Rewriting and Self-Editing Guide for Nonfiction

Or, what you should do before you gather your beta team.

Or, the anal-retentive editor’s guide to self-editing. ūüėČ




… and More

(Coming Soon!)

Before you start rewriting or self-editing, take some time away from the book.

Congratulations!¬†You’ve completed your book! This is a massive achievement! Take a victory lap!

Seriously, though, you need a little time to gain perspective on your work. You will see your book in a completely different way with fresh eyes! Take at least a week off … more if you can.

(NOTE: The beginnings and endings of this and the Guide for Fiction are nearly identical, but the middles are very different!)

Stay completely away from the book, if you can.

Play with the dog. Go to a movie. Reconnect with family and friends. Whatever your happy place is … go there … and take a friend. You’ve earned it!

If you can't stay away from the book, work on other parts of it, NOT the text itself.

Keep those pesky mitts off your manuscript, but you can work on other elements of your book … IF you really have to. If you are self-publishing … do you have a cover … have you pulled together the rest of the team (beta readers, editor, proofreader) … have you thought about the channels that will distribute your book? Have you thought about your marketing plan? (I highly recommend Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10K Readers if you want the inside scoop on killer author marketing techniques.) If you are hoping to publish more traditionally … which agents and/or publishers are you going to approach? Now is the time for research of any type needed!¬†

Brush up your grammar, punctuation, and other aspects of nonfiction writing, if you like.

You’re about to go through several rounds of reading and editing your text. If it seems appropriate, now is the perfect time to brush up your grammar and refresh your memory about other aspects of writing good nonfiction. I’ve made a list of suggested books to help (coming soon).¬† I also have boards on Pinterest specifically about self-editing and grammar as well as general writing (though it is heavily skewed toward fiction).

When you are ready, first look at your book from a 10,000-foot level.

All right, back to work! We’re going to drill down your book layer by layer. First, we’ll look at it from a very high birds’-eye view.

Before you touch the manuscript, what do you recall...

Yes, I know you want to be reunited with your old friend (or nemesis), but before you open that file, reflect on the book. What was your grand vision of it before you started? Using just your memory, do you think the manuscript follows through on that promise to yourself (and your future readers)? Again, from memory, outline your book on a sheet of paper. If you have an actual outline (for you planners out there), dig it out; does it match up to your memory of the manuscript? If not, what were your reasons for deviating … and do you think you’ve improved on your original idea?

Finally! Time to dig out the manuscript. Read it or listen ... like a future reader.

Read your manuscript, imagining that you are your target audience. Change the font and use the slider at the bottom of Microsoft Word to change the size … tricking your brain into thinking you are reading something new. Or involve a completely different sense, and have Word read it to you. I love this feature and use it often myself.¬† Find the¬†Speech¬†section on the Review tab, choose its only option (Read Aloud),¬†and press play on the controls that will pop up on the upper right part of your document (just inside the white document area). You can choose from a couple of voices, two male and one female.

The goal of this step is just to read your story like any reader would; require nothing else of yourself at this point. If you see mistakes along the way, go ahead and change them if they are quick and easy or flag them with a comment … but don’t specifically look for them, and don’t make any large-scale changes. Mark any problematic passages, but don’t attempt to fix them.

TIP: In Word, to leave a quick comment to come back to later, use Control + Alt + M for Windows or Command + Option + A for Macintosh.

Compare this structure to both your original outline (if you have one) and what you thought the structure was before re-reading it.

Are the perceptions you had in the first step of this section hold true when you actually re-read the manuscript? Does it match your original outline if you had one? If not, is the current manuscript an improvement on your original plan? If your previous outline doesn’t match the current manuscript or if you never wrote one in the first place, write a reverse outline now. Outline each section and chapter by headings and subheadings.

Analyze your reverse outline.

Have you delivered on the promise implied by your title and subtitle? Do you give just enough information about your topic at the right time–or is it too much or too little?¬†Does there appear to be anything missing about the topic that would confuse readers or that they would benefit from knowing? Has your own love for the topic made you share perhaps too much for a narrowly focused book? Does the information need to be rearranged to be more clear?¬†If your book is a how-to, are the steps logical and well described? If a memoir, biography, or autobiography, have all important events in the subject’s life been explored? If needed, have you checked and double checked your resources? If you plan to have a reference or resource section, do you have all the information for each resource that you intend to use, or do you need to track down a few resources for more details?

Rewrite big-picture items, if necessary.

