Posted on Dec 16, 2022
Live Chat: The Art of Editing Nonfiction
Below is the transcript from our live chat on editing nonfiction from December 12th, 2022, where two of Reedsy’s nonfiction experts — Lisa Howard and Amber Hatch — discussed tricks of the trade.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Skip to 3:37 for the start of the discussion.
Freelancing with Reedsy
Lisa Howard: It’s been about five years since I started freelancing with Reedsy and it’s been a great experience in terms of the quality and variety of the clients and the projects that I'm able to access.
Amber Hatch: I started with Reedsy in the spring of 2019, and I've been blown away by how much work I get. It's very eclectic. Such a great variety of high quality authors and texts I've really enjoyed working with. I get to read books and get paid for it and I've learned a huge amount.
Martin: Well, I was planning to promote Reedsy later on, but you two have done a fantastic job for me so far!
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Martin: Now, let’s start with the basics. What is nonfiction and how is it different from editing fiction?
Nonfiction vs. fiction
Lisa Howard: One big difference between editing fiction and nonfiction is that, typically, a nonfiction author is coming out of a world of already doing what they're going to be writing about.
I work with many medical professionals who are writing books based on their practice, the patient questions they get, and the concerns they see. I’ve also edited financial books for business people and worked with people who want to write about how they got out of a tough childhood, whether it's from a financial or self-help perspective.
I think the biggest difference between fiction and nonfiction is simply that a nonfiction author already has some kind of a platform and an idea that they've already been communicating. They just haven't actually written it down yet.
Lisa Howard: Nonfiction readers tend to look for something different than fiction readers: they want to have a takeaway. It's called “service writing” or a “service piece” where you offer something for the reader to come away with to improve some aspect of their life. It's not pure entertainment.
You can get a lot of life lessons out of fiction as well, but it's more about entertainment. Whereas nonfiction is more about “what's in it for me?”
Amber Hatch: That's making me think. I guess one of the main questions that I ask my authors is how their book is relevant to the reader. If they include a piece of information or an anecdote, what is the reader's takeaway? I think that ties in with what Lisa is saying: the reader wants some value for their money. They want to actually learn something and it has to be relevant.
The first steps of editing nonfiction
Amber Hatch: [When I first get a manuscript], I’m looking at establishing author voice, so that they come across as an authority on the subject and within the book itself. This is so that the reader can start to trust them and feel happy to be guided by them. I often come across authors who have a good grasp of the information, but the voice isn’t quite there yet.
Another really critical thing is the logic and structure of the argument, which is probably what authors have most trouble with. They've got great material and ideas, but they don’t have the logical pathway through the message, so I help them organize their ideas. I think it’s because they don’t have an overview. Authors are often used to writing blog posts or social media content, which is a different way of writing.
Author voice and authority
Amber Hatch: I love a fun voice. I encourage authors to speak directly to their readers. A strong voice has natural authority; it doesn't have to be overly formal.
Structure and logic
Lisa Howard: I agree with Amber's point about logical argument. I also think of it as persuasion. [The role of the editor is to help] the author figure out the most logical sequence to explain their idea in a way that's compelling enough for the reader to want to keep reading.
Like a fiction plot, you can't jump around too abruptly. Sometimes, professionals may overlook bridging pieces that they need to include for lay people, so part of what I do is help them fill in those missing pieces to make the transitions more obvious. There's no ABC structure to apply to every single person. It really depends on the author’s ideas and the end goal for the reader.
Early cover summaries
Lisa Howard: I encourage writers to write the cover summary really early in the process because it encapsulates the entire point of the book. If the author can't write their own captivating summary, then they don’t really know their own material well enough yet. And maybe that means they need more coaching or developmental editing, rather than pure copy editing.
Not sure what the difference is? Check out our post outlining the different types of editing.
The cover summary needs to be clear about what will be covered, what the reader will gain from the book, what the author’s passion is, and, like Amber said, why they're an authority on this subject. The reader has to believe in the author. Who is this person to be telling me this? Why should I listen? The author has to have a unique voice, and be compelling about their own story and connection to the topic.
Essential skills for a nonfiction editor
Amber Hatch: I think a lot of authors are really nervous about having their work edited and maybe they see it as a chore to get through. But there’s no one else who will read your book with the kind of close attention of an editor, so I think most authors actually find that editing their book can be much more significant and satisfying than they might expect.
