The 3 Most Common Writing (Thinking) Mistakes Nonfiction Authors Make

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Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Note that I put “thinking” in parentheses. This post isn’t about common grammatical errors—it’s about common mistakes authors make in thinking about their subjects and how to present them.

In my experience as a developmental editor, I’ve seen many nonfiction authors dive into their topics without thinking much about the audience first. But this approach can lead to confusion—because you’re jumping into a subject from your own vantage point as an expert. You’ve lived the experience and researched the heck out of the topic, usually over a span of years or decades.

In other words, you’re too close to the material to know if you’re explaining it clearly to those who are less familiar, or maybe even unfamiliar.

Remember, unless you’re writing a book for people with the precise same expertise as you, you’re likely to have blind spots about reader understanding. Not taking these blind spots into consideration means you could be confusing your audience more than helping them, which is the opposite of your intention. (Unless you’re an evil mastermind, that is.)

With these blind spots in mind, here’s my answer to the question, “What are the most common writing mistakes you see?”

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Interview on “The Open Mic,” plus new testimonials

Everyone who has a blog has the intention to update it regularly, and I’m no different–but life and client projects keep me busy. Nevertheless, I have news to share.

Journalist and editor of the book In Their Own Words: Twenty Successful Writers on the Craft and Business of Writing interviewed me for his blog The Open Mic. We had a fun conversation about developmental editing for nonfiction books. I had the opportunity to answer one of my favorite questions–what writing problems do I see most often when editing books and other content from subject matter experts? You view the interview here.

I’m also happy to share some new testimonials from clients, which you can find sprinkled throughout this site. The latest is from a memoirist who received a manuscript critique from me in November 2018:

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What Is a Developmental Editor?

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

A developmental editor (sometimes called a content editor or substantive editor) is someone you can hire to help you create a focused, well-organized, structurally sound, compelling, and engaging first draft of a book or document.

This person isn’t a ghostwriter; she edits only, and will not do any rewriting of your original work. But what she will do is guide you in your process, with a focus on pushing you to clarify your content so the meaning is clear to the reader. (This is a particularly important part of the job for nonfiction book editors.)

How Does a Developmental Editor Improve Your Book?

By clarifying your meaning. The goal of a developmental edit or content edit is to elevate the quality of your book on a fundamental level by asking a few key questions of your material:

1. Does it make sense?

2. Are you making your point as clearly as possible?

3. Is this book fulfilling your goal or mission? (Other ways to say this in other professional fields might be, “Is the content supporting the thesis?” or “Is the document executing on the brief?”)

If the answer to any of these questions is no:

  • What needs to be changed to make the book flow better?
  • Is there anything missing that would make your project clearer or more comprehensive?
  • Are your chapters in the right order, and do you have enough of them?
  • Are parts, chapters, and sections balanced for length?
  • Have you backed up your claims with research or case studies?
  • Are you connecting the dots for the reader?
  • Does this book have a sales hook that will make the reader say, “I need to own this”? (Hint: exercises, takeaways, and a useful Appendix and other back matter all help to sell nonfiction books.)

These are the types of big picture questions a nonfiction developmental book editor would ask herself while reading your manuscript.

How I Work

When editing a client’s book, I create margin notes in the document as I read. I also provide a summary overview letter to accompany these Track Changes. My client can refer to the letter as she or he combs through the manuscript in search of issues to fix.

Does your nonfiction book need a manuscript critique or developmental edit (content edit)? Contact me to discuss your goals.