by Beth McAuley
Published at 2023-11-08
This book is for everyone—nonfiction authors and editors alike. It is clearly written and covers the essential steps of editing a manuscript in short, concise chapters. The length is inviting, with 75 pages that cover the editing steps followed by helpful appendixes (stylebooks, filler words) and an index. Plus, each chapter concludes with a “Takeaway” that pinpoints what you need to do each step of the way.
It is important to note that the rules and tips covered here are geared towards nonfiction authors. While nonfiction writers don’t have to worry about plot lines and character development, they do have to be concerned, for example, with supporting arguments, clear progression of thought, citing sources, and like all authors, length and word count.
Book Editing: How to Edit Your Nonfiction Book Like a Pro by Kathy Gaudry (2021) is a book I would highly recommend authors read, even if they aren’t planning on doing their own editing. The book offers great insight into what editing entails.
Kathy Gaudry is a seasoned editor who has been in the “word industry” for most of her adult life. She lives and works in the western United States. She founded Tamarack Books, a traditional publishing house, and Towanda Inc., a book production company. During her career, she has come across too many manuscripts that, if they had been edited, would have stood a better chance of being published. She wrote this book to help nonfiction authors—and especially new authors—understand how to apply a first edit to their writing before sending it out to publishers and even to professional editors. And, yes, she strongly advises that after doing a self-edit, authors hire a professional editor to take the work to the next level.
While Gaudry’s book does not cover the in-depth approach that we editors apply to the editing process, it does cover the basic steps needed in that first polish. And I find it extremely gratifying that a professional editor has published details about our craft from which authors can benefit.
Before you can get to page 2 of her book, Gaudry is shouting out the most essential principle of editing: be consistent! And to do this? Build a stylesheet that tracks spelling, punctuation styles; follow grammar rules; read slowly and read often.
Gaudry dedicates a chapter to stylesheets and points out that a stylesheet is one of the most important tools you will need. “You, as a writer, should create a stylesheet to make sure you spell everything in your manuscript consistently from beginning to end” (p. 21). This applies to place names, proper names, as well as dates, locations, word spellings, phrases, capitalization, use of numbers, and punctuation. As you write, start listing these points. The stylesheet can be a simple Word document or an Excel spreadsheet, whatever will help you track the details from the beginning to the end of the editing process. As Gaudry notes, a stylesheet works just “as long as you make proper notes that you can follow a year from now” (p. 22). Because, yes, through each edit and revision of your manuscript, you will want to apply these details consistently!
In the first three chapters, Gaudry reviews the importance of applying a self-edit and deciding if your manuscript is ready for editing or if, in fact, it needs a rewrite. The first thing to do upon completing your “first draft” is to let it sit and simmer. Leave it for a few days, then go back and read it from start to finish. Be critical—could the writing be rewritten?
Gaudry points out what to look for in that second read—order of chapters, if events and facts are accurate, if sequencing and transitions flow. If any of these elements need revising, then your next step is to rewrite to help strengthen the manuscript, and she guides you on how to do just that.
Once your revised draft is ready, you can apply a self-edit. The important question of “can you edit your own book?” has its own chapter and looks at the yes side and the no side. The no side points out that authors cannot look at their work honestly and spot the inconsistencies, the grammar errors, the flaws in arguments. But the yes side argues that, with patience and diligence, authors can work through a first edit at least to bring the work up to the next level.
Once you tackle a self-edit and if you are feeling the work needs more than you can give it, you can begin to explore the option of hiring a professional editor. As already noted, Gaudry strongly recommends this option and advises on how best to do this.
Gaudry points out different ways to edit your work and emphasizes how important it is to find one that works for you. You want to be comfortable in the approach so that you can focus on the reading and correcting of the material.
Her first recommendation is to print a hard copy of the manuscript because it is a great way to spot errors you may not see when editing onscreen. She still prints off her manuscripts after a digital edit for this very reason.
She also suggests reading the full manuscript aloud—whether onscreen or from hard copy. This method forces you to read every word so that you don’t gloss over errors.
Most importantly, read line-by-line and word-by-word. This methodical approach forces you to “look at every single word and every character on the page” (p. 16), making it easier to spot a word that is out of place or used improperly, or see spelling errors and faulty punctuation. Whether reading out loud or editing silently, each word and each line deserves your careful attention.
She cautions against using editing programs and apps. While this developing technology might offer a quicker method to correcting your writing, it does not do what a human editor does, which is catch faulty syntax, tone, and nuances. She also gently warns against using spell check as an editing tool. This software can catch misspellings, but not all the time and not always correctly.
In the next set of chapters, Gaudry outlines the essential steps for editing a written work and provides examples, instructions, and great takeaways to help you focus on and understand the mechanics behind the editing process.
In the closing chapters, Gaudry describes her personal methods for editing, including the very valuable tip on how she gets started. Sitting down to edit your manuscript is different from sitting down to write it, and her steps outline one way to set things up for this task. Gaudry begins with setting up a manuscript for onscreen editing, saving the original file and creating a second file for the actual editing; she then does a first run through of the material to see what she is working with. What needs special attention?
She does a similar exercise with how she edits to tighten the text. She looks for long passages, inappropriate words, unnecessary words, and repetition. She reads a manuscript several times through to apply each step in this process, covering the steps one day at a time in order to avoid being overwhelmed. She knows this requires an extreme amount of time, but knows that putting in the effort is worth it.
As noted above, the book closes with a selection of appendixes: stylebooks used in the publishing industry for general academic works and for more specific disciplines; filler words that come in handy when searching for a transitional word or phrase; definitions of the different types of editing, from copy editing to line editing to substantive editing; suggested book lengths; a Sources section that identifies the footnotes in the text; and an index of terms.
This book offers a lot. It is easy to read and well laid out to help an author work their way through a first edit of their work. And, as noted above, I love that an editor has written it and self-published it, which means the information is tried and true.
I was surprised by a few things, though. For one, I wonder why the list defining different types of editing is in an appendix. This might have worked better at the opening to help an author understand how copy editing is one approach to editing a manuscript, and it would explain the approach of this book.
Also, I would have liked to see more discussion about “onscreen editing” that could have outlined tips and tools for this process. This is the most common approach for editing we use. Authors need to learn how to self-edit onscreen and to understand what the mark-up means, because we know some of the mark-up is not easy to understand for someone new to the process. Getting acquainted with editing onscreen will make authors that much more comfortable when reviewing their work that comes back from the editor. Plus, if they know how to use the tools, they will be more comfortable in having their work professionally edited.
As an academic editor, the section on citations could have been stronger (p. 54). It is true that authors will most likely have their own style in place for creating their notes, but an example of a good note would have been helpful. Gaudry includes five endnotes in her text, which are cited in the Sources section following the appendixes. On first glance, I did not realize these were the endnotes being cited. It would have been clearer to me, and easier to find the endnote citations, if the section had read Notes or References.
Although she does explain using quotation marks on page 34, I found the use of single quotation marks and double quotation marks throughout the text a bit distracting. It seems that single quotations are used for ‘key words’ and double quotations for “phrases.” Using double quotation marks for both applications would make the reading that much easier.
If I were an author, would I find this useful? Absolutely. It does take a bit of time to read and digest the advice but learning how to edit your own manuscript will only make your work that much better.
Beth McAuley is an academic and nonfiction book editor, and the proud owner and senior editor of The Editing Company, now in its sixteenth year of providing great editing services to authors. She can be reached at email@example.com.