In terms of what skills editors need, I think it’s having the ability to really focus on the book and give it that close attention, listening really, really hard to what the author's trying to say. At the same time as you're gauging your own response to the text as a reader would, you're analyzing what the author's doing that's making you respond like that, and what the author might do more effectively. An editor needs to keep those two processes going at the same time.
Lisa Howard: I like Amber's point. You're kind of being two roles at once. You're often the first person to read the text, so you're playing that role of the reader, but you're also being the professional, constructive, critical, and compassionate editor.
I was surprised that the editing process involves quite a bit of cheerleading on my part. It’s scary for a first time author, even if someone else has read their text. That's where my experience of being the editor and being edited comes into play. Compassion, cheerleading, and psychological support are big parts of what it means to be a good editor. It goes way beyond fixing grammar or even restructuring a plot; it gets into the psychology of the writer.
Choosing projects: editor expertise and interest in the topic
Amber Hatch: I think the question of expertise is interesting. I’ve written self-help and parenting books and quite often get clients who are writing in that field. But I have to be careful that I'm not bringing too many of my own ideas to the work and that I’m letting authors have their own way of thinking about the subject. To be honest, that's easier if I don't know the subject area at all.
If an author is writing for an audience without much prior knowledge, it works quite well if the editor isn’t an expert. That puts them in a similar position as the reader. Like Lisa mentioned, the author may have left gaps that keep the reader from fully understanding the material so if I don’t have that knowledge either, I can come really fresh to the material. I also personally enjoy it because it means that I can learn something new.
Lisa Howard: It can be very helpful to have some kind of basic knowledge if you're going to edit anything medical or health and wellness-related. But for me, things split three ways. There are the subjects I know pretty well, like health and wellness; there are the subjects I don't really know, and then there's a third category where I would not accept the job because it’s something I know nothing about and am completely uninterested in learning about. So I think it's worth paying a lot of attention to how you relate to the subject matter.
Amber Hatch: I would really agree with Lisa. I won't work on something that I think is totally outside of my area of interest because I want to enjoy working on the text and it wouldn't be fair on the author. But most people do have something interesting to say, so there’s the subject matter and then there’s the voice. If a manuscript is really well written and the author appeals to me in their proposal, it might win me over even if it’s a topic I’d never thought I’d find interesting.
But what’s really critical is that I have to feel like I can work with the author and that they're going to be able to take on my criticism. There’s really no point if they're not able to action my feedback or take on what I'm trying to say. So I will always give authors some constructive criticism during that initial process just to see how they respond. I find that very telling. Normally, at that point we kind of decide whether or not we can work together.
Nonfiction editing vs. fact checking
Lisa Howard: On the topic of expertise, fact checking is its own profession and service. I do not advertise myself as a fact checker. It can certainly be helpful if you’re editing something where you’re familiar with the subject as it can help you spot obvious problems, but that's not the same as saying that you’ll provide fact checking.
Amber Hatch: I’m exactly the same. I wouldn't advertise myself as a fact checker because that adds many hours of work and most authors are happy with their own research. Having said that, as part of my copy editing I will always call out an author if I think they're not being robust enough in their research or in their argument. But I would never agree to fact checking every single statement.
Note: while nonfiction books often include indices, indexing is also separate from editing.
Editing memoirs and giving feedback
Amber Hatch: I haven’t found that memoir clients are more resistant to feedback [than other authors], but what I do find is that the nature of the work is much more personal. Editing is normally a more significant and intimate process because, like we already touched on before, it might be the first time that the author is sharing their work with somebody. With memoirs, authors are very often laying their deepest material bare. So inevitably, authors are very vulnerable and sensitive to feedback. But I don't think that makes them resistant.
My approach is that I'm a very robust editor. I'm very honest because I believe that the author wants to tell their story as effectively as they can. That's what they're paying me for. I wouldn't be doing my job properly if I sugar coated things or gave them a big tick, which is, of course, what every author secretly wants.
Memoir authors realize that it's worth telling their story as effectively and as powerfully as possible. When they see feedback which helps them do that, they're enormously grateful. That’s probably the case with non-fiction writers in general, but even more so with memoir writers, I think.
Memoirs: factual novels?
Amber Hatch: I tend to treat memoirs more like novels in the sense that they have to have a story arc, character development, showing versus telling, omniscient or first person narration, etc. When you start thinking about it more like a novel, you make it vastly more powerful.
Show, Don't Tell
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In some ways, it's a little bit easier than a novel because the story is more constrained since it’s already set out. It's a question of how you work with that story to pull out the most interesting parts, work up the momentum to take it to a crisis point and then a resolution.
