Much of the advice for writers is targeted toward fiction writing and is not particularly helpful for nonfiction writers, many of whom are not writers by vocation or avocation. They did not start writing stories or poems when they were in grade school, and they have not spent years honing the use of language. Instead, they are writing books that derive from their work as psychologists, healers, and other professionals. They know their subjects and perhaps have written for professional peers, but they don’t necessarily know how to translate their learning and experiences into language that is clear and understandable to their layman readers.
For these reasons, all the nonfiction writers I work with need more than a little sprucing up of their grammar. They need editors who can supply that extra word expertise that comes from years of working with the language and analyzing and editing complex topics.
When I get a query to edit psychology or self-help books, the writers are sometimes chagrined at the deep level of changes that are needed. This is why it is not a very good idea to choose an editor based on cost, because I would be surprised if you didn’t need more editing than a professional writer.
Therefore, as you begin your search for an editor, look for one who has edited books in your general subject area and who has excellent testimonials on the quality and depth of their work. Insist on a sample edit so you will know what you can expect the editor to do. Ask prospective editors to work on the same sample so you can easily compare their work. When your sample is returned to you, try not to be dismayed if you see a lot of editorial markings. Your editor is not judging you; in addition to correcting grammar, he or she is showing you—a new writer—how to make your writing easier to understand and more compelling to read.
I put myself in the place of your prospective readers. Often, wordiness, passive voice, and convoluted sentences hinder clarity. With complex topics, I will point out where you could insert a graphic to aid comprehension. The order of the topics you cover needs to be logical, and you should make liberal use of headers. When something needs more explanation, I point that out. Just addressing the issues I have mentioned can easily result in an edit to nearly every line in your sample. If you were a writer by profession, you would do these things yourself. But you have other things to do that are more important to you, so it is far more cost-effective to hire a topnotch editor who is capable of understanding your material and knows how to help your readers understand it.
Sarah Anderson is a freelance editor and writer, experienced in fiction and nonfiction.