Nonfiction Monday: What a Nonfiction Editor Does

By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

editing image A few months ago, I blogged about some of my favorite editing tools, and I’ve been thinking I should talk a little more about editing itself. While every publishing company and every editor is different, here’s an overview of what kind of things I’m typically thinking about and looking at when I edit a nonfiction manuscript:

topic: What is this book about? Does the manuscript I’m reading tell me what I expected to find out? Does it skip over any key events or key points?

writing: Is the manuscript well written? Is the writing engaging? Are verbs active and vivid? Is the sentence structure varied, or does it become repetitive? Are adjectives chosen well? Are there too many adjectives (e.g. “the great, high, lofty tower”)? Is the overall organization logical? Do the transitions from one paragraph to the next and one chapter to the next flow smoothly?

reading level: What age group is this book intended for? Are the sentence lengths and vocabulary used appropriate for this reading level? Are there any points in the manuscript where the writer is assuming background knowledge that all readers may not have?

clarity: This is closely linked to both writing and reading level. Is the information presented in a way that is easy for the target audience to understand? Does the manuscript contain concepts that need further explanation?

accuracy: Is the text accurate? I read other sources (usually a combination of books written for adults on the topic and websites along with occasional magazine and newspaper articles) to get a general understanding of a topic and to check individual facts within a manuscript. If one of my sources disagrees with the manuscript, I make a note so that the author can look into it further. Sometimes an expert in the field will also review the manuscript as well as the photos or illustrations.

series guidelines: If a manuscript is part of a larger series, I’ll compare it to the author guidelines for the series, which we provide before an author begins writing. Has the author written a manuscript that has the target number of words, the tone we’re going for in the series, and otherwise followed the guidelines?

photo potential: For photo-illustrated books, as I read I’ll start thinking about what sort of photos we need so that I can put together a list for our photo researchers. Sometimes an author will suggest photo ideas, but the editor often comes up with them.

illustration potential: For a nonfiction picture book, I start imagining what the illustrations could look like. Then I see if the text contains anything that will be made redundant by the artwork. For example, the text doesn’t need to say: “John wore a green vest, black pants, and a red bowtie.” That information could be included in our notes to the artist. (In a work of fiction, if the story is about Mr. Squirrel and his wardrobe is incidental to the story’s plot, it might be preferable to have no note at all and see what the artist comes up with.)

Now, I’m not always thinking about all of these things simultaneously. On my first read through a manuscript, I’m just getting general impressions. The second pass is often the fact-checking pass, which may take anywhere from a day to a week or more, depending on the length of the manuscript and the topic. A later pass might be devoted solely to reading level. But no two manuscripts are exactly the same, and that means my job is always interesting!

nonfiction_monday Check out the rest of this week’s Nonfiction Monday posts at Abby (the) Librarian.

photo credit: (cc) Unhindered by Talent

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