If you determined in the last step that there are book-level concerns, fix them now. For each major revision, I suggest that you start with a new Save As version of your manuscript. Being able to go back to your previous versions may be crucial. If you are using Word–whether you are using a clean draft or not–I strongly recommend that you use Word’s Track Changes feature available on the Review tab. That way, if you decide you want to change anything back, you can do so easily. If you are adding or deleting large blocks of text, make sure your additions and deletions work in the context of the words around them. For deleted parts, make sure to take out any references you may have made to it elsewhere in the book.

If you’ve deleted any major sections because they didn’t seem to quite fit with this book, consider spinning out the topic as another book. Or consider using it as a reader magnet, a little bonus to entice readers to sign up for your mailing list.

If you've rewritten major parts of the book, let it mellow and analyze again.

If you’ve made big, high-level changes to your book, step away from it for a few days. Then, come back and read it again with fresh eyes. Have you improved the flow? Do the added parts flow seamlessly with the rest of the writing? Where any holes or questions created by deleted sections?

Next, look at narrative voice and tone

Narrative voice is important in contemporary nonfiction, and it will be different depending on the type of nonfiction you are writing and your target audience. For general nonfiction of any type, the modern reader expects a friendly, conversational tone–as if they are sitting down for a conversation with a slightly more knowledgeable friend. Voice may be more formal for business, academic, professional, medical, or scientific books, but should still be accessible by the reader. We’ve all read the put-you-to-sleep professional texts required on the job or in college; don’t let that be your book!

Look at the introductory material first.

For general nonfiction, it is almost considered standard practice to introduce yourself and your relationship with the book’s topic before you get into the heart of your book. Are you friendly and conversational in these introductory sections? Have you shared personal experiences with the topic? If appropriate, have you shown your passion and zeal for the subject?

Then look at the core of the book.

For general nonfiction, have you continued the friendly, conversational tone dive deep into your topic? If appropriate, are you sharing anecdotes or a little humor? These make a reader connect to your writing. Humor, if used, can be a fantastic way to differentiate your work from others on the market.

For academic, professional, or scientific writing, do voice and tone help make the text accessible to all intended readers? This is especially important if you are writing about a complex or difficult to comprehend subject or if the expected audience will have large knowledge gaps.

Then, look at each section/chapter and headings and subheadings.

You’ve fixed any big-picture problems and considered the roles of narrative voice and tone in your book. Let’s drill deeper now. Dig out your outline (reverse, original, or both) and any mind maps or other notes you may have, and refer to them as you read and rewrite your manuscript slowly section by section, chapter by chapter. Look at the relevance and importance of each chapter to the overall structure of your book as well as how the headed sections contribute to what you want to say.

Read each section or chapter in its entirety first.

After you read the chapter, look at your outline and other notes. How does this section or chapter fit into the overall structure of the book? Is the information presented in a straightforward, logical manner? Should information be rearranged within the chapter to make it more logical? Have you said enough about the particular topic of the chapter? Conversely, have you said too much, which could confuse or perhaps irritate your reader?

Analyze the part this chapter plays in the overall structure of the book.

Nonfiction books need good organization. Does this chapter seem to fit in well with the organizational structure of your book? Does this distinct piece of puzzle serve its purpose for where it falls in the book? 

Determine what is happening with the book's topic in this section or chapter.

Over the course of a book, your topic is built upon layer by layer. In a broad sense, what is happening with the book’s topic in this chapter? What information are you specifically wanting to impart here? Is this chapter tightly focused on the book’s topic?

Break it down by heading by heading, subheading by subheading.

If you haven’t already done so, outline each heading and subheading in the chapter. What are you showing or telling in each discrete chunk of your book? Do the subheadings naturally follow from the headings? Do the headings naturally follow from the chapter or section core ideas or concepts? How does the content of each heading and subheading contribute information to the whole?

Rewrite as you deem necessary to fulfill the topic's requirements for this stage of the book.

With all this data gathered, rewrite and refine so the section or chapter and its heading and subheading content say precisely what you need to say … and that what you say is precisely what the reader needs to hear.

Finally, polish the details!

You’ve done the heavy lifting if you’ve gone through all the processes above. Well done! Again, take some time away from your manuscript before polishing the details. Again, I suggest at least a week off. During that time, I suggest you read some of your favorite nonfiction authors in your general subject. Read for enjoyment … but also read with a writer’s eye. Pick apart what you think makes the writer or the work a favorite of yours.

When you come back to your manuscript, it’s time to dig deep into the details.

Reread and edit for flow, readability, clarity, and correctness.

