A Novelist Editing Nonfiction: What It’s Taught Me About Language

14206_screen_shot_1Editing is never fun for me. It’s not fun for a lot of writers. It involves lots of chopping, some trimming, and a lot of “how could I ever have written this?” moments.

And yet, I am so excited about how editing “Writing for You” is going! I feel more removed from writing fiction than I’ve ever been, but the semi-extended break to get a writer’s handbook together has been so, so very worth it.

I had to write a lot of research papers in graduate school–admittedly, mostly in Spanish rather than English–so it’s been a long time since I’ve had a lengthy, English-language nonfiction project to tackle, and it’s reminded me how very differently I approach nonfiction than fiction.

My inner Hemingway (meaning the part of my writer brain that wants clarity, clarity, and more clarity without fluff) really comes out in my nonfiction, especially when I have time to  edit the heck of it.

  • I feel I am really, really tightening up each chapter, eliminating a lot of fluff and making my points easier to follow. That makes me SUPER happy, just because of what I, personally, value in a nonfiction piece.
  • I am practicing the HECK out of eliminating my writing tics. I wrote lots of posts about these before: there is/there are, “it” without an antecedent, adverbs, “to be” in description, etc. This practice will only benefit me in my future writing endeavors. My fiction will be sharper!
  • I have cut so many tics and polished up so much through trimming that I have added information from three old blog posts without changing the overall word count that I started with.

That’s the kind of thing that makes any writer happy: more arguments and examples that will hopefully be of use to my audience and less filler, meaning I can offer a greater wealth of information without blowing the book up to be longer than it should be.

Nothing special there: that is what editing is all about.

I don’t think a huge book means a better book. Your time is as limited as mine, and I can’t tell you the last time I read any book at all. I’ve been that busy. I don’t want anyone devoting more time to reading “Writing for You” than the ideal minimum amount required.

77,000 words are plenty. I’m trying to cut down even more without removing anything that has a point and a place in the book.

Nonfiction versus Fiction

The point of this post, I guess, is just to say I’m realizing now how very different editing is for fiction versus nonfiction.

I’ve never gone into editing fiction with the thought, “Let me fit as much information in as possible within this word count range.”

I don’t care about word count in my fiction, as long as I don’t go over 200,000 words. I care about telling the story. All that matters is telling the story.

Nonfiction has proven different, because there I have no story to tell. In “Writing for You,” I have various arguments to make.

Screen Shot 2013-06-02 at 1.37.23 PM

In fiction you can justify taking more time than is technically needed in order to give an intimate feel of a scene and really let your readers get to know your characters.

You can justify giving a detailed description of the nooks and crannies of a setting: to set tone, to hint to your readers that this place is important and will feature prominently in the action to come.

Nonfiction for me is all about: How clearly and simply can I get this argument across, support my point of view, and then move on? Punto.

It’s become a really fun experiment that I’m sure will improve my writing and editing skills all around. I could not be more excited.

I don’t think I would ever have embarked on this experiment–this journey that has shaped me and inspired me to examine how and why I write, and how I can write better–without the push of you guys who suggested the book to me on my Facebook page months back. Those of you who mentioned it in emails or in comments on various posts.

So thanks! I plan to dedicate the book to my sweet new niece, but really, it’s just as much for y’all. (I just hope I give you guys enough credit in the acknowledgments!)

I guess that about covers my latest update. Don’t know how I managed to turn an update post into one with a point about editing as well, but I hope I can manage to do that again somehow (make some kind of argument in an update post, I mean.)

If you are curious about the writing tics I mentioned earlier–ungrammatical tendencies in your writing, or habits that are grammatical but not the strongest way to phrase a point–you can check out my posts on writing tics for a sneak preview of some of the content in my first chapter on style.

You can also add “Writing for You” to a shelf on goodreads now, if you’re on that site.

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7 responses to “A Novelist Editing Nonfiction: What It’s Taught Me About Language

  1. Thank you for this article and I’m very sure it is a challenge to edit non-fiction as opposed to fiction. I do have one question for you, do you mean to use the word “Punto” or did you mean “Pronto” ? as pronto means ‘right away’. Just curious!

    • I meant “punto.” It’s a thing I picked up from Spanish. “Punto” means “period,” so it’s a way to mark “I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” “That’s the whole story.”

      “Pronto” would make sense there too, though, haha! That’s really clever; I would never have thought to consider that a possible typo but it “pronto” is perfect there 🙂 Nice thought!

  2. Oh man, I don’t even want to go into all my writing tics. I’m sure it would scare you. I know it scares my editor.

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