“In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.” ~ Joan Didion
I love writing non-fiction.
Throughout my writing life, I’ve had the opportunity to write for a variety of platforms exploring a wide range of non-fiction formats. From personal essays, ‘how-tos’, and op-eds to book reviews and author interviews - and pretty much everything in between.
I’m inherently curious about what others are doing and how they’re doing it, and enjoy exploring my own thinking about the thousands of ideas that enter my periphery on any given day through learning and writing about and for others. Joan Didion’s essay, Why I Write, has always been a favoured read of mine, as she so eloquently puts together how I (and many others) feel about writing non-fiction:
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
I’ve never really clicked with writing that’s simply about one person’s perspective or (usually) pretty typical experiences and enjoy using my own non-fiction writing to hash out and fit together multiple perspectives or ideas. Writing in this way helps to give me structure, focus my attention, and actively engage as I try to draw ideas together in new ways and expand my own understanding.
Some people love this, others find it a bit too mish-mashy (and that’s okay, I know where they’re coming from).
I’ve had feedback on some of my own non-fiction work to say it needs more editing to slim down and smooth out the ideas, and reduce the tangents. I take all this onboard and have never made it any secret that editing my work has never been my strongest skill.
I believed I was alone in this for a long time, but the more I chatted with other writers and listened to other writing community talks, I quickly discovered editing is most definitely something many who write feel challenged by.
Editing is a massive component of writing well, especially in non-fiction - it’s efficient editing that helps us ensure that our piece is telling the story it’s supposed to. That we're saying what we mean to say and that we mean what we say.
There are different ways to ensure non-fiction writing and editing are delivering a high-quality piece that appropriately engages our desired readers and demonstrates our talents as a writer. Some of these components include relational, personal experience mixed with the broader themes we’re exploring, references to reliable resources from trustworthy/professional sources, and clear and concise writing that provides vivid scenes readers can connect with.
Developing an editing process is essential for all writing, but there is a nuance when editing non-fiction. Ensuring you deliver the cleanest copy possible requires a healthy self-editing checklist.
I’ve found that self-editing works best when I remove the ‘writer’ lens and instead read through my work, considering different perspectives. I aim to do at least three editing sessions on a piece before I submit it, and each editing session involves a different ‘lens’ - with questions and a clear focus at the heart of it.
It’s in this process that I work on the idea of revision as much as editing - you might think these are one and the same (and they can be!), but there’s also a distinction I like to make based on a quote from Bernard Malamud, an American novelist, I stumbled across one:
“Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing."
When I think ‘editing’, I find I can get too attentive to formatting, style, grammar, etc. When I think of ‘revising’, it loosens my brain up to focus on ensuring I’m telling the story I really want to tell.
I’m not saying this means I always publish/submit perfect pieces of work (there is nothing like a second set of eyes for editing!). But I have found this helps me to create as clean a copy of my work as I possibly can - and the positive feedback I get from the editors I work with is a testament to this.
Below is a self-editing checklist that I’ve adapted over time from various resources, questions editors have asked me when reviewing my work, and questions I find myself asking when I read through non-fiction work.
Not all of these questions will apply to every piece of non-fiction you write, and you need to consider your voice, style and writer-tics as well, but feel free to adapt this for your non-fiction editing purposes.
A 3-Part Non-Fiction Self-Editing Checklist
I tend to work through each of the following three sections in three separate editing sessions - this creates a clear focus on what I’m attempting to achieve through my editing.
Whose story am I telling, and did I tell it right?
Is it personal, or am I telling someone else’s story?
What is the core focus? Is it clear?
If it’s someone else’s story - what impact will this have on them?
Have I checked with them/the appropriate people about writing this story?
Why this story and why now?
Who will it appeal to?
Why am I writing it?
Is the story clear and well-connected to the appropriate themes?
Is it engaging?
Have I included quotes and references?
How do they aid the story - what purpose are they serving?
Are they accurate?
How do they aid the transitions within the piece?
Does every detail and anecdote help the reader understand the story?
What needs to be cut?
Does the piece provide adequate context?
Does the last line/paragraph provide a substantial summary?
What emotions is it evocating?
What message does it leave the reader with?
Is it the message I want to convey?
Are all the necessary perspectives included, and is everything accurate?
Have I double-checked all names, facts, dates, spellings, and quotes?
If I can’t connect them to a reliable source, remove and/or replace them.
Are additional facts, dates, spellings, and quotes needed to substantiate the story?
Can it be stronger, or will this be too distracting?
Where have I made assumptions or vague statements?
Can I back them up? If not, remove them.
Have I clearly explained uncommon terms, words and acronyms?
Whose perspective is missing from the story?
Why has this been overlooked?
How can I include that missing perspective?
What are the factual holes in the story?
How can I ‘fill’ them?
Where can I improve the mechanics - how ‘professional’ is my writing?
Have I checked for spelling and punctuation?
Is it in line with the publication style guide?
Have I hit or exceeded the designated word count?
Do I need to add or remove parts?
Have I fallen on any of my grammar crutches?
Is the tense all correct?
What about passive voice?
Have I included defunct cliches?
What about concise wording?
How many times did I use ‘that’ unnecessarily? (A key crutch of mine!)
Have I made assumptions about the reader knowledge?
Have I used excessive/fancy wording?
Is the logic easy to follow?
How does it sound when I read it out loud?
Does it flow and make sense?
Does it pace well?
Is it engaging?
Knowing When You’re Done
For me, it often feels impossible to know when I am ‘done’ with a piece of non-fiction.
The questions above can either help to put my mind at ease or open the floodgates to what I have overlooked within the piece (which is kind of their purpose). One final question I like to consider before sending a piece is, "will someone care about this?"
The answer to this question will let me know whether I've achieved a connection or just written from a one-dimensional perspective.
It’s taken me a while to accept that no story is ever perfect or ‘finished’ - there is always more to say.
What I have learnt to focus on instead is trusting my self-editing process and knowing that when I do, I have done the best I can.
And that’s when it’s time to hit submit.