styling your manuscript


Thinking of self-publishing? Should you choose the editing or editorial evaluation package from the self-publishing arm of a publisher, or from self-publishing houses?

As a former in-house acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, a current ghostwriter and developmental editor, and the coauthor of several successful books, I can help you make the right choice for yourself and your book based on your goals (and your budget). You need to know whom you are hiring (and yes, you want to hire someone who knows why I used “whom” right there!). You also want to get the most bang for your buck, and that means making sure your book’s structure, approach, voice, and concept are solid before you start line editing it. You don’t paint the walls of a house before you’ve installed the plumbing and wiring correctly!

Many editors don’t know anything about structuring and editing books, which is a skill of its own. Also, those of us who are developmental editors do not work on every type of book there is. I am well read in many areas, but in some, I admit, I know next-to-nothing! I do turn down and pass along projects I know for certain I’m not the right editor for because I don’t have enough background in working on that type of book. My clients benefit from being able to work with someone who keeps up on what’s going on in the publishing world, the book marketing world, and the worlds of wellness, motivational speaking and writing, business, health, and more.

Peggy McColl

Some of the books I’ve worked on include business books, self-help, inspiration, life lessons books, and memoirs.

 

ADVICE FOR NONFICTION AUTHORS

Here’s what I recommend for authors who want to self-publish nonfiction: Work out your outline and the beginning of the book, looking to other successful books as your guide, and then call in a developmental editor who can evaluate the material and advise you BEFORE you get off track. Write a clear description of each chapter whether or not you do a whole book proposal before contacting an editor. Don’t make the editor guess at what’s in each chapter based on the chapter titles. If you’re looking to sell the book to a publisher and need a book proposal, follow the standard instructions for creating one (you can use the guidance on my website, and please pay close attention to the all-important comparative books list). Then, ask a developmental editor with an acquisitions background or success in shaping proposals that sold to evaluate it. A developmental editor will alert you to writing issues you need to be aware of, and will guide you on structural changes you need to make. If you’re writing a memoir, you will want to be sure you know what the purpose of the memoir is. Memoirs by non-famous people have to have strong themes and titles to capture the attention of readers who aren’t friends and family members.

When you’ve gotten the manuscript into the best possible shape, hire a copyeditor/light line editor to clean it up. He or she should simultaneously create a style sheet for a proofreader to work from (a style sheet lists all the proper nouns and the grammar and punctuation rules you decided upon, such as whether or not to capitalize the first word in a full sentence that follows a colon). Hire a proofreader and ask a friend or fellow author to be another set of eyes.

ADVICE FOR FICTION WRITERS

If you want someone to evaluate your novel (or your completed memoir or other nonfiction manuscript), recognize that it will take hours just to read it, much less to read it, make notes, and correct those notes afterward. How often have I thought, “Oh, I see—now I understand what she was talking about back in chapter 2. Let me go back and change that note.”! If you want to get an evaluation and save money, create an expanded chapter outline and a plot description. Otherwise, the editor has to skim and skim to get the big picture. I was trained to do this as an in-house editor and had lots of practice reading for literary agents, book clubs, and publishers, and I regularly met with other editors doing the same sort of work to compare notes. We became masters of skimming and evaluating. But even masters need time to go through a manuscript whose entire cover letter with plot description is three sentences long! Make it easier for an editor to evaluate your book by creating the one-page synopsis at the very least. And if you can also write up a list of chapters with short descriptions, that’s even better. It will help the editor and it will give you a big picture view of your book in the process. Maybe in preparing the chapter outline, you’ll spot sections that need to be edited down, for instance.

If you decide that you really must write the whole book and “get it on paper,” so to speak, before getting direction from a developmental editor, don’t let me stop you. Just know that if you go that route, you are likely to have to do a lot of cutting and restructuring, and you may end up spending a lot more money paying an editor because you’re presenting that person with a manuscript and no “cheat sheet” with plot description or chapter summaries. Don’t be married to what you wrote.

I hope this helps! I really don’t want any of you feeling you must approach the book writing process a certain way, but I also don’t want you shocked by how much money and time it takes to shape your very raw manuscript.

Good luck on your writing and editing!

If you’re writing a nonfiction book other than a memoir, you’ll need to break up your text with headers. Good headers are like signs on the highway that reassure you that you’re going in the right direction (“Chicago/O’Hare”), orient you (“Chicago 45 milesj”), and tell you when you need to switch roads (“Exit for Dundee Road”). If you’re going to start a new topic, you’ll want to signal that with a header that gives the reader a good sense of what the next section is about. Ideally, your headers will be somewhat provocative without being too mysterious, clear without being boring. “Recite Affirmations to Focus Your Mind” is much better as “Power Mantras for Overcoming the Monkey Mind.” (Of course, if you use the latter, you have to be certain that you explain what a “monkey mind” is.)

You’ll want a header to appear every three pages or so, sometimes more often. You’ll also want to mostly use A-heads, meaning, headers that all have the same weight and are styled the same way.

A Typical A-Head Style

Quite often, I style A-heads in boldface and italics, in the same size font as the type, with two spaces before it and one after it, as I’ve done here. If I wanted secondary heads, called “B-heads,” I’d make them look subordinate to the A-head by not using all the many tools for emphasis. If my A-head is boldfaced and italicized, and the the first letter of each significant word is capitalized, my B-head might look like:

Centered, Boldfaced but not italicized or capitalized B-head

OR

Centered, italicized but not boldfaced or capitalized B-head

Keep in mind that the subjects you encapsulate in B-heads have to make sense under the A-head. Think of the old college outline with its multilevel heads:

  1. Introduction and theme of paper
  2. Jane Eyre as an independent woman
    1. Her rebellion as a child adopted by another family
    2. Her defense of Helen at school
    3. Her refusal to teach at the school and pursuit of a governess position
    4. Rejecting Mr. Rochester’s “deal”

Adding a third tier of C-heads is often confusing, so try to stick with just A-heads and occasional B-heads. You can also use bulleted and numbered lists for material. In general, bulleted lists are in no particular order whereas numbered lists have items that must  be addressed in a specific order, such as Step 1, Step 2.

Spend some time looking at other nonfiction books in your genre and get a feel for how the books you find engaging and well-organized use subheads and lists effectively.