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Part 11: The 2 Best Nonfiction Book Revision Strategies

When you're writing a nonfiction book (or any book, article, essay, or blog), you need to bridge the first messy draft to the publishable draft with revisions: the middle drafts of your book that you "re-see" in order to tighten, refine, and heighten the structure, form, and function of the work. These 2 revision techniques are incredible for getting the job done (nearly) painlessly.

In Parts 9: A Revision Editing Checklist for your Nonfiction Book is a Game Changer


Part 10: The 3 Essentials to Nail when you Revise Your Nonfiction Book

of this long-form blog series on writing a nonfiction book to support your business, you may have downloaded my FREE substantive nonfiction book editing checklist to begin the big overhaul of your nonfiction book (or if you haven’t gotten the checklist, it’s below. Go ahead, I’ll wait … )

And you’ve either begun substantially restructuring the draft to ensure it’s fluid, clean, and purposeful


You’ve sat back, viewed the small mess in front of you, and let panic seize your heart.

[Note: if it’s the latter, here’s a mini pep talk: When you look at your first full draft based on your outline, your job is not to evaluate whether the raw writing from your first draft is award-winning (take heart: unless you’re one of those weird savant types, it’s not, or at least not yet anyway).

Nor should you wonder whether to hang it all up because you’re talentless and have the writing acumen of a house plant.

Not only will judging your work not make your book happen any better/faster/more successfully, but it can very easily do the opposite, jam you squarely into a writer’s block and cause this whole affair to come to an ungainly halt. Which can happen- to the very best and brightest.

It’s best if you try very very hard not to go there and just keep your nose down].

crumpled paper photo credit forest simon for One Lit Place at onelitplace.comPhoto credit: Forest Simon

Still, even if you were able to dive into the work, this process can be daunting because at this point you’re working with the entire book’s flow and organizational structure.

What’s reassuring is there are some time-tested and user-friendly ways to go about the revision of the book you’re writing for your business. These will help you corral your process, your mind, and the book at large.

notebook and stack of antique books

The 2 Best Nonfiction Book Revision Strategies

The following tips will help you keep the process visual, tactile, and strategic. This puts the emphasis on you letting the work a) do the talking and b) find its ultimate shape.

I. Visual Strategies: Re-assembling and Organizing Your Book

For the tactile writer:

  • Print out your manuscript and use colored pens to start partitioning out the material. To do this, create a table/rubric for each topic as well as for cut, relocate, add to, research, quote, etc. and color code the table. Then circle, bracket, and make notes in the margins for those sections.
  • Print out the pages, cut the pages into strips by paragraph or groupings of paragraphs and then reassemble them, like a puzzle, on the floor. Make a new working outline based on the newly assembled material.
  • Go through your manuscript and write out section or chapter summaries on index cards and pin them down the wall (which is a double-smart move as having to condense a section into a sentence or two forces you to distill what that section is about (a great exercise), plus you can then physically lay out the chapters).

Rick Wormwood manuscript revision process for One Lit Place at

Photo credit: Rick Wormwood, author, novel manuscript

For the more digitally-inclined writer:

  • Code by color the same way by creating a table and using different colors for the various lines/sections. Turn on “Review” (in Mac) or “Track Changes” (PC) so you can make notes to yourself in the margins that are associated with those words, lines, or sections.
  • Get a book writing software that helps you organize your chapters neatly, make notes, and keep track of quotes, resources, and other materials. For paid book writing software, Scrivener is largely thought of as the gold standard. For free software, Evernote has many terrific features, and Microsoft Word has abundant features both out in the open, such as Review/Track changes or hiding in the corners as lesser known tools that will help you organize by chapter, make notes, and keep track of your thoughts.

The idea behind all the note making is that you’re strategically identifying how your book can be best presented, treating it with an impersonal eye as if you were helping someone you know organize it.

II. The Phoenix Rises: Start Over from Scratch

One way to ensure you have a fluid second draft (and 3rd, etc.) is to set your first draft aside where you can’t see it and rewrite the entire book from scratch.

Holy Mother of WHAT??

That was my reaction too when I first heard author Binnie Kirshenbaum say that’s what she does (with each of her six novels and one short story collection), and I’ve since done it myself as well, so hear me out.

grafitti on brick wall my life through a lens for One Lit Place at onelitplace.comPhoto credit:My Life through a Lens

Benefit #1: if you cut and paste from the original draft, you will invariably end up having a greater task on the back end because the resulting draft will be choppy and clogged with too much extra writing.

Trying to sew together existing information with new information requires transitions, more cutting and pasting, and may ultimately give the overall book the feeling of having been written by several versions of you.

True, the cohesiveness of voice can be smoothed out in the later stage editing, but going this route does cause more work in the long run.

Benefit #2: while rewriting the book, your unconscious mind will naturally recall the information that was important or that came up in the first draft, but it will emerge more fluidly in the second draft, requiring less cut and paste action and only some re-plugging in of the technical things you didn’t remember or know such as statistics or research.

While rewriting an entire book from scratch sounds draconian and downright awful, it’s actually a wonderful way to slim down, refine, and create a fluid reading experience.

Case in point:

Have you ever composed a long email, blog, or something more narrative like a story or essay only to have your computer crash on you/the dog eat the paper and have no choice but to re-do it? What’s amazing and so so funny is it happened to me when I was writing Part 9: Oh, universe; you have such a great sense of humour!

It’s likely happened to you, so let’s remember what happened at the time (after you finished cursing): You got back to work realizing the dumb thing wasn’t going to rewrite itself, and your brain, bless it, both remembered what it was you were driving at in the first iteration and also began trimming the fat of the earlier version as you reconstructed it.

By George, it came out leaner, tighter, and more purposeful! Yes, it was a pain, but you have to agree: the second version is nearly always better than the first.

night sky photo credit luca bravo for One Lit Place at

Photo credit: Luca Bravo

While no one wants to go through this because it’s not of your own volition, in reality, it’s a great exercise in seeing how your brain auto-revises: it removes the unnecessary, finds its focus amid the earlier “throat clearing,” and is more able to make connections between points because by now, it’s familiar with the flow of ideas.

This is now what will happen when you write the second draft of your book.


If you’re not ready to try this method in full, you can cheat a bit and have your manuscript where you can see it- that way your brain is still free to tighten and go lean as you rewrite the entire book, but you can use your earlier manuscript to guide the way.

Ultimately, whether you choose the cut and paste visual restructuring and organizing or the go-big-or-go-home rewriting from scratch, you will end up with a more structured, more organized book for your business.

Author’s note: both of these 2 techniques for revision work beautifully for all types of writing: novels, memoirs, nonfiction projects, articles, essays, blogs, and even emails.

Give them a try and let us know which works best for you and why in the comments below!

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