Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, March 5, 2016

How To Edit A Non-Fiction Book

I posted the first of my author interview's this week, with Scott Thompson. I have also lined up several more interviews, which will be available every Wednesday. One of the fascinating aspects of interviewing authors for me is finding out their writing and editing process, and seeing what I can learn from them. In keeping with that theme, for today's post, I thought I would talk about my own process, specifically, how I edit my non-fiction books.

I will use the experience of writing my most recent book, Anyone Can Get An A+, to describe my current editing process, some of which has evolved.
For this particular book, I wrote the draft in about 3 weeks. I wrote most of the draft long-hand and then typed it up, into Scrivener. I have talked about my process and use of Scrivener before, but my process has also changed somewhat.

So once I have the whole draft typed up, I take stock of what I have. By this time, I had many individual sections, but I couldn’t see how they fit together. It took me a few days of staring at this draft in Scrivener, and moving the pieces around (which is really easy to do, and why I use Scrivener for this phase) till I found a flow that I was happy with. Although, I did move a few sections around later, when I realized they would fit better elsewhere. But by now I had about 95% of the structure locked down.

At this point, I moved my process to Word. For some inexplicable reason, probably harking back to my days writing papers in university, when I wrote interminable drafts in Word, I am much more comfortable editing with the track change feature, knowing I can go back to earlier changes, without losing the previous versions.

So I compiled each chapter in Word, and created a separate document – usually something like Chapter 1_1.0.docx. The reason I number the drafts is because I go through several editing phases. So 1.0 is the unedited document. Then I save as, and actually start working on 1.1. I know this all sounds incredibly anal, and I am sure no one else has such a crazy process, but for me it actually helps me to feel less anxious about making a mistake. I can always return to an earlier version, although I never do. I almost never even consult older versions, with very few exceptions, but having them gives me the peace of mind to go ahead and make drastic edits if I need to.

So at this point I read through the document and try to decide the big-picture changes I want to make. For this book, I actually created little story beats (a term I got from Write. Publish. Repeat.) for each section. So I basically jotted down in bullet points the points I wanted to make in that section. I know its sort of strange to create an outline after I have a first draft, but I like the first draft to be completely loose and have the freedom to write anything, go anywhere. That is probably why I need such a rigorous editing process, to ensure that I can fix the mistakes or fill in the gaps from my crazy first draft.

Okay, so it you're keeping track, by now I have a first draft that is all over the place, and a structure with chapters, and sections which each have a short bulleted list of points that are important to cover. So now I read the section and see what bullet points I have missed out, and this is the stage where I write those in. And delete anything that doesn’t seem to make sense, or move things that belong to another section. All of this is with track changes on, so I can see the changes I made. And this is crucial to me, and while I make the changes with the hide feature on, I periodically toggle back to the other view. And by the time I am done with one pass of this, no paragraph has escaped my brutal editing process – and there are all sorts of deletions and insertions and moves all over the place.

Now, I save as and create version 1.2 or something like that. Because I have made so many changes that if I make more changes at this point, I will simply be overwriting. So at this point, I check that my story beats cover everything they need to, and that each section covers the points in the beat. Or I alter my beats if need be. And go through this pass again, this time filling in any missing research, or adding any relevant examples. By now the draft is looking much less messy and more like a book.

I usually capture this process in a map or spreadsheet of some kind. Nothing too fancy, just a table in Evernote or a hand-drawn map, where I write down the steps I envisage, and where I am with each chapter, so I can see at-a-glance how much I have left to do.

Now if I am happy with the content, I start the polishing phase. I go through each section and do a very close line-edit. The purpose of this edit is to make sure the concepts are well-explained, especially for this book, because I had included a lot of scientific research, and I wanted to ensure that it was readily understandable by anyone. I had to re-write entire sections because some sections were very clunky. This is also the point where I finalized the chapter and section titles. I also researched suitable quotes for the beginning of each chapter, something that I had only decided to do during the polishing phase.

After I was relatively happy with the line-editing phase, I moved onto the final phase – proofreading. I saved the document again (by this point it was probably version 6 or 7). I meticulously went over each line, usually in Word's fullscreen mode with the text at a pretty large font size so I could catch any errors. I would inevitable find many typos as well as lines that were clunky and needed to be re-written. Once this phase was over, I finalized the footnotes, tracking down all the references from the research I did. I did tend to put in the footnotes as I went, but this is the phase where I double-checked this. I am pretty obsessive about footnotes, again another hang-up from my legal training.

By now the book is really that, a book. Well not quite, because I always leave the introduction to the end. I can never figure out what to write, and for this book I was having a melt-down because I was on deadline. I had to complete it by a certain date, and the intro kept tripping me up. But anyway, I did get it done in time, and by the end of all this, I was actually pretty happy with the book. I would even go so far as to say that it is my best book yet.

So anyway, this is the process I followed while writing my most recent book, and with some alterations, the process I generally follow to write non-fiction. I hope this helps you in some way, if you are currently writing or thinking about writing a non-fiction book. 

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