Before you find a nonfiction book editor for your manuscript, you need to become familiar with the four stages of editing. Each stage is well defined and takes care of a unique set of requirements.
Why Are So Many Editing Stages Required?
The reason is that the nonfiction genre demands precision, accuracy, credibility and trust. This type of books exists to educate, inform, persuade, influence and train, therefore it’s imperative your manuscript be thoroughly checked for correctness.
In fact, your professional reputation will hinge on your book because, like it or not, the book will be an extension of who you are and how you’ll be perceived by others.
Nonfiction vs. Fiction Editing
Unlike fiction, where you could write several novels and short stories as part of your personal development as a writer before coming up with your personal masterpiece, for nonfiction, you are simply not going to get a second chance to make a first impression.
For example, nonfiction books can’t afford to have incorrect dates, they can’t afford to have inaccurate statistics that are easy to check, and they can’t afford to have bad grammar or spelling mistakes.
Ultimately, you can’t afford to do any less than your best in order to produce a top-quality product.
Your first nonfiction book will establish you as an expert; so you need to get the right professional help to ensure that your product shines.
In this article I’ll explain what each one of the four nonfiction-editing stages is and why they’re all needed. I’ll then give you some tips about what to look out for when you begin interviewing candidates.
What Type of Editor Do I Need?
The four editing stages must be executed in a specific sequence. Each stage will take care of a different aspect of your nonfiction book and it’ll build on the previous stage.
These stages go from the general to the specific, starting with a 30,000-foot view of your book in stage one and ending at the ground level in stage four, by checking every word in your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb.
Stage 1: Developmental Editing
The first quality check you’ll need on your book is your overall structure. Does it best support your main thesis? Does it produce a clear path for your reader to follow? Does it establish an optimal flow of ideas?
Developmental editing takes care of how your book is put together at a high level. There’s no point in getting into the details of your content if the overall structure is inadequate or confusing.
It also takes care of the viewpoint. Most authors, especially first-time authors, tend to write books from their personal viewpoint, which typically produces a sub-standard product.
A developmental editor will help you gain perspective so that you can reorient yourself to take the viewpoint of your readers instead, which is the only viewpoint that truly matters. If you don’t get this part right, then readers will find it very difficult to embrace your book.
Stage 2: Content Editing
Once the high-level work is done, you’ll go one level deeper. The content editor will pick up from where the developmental editor left off and move down to your text. Their job is to ensure that your message is written with clarity for your target audience.
For example, they’ll take care of your chapter flow and will also make sure that all chapters have the right structure (at its most basic, a beginning that introduces the main idea, a middle that expands on it, and an end that summarizes it).
They’ll take care of sentence construction, paragraph construction, flow of ideas throughout a chapter, chapter order and placement of visual elements such as graphs, tables and images so that they serve your text in the best possible way.
Stage 3: Copyediting
The next stage is copyediting – one level deeper than content editing. Copyeditors are not concerned with idea flow or paragraph clarity: they’re concerned with the accuracy of each individual word.
They will catch spelling, punctuation, grammatical, syntax, capitalization and hyphenation errors. They’ll correct any fact in your book that is inaccurate, from wrong dates to wrong places to wrong names.
They’ll flag any potential legal infringement issues, check for major formatting inconsistencies, check for proper word usage and check for any type of anomalies in your text.
Their main job is to establish both language accuracy and factual accuracy.
If developmental editing has to do with your ability to connect with your audience, and content editing has to do with how you communicate with them, copyediting has to do with you as the subject matter expert.
The copyeditor’s job is to make sure that your book’s content is correct and its facts are accurate. This is the stage that’s most directly linked to safeguarding your professional reputation.
Stage 4: Proofreading
The last editing stage gets to the deepest level of detail. Now your manuscript is final, with no more changes to be implemented. Yet, before your book goes to the printer you’ll have to make 100% sure that there are no embarrassing errors contained in it.
