An Editor’s Top Tips for (non-fiction) Writers

An Editor’s Top Tips for (non-fiction) Writers

I love my job. I really enjoy helping writers take their ideas and make the communication of them the best it can be. It’s educational (I learn about all kinds of topics) and stimulating (I’m often having to think quite deeply about those topics, especially when trying to work out if I understand the author’s arguments), and lots of fun as we discuss the ideas and examples back and forth and tease them into their most helpful form.

Yet there are a few common errors which crop up time and time again which cause headaches for me, cost for you or your publisher, and general stress as we try to get all the work done in time for the deadline. If you can get these right in the first draft, the whole process will be much quicker, smoother and more pleasant:

  1. Do your references as you go along;
  2. Discover what MS Word can do for you;
  3. Murder your darlings;
  4. Don’t plagiarise; and
  5. Meet your deadlines.

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1) Do your references as you go along

If you take nothing else away from this post, make it this. I know it feels tedious at the time, but imagine what it will be like when you’ve returned all the source material to the bookcase/library/friend you borrowed it from. I’ve been working on a couple of new editions of books recently. They were written about twenty years ago, and the publisher then didn’t make the authors cite the page numbers in their references. The rules are tighter now, and you really do need page numbers – imagine what a pain it has been for them to find them all again!

Every publisher’s formatting is different, but essentially they all need the same information:

For a book: Author/s (and/or Editor/s), Full title, Publication city, Publisher, Publication date, page number/s of quoted material.

eg: C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (Fontana Lions, 1980) pp. 25-27

For a newspaper or magazine article: Author, Article title, Publication title, Edition (if relevant), Publication date, page number/s or URL if an online source.

eg: Richard Ford, ‘Knife crime cases rise to nine‑year high’, The Times 13 June 2019 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/knife-crime-cases-rise-to-nine-year-high-7bcd8jmvc

For an online source: Author if known, Article title or website section, Date if relevant, url

eg: Department of Education, ‘Children looked after in England (including adoption), year ending 31 March 2018’, 15 November 2018 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/757922/Children_looked_after_in_England_2018_Text_revised.pdf

or: Jennie Pollock, ‘The Brunswick Theatre disaster’, 2 March 2019 jenniepollock.com https://jenniepollock.com/the-brunswick-theatre-disaster/

NOTE: do make sure you include ALL the information, not just the link. If the link has a typo in it, or the page gets deleted, it’s a lot of work to try to find what you were trying to point to. It’s good practice to make a note of the date of your visit to the page, too, just in case it gets removed.

 

2) Learn what MS Word can do for you.

Many writers like to use dedicated writing software to organise their work and do all kinds of fancy things with it, but so far I haven’t come across anything I need in a book that Word can’t do.

Some basics:

If you want to start a new page, or want to indent your text, don’t just hit enter/return or the space bar lots of times. Ctrl+ Enter will start a new page, tab will create an indent.

And if you really want to get fancy, Ctrl+ E will centre any selected text, Ctrl+ J will justify it and Ctrl+ L will left-align it.

Some really useful features:

Heading styles are one of the most useful things to familiarise yourself with. They help you keep the headings and subheadings in your work consistent throughout, without you having to keep scrolling back to see ‘did I make the chapter titles 16 point or 18 point? Bold or regular? The same font or something different?’ With the click of a button you can apply a style to selected text and get on with the bit you care about.

The bonus is, you can find your way quickly around your document using the Navigation Pane (under View -> Navigation Pane) which will show all your headings and give you a very effective outline of the document.

This is where you can also search for things within your document, and ensure consistency using the Find and Replace functions (eg when you discover you’ve been spelling TS Eliot wrong all this time).

The other thing to familiarise yourself with is Track Changes. This set of functions (found under the ‘Review’ tab) allows you and your editor to chat in the document, make suggestions, query things etc without deleting anything that is there. It will put your editor’s changes in one colour and yours in another, so it’s easy to see who’s suggesting what, and it is also possible to hide some people’s changes if you have several people commenting on the same document and it all gets too confusing. Have a play around with a draft document and see what it can do.

 

Word has all kinds of fantastic functions – I had lots of geeky fun learning about the deeper level formatting and indexing facilities last year – take some online tutorials, look up how to solve issues on your preferred search engine (the MS Help function is often less than helpful – the internet community will more often understand more fully what you want to do and explain it more clearly), and have fun.

Don’t be afraid to ask your editor for help and advice early on (if you know who it will be) – he/she will be very happy to help you get things up and running smoothly up front rather than having to fix them later when everything is in a mess. In fact, maybe I should run some ‘Making the most of MS Word tutorials’. What do you think?

 

3) Murder your darlings.

I first read this sentiment in Stephen King’s excellent book on writing, On Writing, but it originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. It means that sometimes you have to cut the bit you love the most in your work.

Your darlings are those things that just flowed when you wrote them. You couldn’t get the words out fast enough, and they simply sang. They are perhaps the best, most poetical, most perfect things you’ve ever written… but the rest of the words in the book/essay/article stubbornly refuse to welcome them as part of the whole. They stick out. If it’s an illustration it doesn’t quite convey to others what it does for you; you end up shoring them up with so much padding that their crisp edges begin to disappear. Everyone who reads your work says things like ‘this is a great story, but…’. Your editor says, ‘this is great writing, but…’. If they stumble over it, so will the reading – and buying, and reviewing – public. Iron out that lump.

