Conceptual editing for nonfiction

To most people editing means “fix writing,” that is, cutting the excess verbiage, correcting the grammar and spelling, checking for consistency, and such. That kind of editing is called copyediting. (And it makes an editor-blogger very nervous to get everything just right.) But let’s back up to the first stage of editing after acquisition. We’ll call it conceptual editing. I see some self-published books these days that are well copyedited. Either the author is good at that or has hired someone who is. Nary a misspelling nor one grammar no-no (well, almost nary since I’d bet money that every book has some head-slapper boo-boo buried in there somewhere). But the reader still senses something is wrong, something makes it reek of self-published, even if it has a handsome cover. The problem is that the author did not undergo that necessary step-outside-yourself process of conceptual editing.

The conceptual editor stands back and looks at the whole. Gestalt used to be a hot concept. It still is, though the term died out with tie-dye. It’s the forest before plunging into it and seeing each tree. It’s the wide Google Earth view before you fly down to see the rooftops. In conceptual editing, you read the whole manuscript, get a feel for what the author is doing in general, and see if there are any overall issues that need addressing before the nitty-gritty editing starts.

The conceptual process differs for fiction and nonfiction. Let’s look at nonfiction this time. The first thing to consider is, drum roll, the reader. Always consider the reader. Who is this book for anyway? How will the reader use the book? Will it be read straight through from cover to cover, or will someone look up what they want and hop around, using different sections at different times? How much introduction does the topic need? How versed in the topic will the typical reader be? Many nonfiction books, in an effort to attract as many buyers as possible, try to straddle the line between amateur and professional user. Good luck, writing to both without boring or confusing either is a fine art. It can be done, but find an editor who understands some of the needs of both kinds of readers.

I looked at a book recently that was about all the practical stuff of life, the life skills you don’t learn in school but need to know to succeed in daily living. You know: balance a checkbook, burp a baby, clean the bathroom, unplug the toilet, write proper thank-you notes. All good, but who was this book aimed at? Some of the book seems aimed at the parents, how to teach your kids this stuff. Some of the book addresses the young person: here’s what you should know. I couldn’t tell if I should buy this book for my niece or for my sister. (Of course, I don’t need it, me of the more or less tidy house—if you don’t count the manuscripts piled everywhere waiting to be read.) A good conceptual editor would have helped this author decide her readership and speak truth to it—in a palatable way. I have to tell you that the first chapter was called “Cleaning Supplies.”

Enough for today. I’ll look at conceptual editing for fiction next time. And that’s a much slipperier proposition.

My animal picture this time is a Florida neighbor. You are never far from a gator in these parts.






— June Cussen, Pineapple Press