This is the job of the proofreader. They’ll go through your book with a fine-tooth comb, checking for any typos that might have been missed in all prior stages, formatting inconsistencies, incorrect references, caption errors and general fact-checking.
This is the final filter before your book’s content switches into a state of permanence as it gets published, printed and widely distributed. Although it’s possible to fix mistakes post publishing, this comes at a high financial and reputational cost.
How to Filter Out Bad Candidates
It’s now time to begin your search for the ideal editorial candidates. Sometimes, you’ll find that a single editor may be able to carry out multiple stages of editing. Other times you’ll find dedicated editors that specialize in a single stage.
Having said that, beware of those who claim they can do it all. Each editing stage requires very specific skilled knowledge and it would take a superhuman to do all of it with a high level of proficiency.
So, keep that in mind when you begin your search, and be on the lookout for the following five problem areas.
Problem Area 1– Editor Has a Thin Resume (Don’t Hire a Newbie)
It’s not easy to advise that you refrain from hiring a newbie, because we should try not to close the doors to new talent.
However, in the particular case of nonfiction, where your reputation as a credible expert relies on the editorial quality of your book, you can’t really afford to take a chance on anything but an experienced editor.
You need to hire someone who’s done this type of work many times before. For example, if you’re hiring a copyeditor they’ll need to have advanced command of popular style manuals.
Make sure your candidates have no less than 5-7 years of experience in their respective fields.
Problem Area 2– Editor Wants to Charge For a Sample Edit
It’s a given that a professional editor will agree to provide you with a sample edit from your own manuscript at no charge. Depending on the type of editor you’re hiring, this could be anywhere from 1-3 pages of text.
Professional editing doesn’t come cheap, and there’s no other real way to assess fit than with an actual sample. If a candidate asks you to pay for a sample edit, then take a pass. That’s a sign of inexperience.
Problem Area 3– Editor Unwilling to Provide Author References
Another sign of inexperience is the refusal to provide you with author references – usually excused on the basis of protecting their privacy.
Nonfiction authors are by definition public figures, so the privacy argument is really a front to mask the fact that perhaps they don’t have any nonfiction experience (your book will be the first) or simply that they’re afraid of what clients will say.
In either case, take a pass and move on down your list of candidates.
Problem Area 4– Editor Is Unwilling to Show You a Sample Contract
Contracts are a necessity for highly paid services, especially when the work will be performed over a period of time. A proper contract will protect both you and the editor.
Having said that, editing contracts are drawn by the editor’s lawyers not yours, so you’ll have to ensure that the fine print contains enough protections for you and doesn’t bind you to clauses that may backfire later.
The best prevention is to ask for a sample copy of the editor’s contract so that you can read it ahead of time and have it reviewed by your lawyer before you sign it.
It’s not uncommon to have clauses that make you uncomfortable amended or removed, depending of the case. After all, a good editor will want your business and will make every effort to do the necessary adjustments provided they’re reasonable.
If an editor doesn’t want to provide you with a sample copy of the agreement in advance of hiring their services, that’s a sign or either inexperience or some hidden agenda that might rear its ugly head after signing.
Problem Area 5– Bad Rapport
Finally, make sure that you have good rapport with your ideal candidate. There’s nothing worse than having to walk on eggshells when you’re dealing with anyone in a creative contractual relationship, especially someone who’s being paid to do such a key job as editing.
The author-editor creative relationship is very intimate, and you want to ensure that you’re dealing with someone you’re 100% comfortable working with.
Listen to your hunches. Good relationships are effortless. If you feel any type of resistance or “weird” energy, then it’s better to take a pass.
For many first-time authors the job of the editor isn’t well understood – especially with so many book genres having such different requirements.
My hope with this article is to demystify the craft so that you have a clear idea of the specific editorial requirements for nonfiction books so that you can move ahead in your search with confidence.
All the best!
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.