Time to view your book at the paragraph, sentence, and word level. Smooth transitions. Correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage. (If you need a refresher course, visit the website for the Blue Book of Grammar; following the rules at that site will make your future editor or readers happy!) Tweak the words to make them sound more natural. This is also an excellent time to use my How to Use Word to Improve Your Writing Instantly cheat sheet (coming soon!).

Run the manuscript through a grammar and spell checker.

None of us is perfect, even if we think we are! I strongly recommend running your manuscript through a grammar and spell checker like Grammarly or Pro Writing Aid. (Pro Writing Aid also has a variety of other tools as well that may give you insight into your writing technique.) Grammarly has free and premium versions; you can even download an add-in to Word for Windows that will seamlessly integrate Grammarly into your documents. No software-based checker will catch everything nor will every suggestion made be correct; you still have to use your judgment. But these aids will almost always catch a thing or two that will make you slap your head saying, “How did I miss that??”

Writing Improvement Software

Use Word (or equivalent) to improve your writing.

Use Word’s Find feature to improve your writing:

  • Look for any exclamation marks. Are you really that excited?
  • Swap out double spaces anywhere for single spaces using Find and Replace.
  • Root out potential filler words; consider removing fillers or recasting sentences when you find these words: as, actually, just, that, really, very, so, rather, quite, like, etc.
  • Remove crutch words. While favorites are lovely, you might want to mix it up. Want an impartial view of your favorite words? Use Textalyser,, or¬†WriteWords to find out your favorites.

Read your book aloud.

… or have it read aloud to you by Word as outlined above. Or do a combination; when your voice gets tired (or you get tired of hearing it), let Word take over for you. It never ceases to amaze me what the ear hears but the eye misses … even if you’ve poured over your manuscript twenty times already over the course of six months. Take notes or make comments in the text itself at the areas you want to revisit.

Look at all your notes, outlines, etc.

Time for a final tweak. Resolve any problems you’ve identified during your read-aloud or your musings on your book. Is the book structurally sound? Have you delivered on your promise to the reader? Do you think it is an engaging read? Are all loose ends tied up? Make it as awesome as you can!

Next Steps

You’ve completed the fully edited second draft of your manuscript! Again … Congratulations! If you think you’re ready, it is time to release the book to people beyond those you know personally …

First, release it to your beta team.

Yes, even nonfiction writers should have beta readers. While the manuscript is with your beta team, resist the urge to continue to tweak your book. Wait until you get their analyses back. When you do, take the time to mull over what each has said and determine if you will change anything in your manuscript. A strong beta team can guide you to better writing and a better book … so long as you don’t take constructive criticism personally.

While you’re waiting, this is a great time to get your cover and your marketing plan in place if you haven’t already done so.

After another round of self-editing, consider your editorial needs.

You’ve done a second revision based on the beta reading analyses. Do you feel like your manuscript is complete, reflects your vision, and is something your future readers will appreciate? If not, consider getting a manuscript evaluation by an editor. If you do feel that all is well and good, it is time to consider which level of editing you need.

  • Do you feel like your sentences need tweaking for readability and flow? If so, consider hiring a line editor.
  • I believe every writer should invest in a copyeditor, even though it is expensive. You’ve just labored over your manuscript, first in the writing and then in the self-editing; give your work the best possibility to shine by hiring a good copyeditor. This is not a place to save time or money.
  • If you don’t feel like you can afford to have your entire manuscript line edited or copyedited, consider a First 10,000-word Edit (see more details near the Pricing section of the Edit page), which will both polish those first words and give you an idea of what your common errors or difficulties are.
  • If you feel that you absolutely cannot afford a copyeditor at all, at least hire a proofreader to correct glaring errors.
  • And if you can afford both a copyeditor and a proofreader, your manuscript will benefit from having multiple sets of editorial eyes on it.

Last--really!--go over changes your editor or proofreader has made, and decide what to accept.

You ultimately decide which editorial changes to keep and which to discard. If you trust your editor, do give thought to why you are rejecting a change. While an editor may explain some changes in comments, she will not explain all. Don’t hesitate to email your editor if you have questions about changes. Be very careful when rejecting a change so that you do not introduce grammar or punctuation errors … I’ve seen that happen more than once.

Every time you or your editor touches your manuscript, there is always the possibility of introducing new errors.¬† So, after you’ve accepted or rejected all of your editor’s suggested changes, run a final grammar and spell check to make sure at least basic errors haven’t been introduced into your work.

Need a Beta Reader or Editor?

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