure.
By using proper syntax rules you’ll be ensuring that your sentences are written clearly, with all elements in the correct order for optimum reading.
While the order in which subjects, verbs and objects are expected to be placed can be altered in creative genres (Yoda’s amusing speech patterns come to mind), nonfiction requires established syntax structures.
For example, although there’s nothing technically wrong with the expression “At this conclusion we’re arriving because…” we’d never dare use anything other than, “We’re arriving at this conclusion because…” in nonfiction.
Here are some examples of common syntax errors:
- Missing subjects, e.g. writing: “In looking at the results, glaring errors were discovered” instead of: “In looking at the results, the doctor discovered glaring errors”
- Vague references, e.g. writing: “When the student finally connected with her teacher, she was delighted.” (who was delighted?) instead of: “The student was delighted when she finally connected with her teacher.”
Step 3: Correct Punctuation Errors
In addition to complying with grammar and syntax rules, you also need to pay close attention to the correct use of punctuation rules. These rules, while subtler, are important to help readers understand the author’s intent.
Here are some common examples of punctuation errors:
- Missing commas, e.g. writing: “In any event what works best in that case is…” instead of: “In any event, what works best in that case is…”
- Unnecessary commas, e.g. writing: “The problem couldn’t be solved in the end, because a key element was missing” instead of: “The problem couldn’t be solved in the end because a key element was missing”
Step 4: Correct Capitalization Errors
Capitalization rules tend to be more stylistic in nature, but they’re central to well-written language and play an important role in nonfiction.
As a general guideline, here are some examples of words that you need to capitalize:
- Names of people, organizations and places
- Names of historical events
- Names of days and months
- People’s titles when they appear in front of their name
- Initials and acronyms
- Names of college degrees
- Product brands
- Names of institutions and government agencies
- Names of holidays
- The first letter of a title without exceptions (this includes typically un-capitalized articles and prepositions)
- The first letter of every word in a title with some exceptions (typically articles and prepositions, with additional word-length rules)
- The first letter of a sentence enclosed in quotation marks
- The first letter of a word preceded by a period
Step 5: Correct Hyphenation Errors
Even subtler yet are hyphenation rules. When used improperly, the negative effects are not as stark as grammatical errors, but your readers can still tell that something isn’t quite right.
Here are some examples of hyphenation rules:
- Hyphenate multiple words that are grouped together as a single modifier to a noun (e.g. “This is a best-in-show category”)
- Hyphenate multiple words indicating a period of time that are used together as a modifier to a noun (e.g. “That thirty-year-old man is looking for work”)
- Hyphenate numerical fractions when spelled out (e.g. “Two-thirds, three-quarters, etc.”)
Although hyphens have traditionally been used to follow a prefix, the current trend is to remove these types of hyphens if possible (e.g. writing: “Ex spouse” instead of: “Ex-spouse”).
Step 6: Eliminate Unnecessary Adjectives and Adverbs
Although adjectives and adverbs can be used to great effect as descriptive devices in the world or fiction, the best nonfiction practice is to minimize their use.
The test is: if their removal doesn’t change the meaning of your sentence, then it’s safe to remove them.
Here’s an example of the unnecessary use of adverbs:
Instead of writing: “We assume that if something absolutely makes sense to us then it must undoubtedly make sense to everybody else” write: “We assume that if something makes sense to us then it must make sense to everybody else.”
Here’s an example of the unnecessary use of adjectives:
Instead of writing: “He didn’t have any meaningful prior experience running a company of any size” write: “He didn’t have any experience running companies.”
Step 7: Proofread Your Manuscript
Once you’ve removed as many errors as possible following the best practices shown in steps 1-6, it’s time to go through your entire manuscript with a fine-tooth comb to look for typos and other inconsistencies.
Your goal when proofreading is to do a surface read that doesn’t focus on the substance of the text but on the words themselves.
If you focus on your content when reading, you’ll miss many typos because your brain is focused on understanding the substance in your writing and will ignore typos for the sake of your comprehension.
What you need to focus on instead is a surface read-through that isolates words from the content so you can catch as many typos as possible.
By implementing the above seven steps, you’ll be ensuring that your professional editor receives a top-notch manuscript ready to be polished, without having to needlessly spend time fixing common errors that’ll unnecessarily increase your bill.
Once your manuscript is professionally edited, it’s time to move on to the next critical stage of the self-publishing process: Book Production.
Here are two articles to get you thinking in this direction:
- 10 Nonfiction Book Layout Tips That Will Glue Your Audience to the Page
- 5 Book Cover Design Principles for Nonfiction Books
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.