The Special Challenges of Nonfiction

I find that many of the nonfiction writers I work with are maybe just a little too smart for their own good. I say this with affection and appreciation for how hard it is to communicate paragraph after paragraph of complex information and insight in a coherent way.

Many nonfiction writers are experts in their particular field and know far more about it than will most of their readers. They are also extremely close to the material and tend to lose their ability to be objective. Their challenge is to avoid both overestimating and underestimating their readers.

An editor can help a writer accomplish this balancing act only if she is able to wrap her mind completely around complex material and comprehend it well enough so that if certain passages seem to not be understandable, she can be confident it is a problem with how the information is being communicated and not with her own ability to absorb it. I have had a lot of success working with complex books by highly expert writers.

Coherent organization of topics in a nonfiction book is also a major challenge. The human mind does not think in terms of chapters and subheadings, and therefore when writers sit down to write, knowledge and insight often come out in more of a stream-of-consciousness fashion rather than in finished book form. Many extremely intelligent nonfiction writers need help breaking down their topics into appropriate parts, chapters, headings, etc., in order to avoid repeating in Chapter 12 what was already fully covered in Chapter 3. A good editor will spot related concepts and help writers devise a logical narrative flow.

Following are testimonials from two physicians whose books I edited quite extensively:

“As Carrie demonstrated in working on my book, Happy Accidentsshe is a consummate wordsmith, with the facility of not only understanding and integrating scientific and technical material but also illuminating arcane and otherwise opaque descriptions. She expertly shapes the structure of a presentation for better narrative flow, simplifying complex material to make it reader-friendly. Beyond these talents, she is simply a delight to work with.”

Morton A. Meyers, M.D., author of Happy Accidents: The Role of Serendipity in Major Medical Breakthroughs (Arcade Publishing, 2007)

“My personal experience in working with Carrie has been very rewarding. All too often and to our peril, we physicians who are immersed in medicine assume that our writing and even our organizational styles are accessible to the broad audiences we hope our books will reach. Often these beliefs are just plain wrong. Carrie has the grit to drill down into the material so that nothing is taken for granted. She also demonstrates an intuitive skill to help add an overarching structure to the work that helps expand its scope, further increasing the book’s accessibility to those audiences we wish to reach. Her persistence in getting the content to seamlessly flow from one technical subject to the next is a true gift.

John W. Cassidy, M.D., neuropsychiatrist, former Harvard Medical School faculty member, and author of Mindstorms: The Complete Guide for Families Living with Traumatic Brain Injury(Da Capo Press, 2009)

Both of these authors, though brilliant, needed help organizing very complex thoughts, choosing a vocabularly suited to a lay audience, and finding an appropriate and appealing narrative voice. Both felt that the editing process was key to communicating their ideas to their intended audience.


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