It’s tempting to cling onto them, but it’s far wiser, and better for the book and for your own peace of mind, to quietly kill them off and give them a decent burial. Start a folder on your computer called ‘Graveyard of Darlings’ if you like, then you can save them in there and visit them from time to time, marvelling at how beautiful and perfect they are, then leaving them to rest in peace once more.

I should have heeded the lesson with this piece I wrote for LICC a couple of years back. It’s not bad, but the repeated mention of Creme Eggs was a bit odd in January. I’d originally wanted to say ‘Jaffa Cakes’, as I thought I’d seen that their recipe had been changed, but once I’d panicked my editor and checked my facts, I discovered I was wrong. At that point I should have ditched the example completely and started again, but I liked the shape of the piece, I’d worked hard(ish) on it, and I frankly couldn’t be bothered. Creme Eggs had been a scandal the previous Easter, so I dredged up that bit of old news and crow-barred it into the piece. It was dated, it was awkward (who ‘reaches for the Creme Eggs’?) and it didn’t have the delightful, zesty zing of the name ‘Jaffa Cakes’. I failed to change it when I had the chance, and my writing was the poorer for it.

That’s one thing when it’s a 400-word blog post. It’s quite another when it’s in your book, and you have to live forever with knowing it could have been that last percentage point better if only you’d swallowed your pride and murdered your darlings.

 

4) Don’t plagiarise.

This wasn’t on my list originally, as I thought it went without saying, but I’ve edited two books recently with chunks in them copied from Wikipedia (of all places) with no attribution, so apparently it’s not as obvious as I thought.

You can’t copy someone else’s words and pass them off as your own. Even if you found them on a website. It’s fine to quote from websites – save Wikipedia as your last resort, but you can use it – just make it clear you’ve done it.

It’s no different from any other quote: use quotation marks, then insert a footnote or endnote (which you’re doing as you go along, aren’t you?).

If your quotation is in the footnotes, format it like this:

“The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters are at Broadcasting House in Westminster, London, and it is the world’s oldest national broadcasting organisation and the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees.” ‘BBC’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC Accessed 26 June 2019.

There’s very little else to say on plagiarism, really – just don’t do it.

 

5) Meet your deadlines

I know, I know, we’re artists, and we have a wonderful romantic image of ourselves scribbling away with a quill pen by candlelight racing to meet a deadline. And I know there is a certain creative energy that comes with the adrenaline rush of being pitted against a relentlessly ticking clock, but this isn’t just about you. Unless you’re writing just for your own blog or personal enjoyment, other people are affected by your actions.

Once you’ve accepted the contract, the clock has started ticking. Maybe you’re writing a blog post that someone needs to edit, proofread, format, illustrate, schedule and set up social media for. They have planned in sufficient time to do that, and every hour you’re late is an hour wasted for them, forcing them to rush, or work into the night to get your precious words out there on time.

And that’s just a blog. If you’re writing a report, an academic paper or a book, there’s likely to be a launch event scheduled to try to bring it to the consciousness of a public who might otherwise never see it. That means it has to be delivered on time, which means it has to get to the printers on time, which means it has to get to the typesetters and the designers and the proofreader on time. And if you want anyone to endorse it, or write a foreword to it, you’re going to have to get it to them in plenty of time. And that leaves your editor squeezed in the middle.

No matter how late you get it to me, I have to get it edited (and sent back to you for changes, and edited again and possibly queried with you again) and on to the next stage by the deadline I was originally given. And believe it or not, a piece of work turned in two days late is rarely two days better, two days easier to read, two days quicker to edit. In fact, in my experience, those who miss deadlines are also most likely to be those who have missed footnotes, or only done partial ones, somehow imagining that a less-finished piece of work is better than a complete one.

OK, I’m ranting now – can you tell I’ve been up till 1am on more Sunday nights than I can remember desperately trying to get someone’s work presentable by morning?

The point is this: there is a team of people willing and waiting to help you make your writing the best it can be. We’re for you. We want to support you and help you get your message out to the world, and the harder you make it for us the less good your product is going to be in the end, and the less likely we are to want to work with you again.

Do yourself and your writing a favour and give yourself sufficient time to complete it. I know stuff happens – emergencies crop up, interviews you’re waiting on don’t come through, computers have a fit right at the crucial moment and eat days’ worth of your work – but exceptional circumstances aside, meet your deadlines. Your editor will thank you.

 

Summary.

So those are my five top tips:

  1. Do your references as you go along;
  2. Learn how to use MS Word;
  3. Murder your darlings;
  4. Don’t plagiarise; and
  5. Meet your deadlines.

Now, let’s hope I obeyed all those in my Work in Progress!

 

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Main image: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Loren Ipsum (dummy text used in images) generated here.

3 Comments On This Topic
  1. Mark Johnson
    on Jun 28th at 5:57 pm

    Thank you so much Jennie for sharing these practical tips.

    I can easily imagine paying top money to sit in a stuffy room being given this type of expert advice from a writer with a proven track record as opposed to sitting outside, soaking in the South West London sun at the same time as your valued thoughts.

    You have shown you have what it takes, without the song and dance or need to monetise what you’ve learned on your own journey.

    May God honour and bless your generous heart.

    Thanks again

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 8th at 2:37 pm

      Thank you so much, Mark. Really appreciate your kind words and generous encouragement.

      Reply

  2. […] is from the always excellent Jennie Pollock and I say a huge Amen to every single […]

    Reply

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