Before I get started on this, I’d like to say I’m probably about done with the editing blog posts. I think (such as I do) I have two more; today’s and one more. The one hanging is a very meandering post so far as I’m trying to get my mind around how to edit voice. In other words that 20% everyone /really/ wants from their editors. But that is yet to come.
Today’s editing is something else: editing non-fiction. See, at least nominally everything I’ve discussed in the previous three posts has been cast in the guise of fiction. It is, and yet it is also for non-fiction (with caveats).
Let me start by saying that it gets a lot easier if you think of nonfiction as yet another genre.
Conventions can REALLY matter in non-fiction, especially as you start getting into specialized niches. This particularly applies for things like post-secondary textbooks and “professional” materials (material specifically for attorneys, physicians, accountants, and so on and so forth). There are expectations of internal reference and structure that are peculiar to the audience. If you’re going to be an editor for that niche you must know the conventions, just as you must for the other areas. (To be completely open here, what I’m writing in no way meets what professional copy editors expect either.) That said, as you shift from narrow audience to broad audience you can relax your grip on those conventions. Whether you do or not is up to you, of course, but there’s a reason in depth professional materials tend to cause most eyes to glaze over.
Secondly, it helps if you grossly divide non-fiction into two more-or-less groupings. I’ll call these narratives and references for convenience; you can call them whatever you want.
Narratives are the books that walk you through a process. It may be a biography. It may be a book that teaches you to sew, or cook. Perhaps it is a discussion of a fine point of Biblical interpretation. Regardless, it assumes you’re starting at the beginning (or at least, as with an anthology, at the beginning of each chapter) and continuing to the end to get the whole benefit.
The alternative is the reference. There are two examples that should lock this in your mind: cookbooks, and vehicle repair manuals. These tools and parts, step one, step two, step … finished.
I’m jumping with narrative first, but I will be getting to reference before I’m done.
The interesting thing is that a lot of the mechanics and basics of editing for fiction work for non-fiction. Spelling and grammar and consistency and such of the copy editors still apply.
Sentence length (should) matter – and in fact does matter, as you can tell by comparing almost any non-fiction you liked against one on the same general subject that bored you to tears. Timing and pacing matter.
Wait. Timing and pacing? Do I mean the EVENT discussion? Yes, though we won’t call it that. Bear with me, I need a necessary digression.
The biggest flaw of most narrative style NF is that it becomes an info-dump. Info dumps kill SF and Fantasy stories, and for that matter kill adventures and mysteries and romances and every other genre out there. The reader waiting to see how Pauline will miss her chance at Paul this time DO NOT CARE about the four generation history of the castle in which the action takes place, not as one lump. (And the author almost always had better have a good reason for dumping facts about every, single, generation — which almost never happens.) Info dumps are fact, fact, fact, maybe a tie-together and then another fact… snooooore…
The biggest mental shift is to quit thinking in “scenes”. Not that the principles don’t apply, but there’s some mental confusion that gets relieved if you change the language. Now we want to think in terms of “sections”.
Sections are based on reveals and events. A major difference between most fiction and most narrative non-fiction is that the former uses mostly events while the latter is predominately reveals. Slightly different from the reveal of fiction, the non-fiction reveal is the Critical Point, the element that moves the narrative. It is what we want our reader to remember, the piece that builds toward the conclusion of the subject of our book (or at least the chapter).
Oh – I want to include a specific non-fiction convention here. The reveal can open as well as close the section, but it cannot sit in the middle. Mechanically, your choice of opening or closing each section needs to be consistent through the work.
Now one of the fun parts of non-fiction is that a section can be as small as a paragraph. I say it’s fun because editorially this makes one of your mechanics more, well, interesting. Just as your scenes need to balance their length, your sections need to do the same. If you’ve been using two-paragraph sections and suddenly (because you think this point is REALLY important or complex) you go to even a six paragraph section, you may have bogged your book. You can have longer sections, but you need to recognize them and be prepared to help your readers cope with the fact you broke their expectations. You can cut. You can add a secondary reveal or event. You can intentionally split it to two sections, with the second looking at the same reveal from another point of view. Leaving it overlong is one of the “knowingly break the rules” decisions.