Lisa Howard: Legal issues can also come into play with memoir in a way that they don’t typically do with other types of writing. When someone is writing a difficult life story and it involves crime or naming the abusers, for example, it gets into legal territory. I think editors need to be really clear that we can’t provide legal advice — especially on that type of book.
The nonfiction publishing process
Lisa Howard: For nonfiction, if an author hopes to publish their book traditionally, they have to write a proposal for the book which usually includes two or three sample chapters. With memoir or fiction, they have to write the whole book. There’s a huge difference right at the beginning of the publishing path.
If an author has already written the full manuscript and wants to go the traditional route, they have to take a few steps back. With the cheerleading aspect in mind, I make sure to emphasize that they’ve put a lot of thought into it, which will help them write their proposal, but tell them that if they land an agent or a publisher, they may wind up rewriting the manuscript.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Amber Hatch: On an editing level, it’s really about having confidence. That probably comes with experience, but trusting your own response to the text and trying to convey that to the author is really valuable. Sometimes, as an editor you might feel like you should be more technical or have some kind of process, but we’re humans and that's what makes us better than AI editing programs. It's really that element that we should trust and build on.
Lisa Howard: I would tell myself to always insist on using Microsoft Word from the very beginning to avoid a lot of problems down the road, be aware that you may have to handle more tech aspects than you would've thought, be willing to share marketing information — but stress from the beginning that you're not a professional marketer — and make sure that you clearly define what the scope of what you can offer is.
Amber Hatch: I would also tell myself to keep in contact with other editors, because it’s a very lonely job. It really helps to have the support of other editors to bounce ideas around, know the industry, and recommend people for services. There's nothing more upsetting than hearing about a client who got scammed when you could have sent them on a more legitimate path.
Martin: Yes, we do run into a lot of folks who have been scammed before they came to Reedsy. A lot of authors are concerned and not sure how to publish, so a little bit of guidance from an industry insider who can help them self-publish is invaluable.
Authors aren’t the only ones getting scammed — freelance professionals sometimes fall prey to scams too. For tips on how to avoid them, check out our article on 11 common freelancer scams.
How have you managed to network with other editors?
Amber: I've networked locally because I live in Oxford, UK, where there are quite a lot of editors and writers. Touching base with people that I've met through friends and word of mouth has been really good. It’s helpful to share ideas and talk things through if you have problems with an author. I also get some work this way and can recommend colleagues to authors looking for specific services.
Lisa Howard: The US is still very much NYC-dependent in terms of flourishing literary areas, with some scattered West Coast locations. Chicago would be the nearest hub with a fair amount of publishing, so the best way I’ve found to network with other editors is honestly the Reedsy webinars.
I also do in-person writing conferences every year, so that's also my touchpoint. Because I do so many public speaking engagements, I wind up meeting a lot of people. I don't feel very alone because I get out into these community settings often enough.
Do you ever work with an independent researcher?
Amber Hatch: I never have. I have had one job through Reedsy that kind of turned into a ghostwriting or co-writing project, but in that case I worked with the author to get the material. And I’m not really sure how to answer that question because I feel like it would either fall into ghostwriting or fact checking.
Do authors ever hire multiple editors for their manuscripts?
Lisa Howard: Yes, I think that’s pretty common. I've worked on projects with the author from beginning to end but I've also worked with authors who already had it developmentally edited or copy edited and were looking for a copy edit or a proofread. It depends on the subject matter and the author's preference. If it's a highly technical text, they may want more than one opinion.
Amber Hatch: I once worked with an author who had hired three or four editors to do the same job of developmental editing on their manuscript. He wanted to use everybody's ideas and then decide which editor to continue with. I was quite keen to hear what the other editors had suggested because I thought it was a really unique situation that I might be able to learn from, but he wasn't willing to share their edits.
Any tips to new proofreaders in the self-help niche?
Lisa Howard: One of the biggest things for proofreading is the style sheet. When I work with a client over multiple rounds of editing, I create the style sheet. If somebody is only looking for proofreading, you would hope they have one already at that point, but they probably don't.
Usually, a publishing house has their own style sheets, but self-publishing authors have to have their own, individual style sheet that includes distinctions like whether to spell “grey” with an e or an a, using an Oxford comma, etc. It's all these little subjective things you have to be consistent with. It can go either way with punctuation and spelling, but pick one. In novels, it can also be authors coming up with custom terms and you have to make sure they're always spelled the same way, capitalized, or italicized the same way. So that's a style sheet.
