How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Five: Edit

Editing requires stubborn patience and discipline. The good news is, all you have to do is read. The bad news is, you have to do it over and over and over. You have to read your manuscript until you can recite it like the catechism.

You must read with purpose, though. Otherwise you bore and blind yourself to what needs fixing.

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On your first read your concerns are:
A) Structure and B) Continuity


Structure is how the whole thing fits together:

1. Does it have a beginning, middle and end?
2. Does the pace fit the topic and tone?
3. Does it feel like a book rather than an assortment of pages?

Continuity is how smooth, complete and ordered the writing is:

1. Do the main sections have a logical order?
2. Does each section/chapter fit in the overall theme?
3. Do individual chapters read coherently from beginning to end?

Since Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers consists of separate profiles with a common theme my main concern was the internal structure of the chapters. If you are writing a non-fiction book where each chapter builds on the previous one you have to be careful to present facts and information in clear, linear fashion.

Your second read takes a closer look at A) style and B) voice.

This was critical in Vine Lives because style and voice are what give the profiles continuity. By the time I wrote the last profile my writing had matured. There were obvious stylistic differences between early and later chapters so, I rewrote. Usually your writing will get leaner and cleaner as you work, so often early chapters just need a good pruning. Rather than treat this as a dull duty take satisfaction in the fact your writing has improved. Showcase this better self.

Your third read should be a GAS: A) Grammar, B) Adjectives/Adverbs, and C) Spelling
Sure, you could hand your manuscript over to a professional editor or proofreader at this point, but if you do you lose a tremendous opportunity to enhance your craft. Writing is like playing an instrument. As a beginner, you go to a teacher or technician to tune your instrument. To become a master musician, though, have to develop your own ear. You have to know if you are transmitting at the right frequency. The key to mastery: practice, practice, practice. Eventually, like the Stones say, tuning your work will be a “Gas Gas Gas”.

Grammar: You don’t have to be formally trained in grammar to check your work. Lord knows, I’m not. Like magisterial prose stylist Joan Didion, I claim “grammar is a piano I play by ear”. Any avid, careful reader (much less writer) instinctively knows when a sentence sounds wrong. If you hit on an awkward phrase and aren’t sure how to put it right, get thee to Google. Most grammatical conundrums can be solved by internet these days.

Adjectives and Adverbs: Patrol your writing for inappropriate use of the two “A”s. Adjectives should not be a substitute for clear description; adverbs should not be a substitute for a decent vocabulary.

Example: In the Montinore chapter I wanted to write: “It was a glorious spring day”, because it was. “Glorious” is vague and subjective, though; “glorious” doesn’t tell the reader anything useful. This is what I wrote instead:

“Rhododendrons, lilacs, roses, cypress, oak, and weeping willow channel the earth’s exuberance into great bursts of foliage and color…. Chipmunks skitter on tree trunks, scolding the birds that loft saucily towards clouds hanging like puffs of whipped cream in the spring sky.”

As for adverbs, watch those “ly” endings. If things are “especially good” better they are “splendid” or “thrilling”, if “awfully bad” try “catastrophic” or “disastrous”, etc. Adverbs are for the most part lazy replacements for strong adjectives, which are themselves often substitutes for specific detail. Be aware of how you use language.

Spelling: Yes, spelling matters. No, you cannot rely on Microsoft-fucking-Word. A writer’s vocabulary should outstrip the paltry mechanisms of Microsoft, especially if you are writing about a technical or specialist subject, such as wine. By all means, run a spell check to correct any obvious typos, but rely on close reading and regular dictionary checks to ensure your words are saying what you think they are. Pin down inaudible differences (“compliment”, “complement”) in print, watch out for malapropisms (“prodigy” for “protégé”) and double check commonly misused words (“disinterested” for “uninterested”).


Now your work is ready for other readers.
By all means, pass it around. Fresh eyes will spot incongruities to which you are blind, and generally have an overview you lack. Ask for specific feedback, e.g. “Does chapter three follow logically from chapter two?” or “Is the description of underwater basket weaving clear?” Accept comments dispassionately and with good grace. Remember, criticism of your writing is not criticism of YOU.

Once you’ve incorporated any suggestions and corrections, proofread.
I’m a professional proofreader and sub-editor so I proofed Vine Lives myself. If you’re not a trained editor, farm it out to the best proofreader money can buy. You want a hawk-eyed pedant who will read every line of your book as if it were his/her billionaire uncle’s last will and testament. Let him/her correct your manuscript then read it one more time.

Is it perfect? Congratulations. You’ve edited a book. Pour yourself a glass of wine!

Share your editing tips in the comments.

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