That bit about splitting a long section into an action and non-action (sub-plot or infodump) section brings us to the last difference in narrative NF vs fiction I’ll discuss in this post. That difference is “acts”, or more appropriately progression through the acts. You can, in some non-fiction, use a multi-act type of progression. It is, however, uncommon. Unless there are such obvious break points within the work you should instead look at it as a one-act work. All books trying to hook readers need to open with a steeper curve for a short time, but after they need a generally steady upward progression. Depending how it is done you may want a slightly steeper conclusion.
Once more, plotting the main/non-main values of the sections will help balance the work. It will assist in readability, both preventing overwhelming the reader with too much too soon and getting overly bogged down with long section after long section. Best of all it helps you build and sustain an implied contract with your reader of how fast you’re going to present the information. That helps maintain the reader’s interest and reduces frustration with your work.
In sum, then, for editorial mechanics purposes narrative non-fiction can be considered a one-act fiction in which the sections (scenes) are dominated by reveals instead of events.
My, that was abrupt, wasn’t it?
Reference isn’t meant to educate or entertain, though some do. Reference is, by its very nature, an info-dump. That doesn’t mean it has to come across as a monotone lecturer who (breathe) continues forever and takes a breath where he needs instead of (breathe) cued to punctuation. That is (breathe) always boring, don’t you know. (grin)
In almost all cases reference work falls into the ‘specialized niche’ of conventions. In a cookbook, for example, the norm is to see the recipe as a whole block: ingredients together, then processes. Interspersing ingredients with processes can work but is always a shock when it happens. And rambling talks that bring in recipe or process along the way – ie, the way I tend to do most of my recipe posts in this blog – are Not The Way Things Are Done.
On the other hand, true “pure” reference works are rare. Most tend to have narrative sections: leading chapters, expounding or explaining each entry, mentioning alternatives, etc. Where this happens you can use narrative editing mechanics to balance the book, but don’t become so focused on them you try to make the reference a narrative. It isn’t, any more than a locked room mystery is a historical romance.
All that noted, there is one tool you the reference editor can create and use in everything but dictionaries. That’s the index. Every reference non-fiction demands an index – if it’s not there, you as the editor should get an indexer to make one or make the author finish the work. For what it is worth most non-fiction should have an index, but it isn’t quite the mandatory element of the reference non-fiction.
Every entry (not scene or section or topic) of the reference non-fiction should have at least one line in the index pointing to it. As a ‘mechanical’ tool it is useful to create a reverse index. That is, for each entry count how many index lines point to it.
The reason is our old friend balance. We want to look for entries that have significantly more or significantly fewer index pointers, and then we want to consider why. It might simply be we need more index entries. More subtle but as important it lets us consider those entries themselves. If they have significantly more pointers there’s a possibility the entry should be broken into two or more entries. The entry with too few pointers may need expansion or to be combined with another related entry.
Don’t do any of this automatically, mind. Sometimes they’re long or short because they have to be long or short. That, of course, is where knowledge of the subject as editor comes into play. But you can ‘fake’ it by talking with your writer. It is possible that just by pointing this out to the writer, he or she will grasp your point and see the need for the change. Or will be able to tell you why it is too long or too short.
I’ll bring that point up again in the next editing post, but really want to emphasize it. The mechanicals help you, the editor, find the places from which your insight can spring. In every art with which I’ve been involved the vast majority of brilliant results are as much a recognition of the fact the rules were being broken as they were artistic inspiration. (note that in some cases that was “yes, I know, and this is why and isn’t it GLORIOUS”. But sometimes “get your foot into line” has been all that’s needed for the lift to explode instead of simply, well, lift.)
Balance. Timing. Progression. Those are what the editor’s mechanics aim to produce in the structure. They provide the basis from which inspiration, from which the writer’s voice, can rise. Yes, even in non-fiction.