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Part 12: How to Edit Your Nonfiction Book Down to Size

You've worked very hard on your nonfiction book manuscript and put in everything you felt would be valuable. Now it's too long, so the next step is learning how to part ways with your material and edit your nonfiction book down to size so you end up with a clean lean nonfiction book your readers will appreciate.

You can finally see it: a sliver of diamond poking out a crack in the rock. A crocus breaking through the snow. The nonfiction book you’re writing for your business is emerging after all this time, and you can already see she’s going to be beautiful.

But don’t start celebrating just yet. Now is the time to get even more serious, to tighten up your lizardy editorial gaze, and to break out your sharpest shears (Did you read Part 9 when I talk about revision as topiary?) 

A book that’s too long won’t do well; people enjoy clear, clean, and leanly-presented ideas that are nicely paced. If your book is baggy, it’s time for you to trim your nonfiction book down to size with some stiff self-editing. Let’s get that swan out into the world, people!

Access our FREE checklist to help you edit your nonfiction book:

page 1 of Nonfiction Book Editing Checklist

 

The Balloon-Pattern of a Nonfiction Book Draft

The natural process of book writing is expansion-release-expansion-release:

  • In the early stages of writing a book, we throw everything in, just go for it. This gives us plenty of raw material to work with (Expand)
  • When we begin the substantive edit, meaning we’re honing and refining the project to focus on its purpose, we begin relocating, cutting, and adjusting (Release)
  • You revise further either by reorganizing the material or rewriting it entirely. You’re now adding outside information (research, case studies, etc.) (Expand)
  • You did it; you said everything you needed to say, and now it’s time to trim the entire book down to make sure it’s concise, lean, and on task–when we make sure every word is in the manuscript for a reason (aaand release).

So here we are in release mode: you have your book- it’s all there- but it’s a bit buried in too much of itself.

It’s time to self-edit and trim everything that isn’t necessary.

balloons in sky Luca Upper for One Lit Place at onelitplace.com

The Subtle Art of Letting Go

This step is quite fun, but you have to let yourself get into it!

*If you need some purging inspiration, read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, her lovely book on decluttering and apply it to your book draft: see the joy in trimming anything that’s not in service to the big idea and watching the true shape of your book emerge.

All writers make such cuts to their drafts. Now is when you can thank your ideas that aren’t quite right for this book for their service and gently move them to a new file. By this point, you are sensitive enough to determine which material, as Michael Cunningham once said, makes you look like “a smart mother*cker” but which may not be in service to the book, and which material illustrates your book’s main purpose and is necessary.

*If you try to sneak one or two zingers in because you really like them, over time, you may feel embarrassed to have kept them because you will know you they stick out and should have been trimmed away. You will know which zingers they are. Be strict with yourself. You’ll be glad later.

Editing post-it computer coffee Lauren Mancke for One Lit Place at onelitplace.com

How Long Should the Book Be?

The “recommended” length for a nonfiction book is 80,000-120,000 words. But a book is an organism meant to be as it’s meant to be. If you have written a book that is longer or shorter, and you’ve done everything you can to make it lean and on point, then whether it’s 69,000 or 130,000 words, that’s its length.

Why template the imagination? ~ Kyo Maclear

Being stern with yourself is key; you don’t want a “baggy” book, one that doesn’t quite know its own mind, repeats itself or goes off on tangents, or isn’t clear in its intent, all of which will cause you to lose authority and your reader.

There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them. ~Elie Wiesel

I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. ~Vladimir Nabokov

A lean concise draft is key to its ultimate success. A 149,000-word book can always be trimmed, but only you know if you’re removing material that is essential to its overall success, or if that material can be cut, which will make the book lighter and more on task. 

How to Edit Your Nonfiction Book Down to Size

Revising your book is the “art” of the process. In Part 11: The 2 Best Nonfiction Book Revision Strategies That Work, I go into detail on how to execute two tried-and-true allover revision methods.

This self-editing step isn’t revision but recognition and reduction. Here, your job is to be strict with your ideas, keep your sentences taut, and make every word matter.

Self-Editing Choplist (sorry, I mean Checklist):

  • First: sleep on it (meaning, get some distance from the draft. You never want to start self-editing after recently seeing the work or else you’re too familiar with the material. Somewhere between one night and five is best (longer and you lose momentum).
  • Open both your book document and a new file (if you already have a “Notes” file, you’ll open that one).
  • Go through the draft as if you were not you but someone else. This is your opportunity to be your own editor. Use either Review or Track Changes or print the book out and use a pencil.
  • Make margin comments as you read: where does your mind wander (where you’ve been florid, unclear, or boring) or where do you have questions (need more info); which lines are convoluted and which sing? Where do you crave a quote, statistic, or additional research, and where have you clogged the section with too much?
  • If you get to a section that veers off course from the larger section’s topic, trust your instincts that it’s tangential, and hack it out, and stick it in your notes file.When you’ve gone through the whole book, you can use your marginalia and other in-text comments as a guide to further shape, and refine the draft. Being ruthless is important- you’re killing your darlings, but only off of this project. Your ideas will be very useful, just somewhere else.

pile white origami judith browne for One Lit Place at onelitplace.com
How Many Drafts Will It Take?

It’s never the same for any two writers. Christopher Hitchens famously tossed things off in one gorgeous draft, and Ha Jin has said it takes a minimum of 35. (Allison K Williams has come up with a 7-draft strategy for creative books). Yet often, because most people’s revision (and later trimming, further tightening, and refining) methods are done piecemeal, it can be hard to calculate how many drafts it will take.

This is why I consider a book a sculpture, something we both work on in broad strokes as well as in micro nips and tucks when we return and assess, rework, adjust and etc. until the book is either the book we intended to write and share with the world or the book that the publisher has said is due and must therefore be done by X date whether you like it or not!

Seeing Glimpses of the End Result

If there were ever a time to let yourself get excited, now is it: you’ve written nearly an entire book for your business. You’re past the point of quitting, and this beautiful thing will soon be a reality.

If you have been blogging during this time and grooming your audiences for more valuable content with your platform, then when the book is on the shelf, you will already be seen as an authority in the field. This nonfiction book will enable you to reach yet more new audiences and offer you further opportunity for promoting your work through panel discussions, workshops, guest spots on podcasts, and live talks.

If you’re feeling some regret for having trimmed your draft down to size because it’s hard to let go of those ideas (and it is, so honouring this feeling is perfectly fine), it’s important to remember you’ve in fact trimmed down your book for the benefit of its ideas, purpose, and your reader.

Your nonfiction book will carry you, and your business, far into the future. Everything you had to let go? How lucky you are: that cut material will very likely become your next book.

2 Responses

  1. This post is a fantastic breakdown of the cyclical nature of writing a nonfiction book! It perfectly captures the initial flood of ideas, the necessary pruning during editing, and the final polishing stage. Your metaphor of the “balloon pattern” is clear and memorable – it helps writers visualize the process and understand why both expansion and release are crucial steps. Thanks for sharing this helpful and insightful guide!

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment! I am so happy this article has been useful to you- with appreciation and best wishes along your nonfiction writing journey, Jenna

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