Writing and editing non-fiction
Guest post by Kit Carstairs of The Manuscript Agency
Writing and editing non-fiction manuscripts has more in common with fiction than you may realise. Regardless of the content, it is important to draw your reader into your writing. Both fiction and non-fiction authors use the same principles to create works that are emotionally and intellectually engaging.
These fundamental principles include:
- Point of view/voice
As an editor of non-fiction I look for ways to draw out the story and make the content more engaging to the reader. I will generally look at:
- Fiction elements (structural and line-by-line edit)
- Organisation of material (structural edit)
- Presentation of material (diagrams, images, lists etc)
WHAT IS NON-FICTION?
Non-fiction is content written to convey the truth (or the assumed truth) about events, people and subjects of interest to the author. Works of non-fiction are assumed to be honest and truthful in their telling, whether it be an objective or subjective recount.
Some non-fiction texts will include elements of supposition, deduction and imagination (fiction) in order to present a comprehensive view of the person/event/topic being written about.
Non-fiction texts often use images (photos, diagrams, sketches etc) to further illustrate their point.
There are many different forms of non-fiction, dependent on their intended audience, as well as the author’s intentions for the work. The primary non-fiction styles, as I see them, are:
Narrative: the telling of a real life story or experience; recount of actual events through the use of storytelling elements – e.g. autobiographies, memoirs, journals.
Informational: provides facts and explains/informs on a particular subject – e.g. history books, science books, nature books.
How-to: step-by-step guides on how to achieve particular goals or solve problems – e.g. craft books, home maintenance guides.
Reference: used to look up answers to particular problems or questions – e.g. dictionaries, encyclopaedias, grammar guides, travel guides; not typically intended to be read cover-to-cover.
Illustrated: often beautifully printed coffee-table books, they include images, sketches and drawings – e.g. photography books, home design books.
Persuasive: aims to influence a reader’s opinion by presenting facts and details using the author’s own point of view to argue a point – e.g. political speeches, essays or editorials.
Many manuscripts fall into more than one of these categories. For instance, a travel guide might fall into more than one category depending on how the author’s chosen to present the content. The author might be writing about her love of Sydney (persuasive), providing information (informational/reference) and including images (illustrated), while telling a story (narrative) about the city and its history.
TIPS ON HOW TO APPROACH WRITING NON-FICTION
While the best of editors can help you reveal your true story and assist you in illustrating it for your audience, preparation before you begin writing will help to deliver a better, more comprehensive manuscript.
Choose a topic
This seems like a no-brainer, but if you’re writing about a topic because you think it will be popular then you have missed the point. The best non-fiction work is written from a place of passion – e.g. because someone is truly interested in the life cycle of an ant and wants to share that knowledge and interest. Loving your topic is only the starting point – but it’s a good starting point!
Consider your audience
Your tone and the level of information you provide will depend on your choice of audience. Who do you want to read your book? Will the life cycle of an ant be an informative book for children? Are you approaching it with humour? Do you want it to be illustrated with beautiful, glossy images of ants?
Create a ‘contents list’
A plan helps you see where you’re going and stops you taking unnecessary detours. Try brainstorming your topic first to see where it takes you, then arrange these ideas into an initial contents list with headings and sub-headings. This will help you to keep a clear focus as you’re writing, so you can spend more time discovering valuable content and crafting the language and story.
Do your research
Even if you’re an expert in your field, research helps to develop and expand your ideas, and can also encourage the words to flow from your head onto the page. Try to do all your research upfront so everything you need is at your fingertips: e.g. transcribed interviews, photos, journals, sketches, diagrams, graphs. As you write you may discover that more research is required; when this happens, simply flag those areas and keep going. Come back to these sections at the end, when you have a complete first draft sitting in front of you.
Find the narrative
Non-fiction books, similar to fiction, have a story to tell – they’re not simply a list of facts. Think about how you want to share this story. Will you tell it in a linear structure, or would a non-linear approach suit it better? How will you organise the facts and events to engage and maintain the reader’s interest? For non-fiction to be compelling it needs to be true, but also interesting. Is there a hook to pull readers in and keep them reading?
What voice/point of view should you use?