So for proofreading in any niche, you have to be good at style sheets and then whatever niche you wanna work in, read a lot of it.
Do you tend to work based on a specific style guide, like Chicago or AP?
Amber Hatch: If the author hasn’t specified, I work with Chicago as a base. Otherwise, I’ll just keep consistent with what the author has used.
Lisa Howard: Most authors don’t have a preference, unless it's a doctor writing for a medical journal or something. Some instances will be very specific, but for the most part, I don't find that that's nearly as important as being consistent with the style sheet.
As a freelancer without traditional publishing experience, how do I build up credentials to get to the level required by Reedsy?
Martin: For context, at Reedsy we vet our professionals before they join to ensure that they have worked on at least five (ideally) traditionally published books and that they have a few years of experience in traditional publishing. But if it’s a very niche area, we may look at whether they have worked on self-published books of high caliber which have been well reviewed. So I guess the question is how did you two build that experience?
For more information check out the Reedsy selection criteria.
Lisa Howard: I started doing editing within the context of my corporate job. That's how I built up a lot of my skills and my confidence. So if you currently have a job where you could start to utilize that kind of skill, I would really advise doing that.
I think it also helps to be a freelance writer because that gives you an idea of how publishing works intrinsically, whether that's books or magazines or publishing in general. You can also set up your own website or social media and build up a presence to attract clients.
Amber Hatch: I first started editing through a literary consultant who had clients and then passed work my way. But I didn’t get to speak to the authors and just submitted my edit to the literary consultancy who then passed it onto the author. I found that really frustrating and would never go back to working that way. I really value being able to speak with authors directly.
Reedsy is obviously a very reputable platform for editors but there are plenty of other platforms where you can build your experience. Of course, those aren’t vetted in the same way and you won’t attract the same caliber of authors to work with, but it can give you confidence and a foot on the path.
What was the process of getting your first book or editing project?
Amber Hatch: Mine was through the literary consultancy. It was quite nerve-wracking at the beginning, having a whole book in front of you to edit. I have an MA in creative writing and a solid background in working through whole books with authors because we'd spent a whole year doing that on the MA. That really helped because I felt worried about whether I could do it. You just need to kind of trust the process and, actually, that first author went on to win a full book deal with Bloomsbury. That was a good boost to my confidence.
Lisa Howard: I can’t remember the first book, but the first project I did was actually a friend of mine applying to Harvard Business School for his MBA. He had nothing down on paper yet so I interviewed him, then we wrote it together. When he got in, I thought, “Hey, if I can help somebody get into Harvard MBA, then I could charge for my services.”
How do you go about pricing editing work?
Lisa Howard: I always want to see a sample first, because even though the potential client tells you they just need a proofread, that might not really be the case. A sample chapter, word count, and due date are the three factors I consider when setting my rates.
I'm usually juggling at least two, probably three books that I'm editing in a given month. So I assume that I can edit 40,000 words a month of developmental editing per project. I don’t want to do three of those at once, so it winds up staggering out a lot. If somebody wants it in three weeks, the price goes up. But usually the due date isn't really a big factor. It's more what type of editing and how many words.
Amber Hatch: In my head, I have an hourly rate, but I don't tell that to the author unless I'm doing mentoring work with them. When I'm pricing a project, I have a formula which normally stays the same from book to book. Sometimes I'll do the job fast which means that the price increases.
I don’t want to only work with people who have loads of money because I value working with authors who are really saving up as much as they can to get their editing done too.
How many hours does it take you to do a developmental edit or copy edit on an 80k manuscript?
Amber Hatch: For an 80k manuscript, if I’m doing a copy edit and I expect to be working 25 to 30 hours a week, that would take me about one to two weeks. I would definitely tell the author it's going to take a lot longer and I hopefully turn it around within two weeks.
How do you approach story structure, characterization, and critiques in nonfiction narratives?
Lisa Howard: Combining this with [another question in the chat] about legal ramifications when using real names and places, I’d say, first of all, please consult an entertainment lawyer.
Secondly, if somebody is writing something of a very sensitive nature and they're going to have to shroud parts of it for legal reasons — change names, places, order of events, and perhaps combine three real life people into one composite, made up character with elements that are real — that can really affect the story and the structure. I would look at that as a starting point and if none of those are an issue, I would encourage the author to think of it as a novel with a plot that keeps it moving along quite smartly. Because it's still a narrative.
Martin: Great, thank you so much Amber and Lisa for joining. And to everyone who tuned in from home, I hope you enjoyed it!