It’s important to think upfront about the voice you wish to use to tell your story. What is the most appropriate voice for your manuscript? For instance, a memoir is usually written in first person, while a biography will use a third-person narration style. For instructional texts, it’s common to use second person. Although the voice can be changed at a later stage, it’s best to consider it in the early phase of manuscript development. Choosing the right voice has a huge impact on the way your work will be read and interpreted.
Write great characters
Although the characters in your non-fiction are real people, they still need to be written in an engaging and illustrative way to engage the interest and empathy of your readers. Non-fiction authors can use the same tools as fiction writers to describe and develop their protagonists: e.g. show conflict between your characters; make sure there are plenty of dramatic moments; maybe even give your characters dialogue, depending on what type of book you’re writing.
Find a new way of saying it
If what you’re writing has been said before, how might you say it in a different way?
You have written your non-fiction manuscript; now what? It’s important to remember that just because you have a completed manuscript sitting in front of you, it doesn’t mean it is finished. Editing your non-fiction manuscript is crucial to achieving a compelling, clear and successful book. Even if you intend to employ a qualified book editor, you will get more out of the experience if you self-edit first, so your editor can focus on the finer points of your writing.
Here are a few pointers for self-editing your manuscript:
- Don’t begin with the climax. Give the reader a reason to keep reading.
- Ask: why am I using this detail? When in doubt, cut it out.
- Will a reader understand this reference twenty years from now?
- Don’t work too hard with every sentence.
- When using dialogue, stick with simple tags like ‘said’ or ‘says’. Avoid fancy attributions (recalls, retorts, replies) unless used sparingly.
- Show, don’t tell. Let the reader discover things for themselves; don’t spoon-feed them emotions and thoughts. Let your writing take the reader on a journey.
- Use the senses: hearing, seeing, feeling, smell, taste.
- Read your work aloud. It’ll help you see where you lose rhythm, and where more information is needed. (It is worth reading a hard-copy version, as we tend to see more mistakes on the printed page than onscreen.)
- Ask someone else to read your work (preferably someone from your intended audience): do they understand it? Is it interesting and accessible?
- Cut unnecessary words: e.g. adverbs and adjectives. Let your nouns, verbs and dialogue do the work. Tighten your sentences, don’t waffle.
- Make sure you’re using the active voice; change instances of passive voice to active.
- Recheck all quotes and names: fact-check and fact-check again!
- Make sure your voice and point of view remain consistent throughout the book.
- Check all punctuation, spelling and grammar to the best of your ability. Don’t rely on Word to tell you what’s right and wrong.
- Walk away from your work for a few days – or even a few weeks. When you get some distance from your book, you’ll find it easier to see errors, missing information, and sentences that simply don’t make sense.
WHAT DOES A NON-FICTION EDITOR DO?
When I worked in-house as a non-fiction editor I worked across the illustrated lifestyle list, which included books about craft, home and DIY, photography, nature, history and cookbooks. Each required a different approach in terms of editing. When I edit your non-fiction manuscript I will look at all the elements discussed above – and more. I’ll consider what you’ve written about, how you’ve written it, who your intended audience is, and who I’m editing for – e.g. will the book be self-published or do you intend to submit it to agents and publishers?
The basic principles of editing non-fiction and fiction are the same; however, non-fiction has more layers that need to be taken into consideration. As a non-fiction editor you constantly need to question the content. Are these facts correct? Is more information needed to further illustrate a point? Are these images/graphs/indexes accurate and relevant? Could this information be presented in a way that’s more accessible to the reader – e.g. by using diagrams, boxed notes, a different structure, different heading styles?
It’s not simply about the words on the page. When I edit non-fiction I’m thinking of how the finished book will look and feel. I’m thinking about your audience and how they might want to access the information.
Non-fiction covers a vast range of topics and can be presented in many different ways, so when you ask ‘what does a non-fiction editor do?’ it’s kind of like asking how long a piece of string is! But that’s also the beauty of editing non-fiction: there’s so much scope to help the author share their content in a more meaningful and engaging way. As I see it, my job is about working with you, the author, to help you share your content in the way you desire, or the way a publishing house might desire it.
Kit Carstairs is the director of The Manuscript Agency, which focuses on the developmental needs of writers. Kit has a background working in-house and as a freelancer in book and magazine publishing, as well as academic research, marketing and broadcasting. She has almost a decade of experience working with a wide variety of content including: fiction (adult and children’s), general non-fiction, and academic and corporate content.