Have you finished your nonfiction manuscript? Ready to polish it up before you publish? Clark Chamberlain and Peter Turley have 4 tips that will set you on the right path, get your nonfiction book ready, and keep you out of legal trouble.


Clark: Welcome to The Book Editor Show. Today we are delving into the scary world of non-fiction and giving you four easy steps to perfecting your book for print.

I’m Clark Chamberlain, and there are stories told from the beginning of time about a man who braved the dark wood, bested the might beasts, and climbed the highest mountains to bring back a nugget of wisdom, and protected it for generations to come.

Here he is, the guardian of grammar, my friend and co-host, Peter Turley.

Peter, how’s it going today?

Peter: I’m awesome.

I have missed that.

Clark: Yeah? The three weeks that you’ve been gone?

Peter: Yes, I had to just nurse myself to sleep with sound bites from previous podcasts. [laughs]

Clark: Well, I’m glad you had those. I would hate to have left you out there in the lurch for sure.

How was your vacation? That’s an extended amount of time.

Peter: It really was. I was saying earlier that before going it felt like — wow, that is going to be such a long time. Is it too long? Can you have too long to go on holiday? Is there such a thing?

Then towards the end of the third week I was thinking — you know what, maybe I could just stay here and get by with minimal tourist lingo, and just, you know, point at things and… I’m sure that I’d get by in the south of France that way.

Clark: I’m sure. That’s the easiest way to do it. You’ll pick up little things, right?

Peter: Yes.

Clark: — eventually.

Peter: It was awesome.

So how have things been back home?

Clark: Really good.

It was fun having Leslie on the shows the last few weeks to help out. Really appreciate that.

Big news for me — if our listeners haven’t heard already, I am now the editor in chief over at Sterling and Stone. So that’s really exciting.

It’s a big change. So I’m really excited about that. It will mean stepping down from a lot of stuff that I’m doing over at Raven International, but we’ll still do The Book Editor Show for sure.

I’m just excited about what’s to come.

Peter: Yes, that’s great news. That’s fantastic.

It’s for moments like this that we really need to invest in some like, canned applause, or something like that. [laughs]

Clark: [laughs] We really do.

Peter: Because if I just do it on my own at this end, it kind of sounds like a slow clap.

Clark: I would take a slow clap. That’s not too bad.

Peter: Well I’ve always wanted to start a slow clap.

Clark: Well there’s just not enough of it. So you can start the slow clap and then we’d have to jump into a canned track for total applause.

Are you ready to get started today? Should we dive into this?

Peter: Yes. I’m looking forward to today’s topic and it’s quite fitting, given the latest news.

Clark: Yes, it certainly is.

Peter: I imagine you’ll be doing a little bit of this.

Clark: Yes. In fact, I will be. Sterling and Stone this next year, the goal is one book a month in their Smarter Artist series. These are non-fiction books so I’ve already started on some non-fiction and it’s been really great and it’s kind of what helped us come up with this idea for today’s show.

Peter: Talking about editing, if you want to see editing in action, be sure to listen to Writership. This week, Leslie Watts and Clark review “Me and My Bacon,” a YA novel about identity. So go to writership.org today.

Clark: Yes. Please do. It’s a lot of fun. We really enjoy doing these shows, but if you want to see that line by line work, definitely, Writership — that’s where you want to be.

Today, we’ve got four steps to perfectly edit your nonfiction.

Of course, this is, again, more content-wise making sure it’s ready for publication, not sending it to the copy editor or the proofreader.

One of the first things that we want to look at, just like we would do with any fiction book, is we want to get a full picture and understanding of what it is we’re dealing with with the book and making sure that things have the proper pacing, and that the chapters are in the proper order.

This might kind of sound silly, but in a nonfiction book — because we’re probably dealing… We’re not talking about memoir necessarily here, but we’re talking about a nonfiction work where you’re teaching, that you would want to have each of the chapters build on the last chapter, so that the reader doesn’t for instance, end up in chapter 3 and have no idea what’s being really taught until they’ve read chapter 5.

Peter: Definitely.

Off air we were talking about this. We were going to get to this as the second point, and then realized the irony of talking about getting things in the right order and then doing that in the wrong order. [laughs] So this is definitely the most important.

I think a good way to think about that is to consider possibly that your reader has none, of if not, very little, prior knowledge. So no assumed knowledge about the topic, unless obviously this aimed at an advanced person within the niche. But I think that’s a great way to just get it in your head, fix that we’re going to build on previous knowledge. So if there’s anything that they need to know for the last chapter, then you’re going to have to talk about that stuff first. If there’s a particular term, for example, then you’re going to want to explain the fundamentals of that earlier on.

So I think that’s a good way to begin to get your head around how to go about ordering something like this.

Clark: I think you really hit on it there — making sure you understand your audience.

There’s a lot of information that goes hand in hand. So it’s easy to be like — oh, well I want to talk about that now, because it kind of deals with the chapter I’m talking about.

But really, if you can make the chapter stand on it’s own to be clear without diving into information you have in a later chapter, it’s going to really help the reader out more, and so that it can be built on and give them a proper framework as they keep climbing through this book.

One of the really sad things of course about nonfiction — especially if you’re in the self-help area, I think they call that “self-inspiration” now, or something different — but —

Peter: Really?

Clark: Yes. They have a different title for the genre now.

But if you’re in that market, the sad thing is, is that a lot of people only read the first two to three chapters of the book before they put it down. So maybe the most important stuff is later, but you definitely want to be building it that way, that you don’t want to be handing out the wrong information at the wrong time.

Peter: I would argue — I’m going to go on a brave one here — that when you’re looking at this, that perhaps if you were to flick straight to the last chapter, that it shouldn’t make sense.

I think that’s a good way of testing that you’ve built up to what should be put across towards the end of the book, and that it is progressing in this kind of snowball of knowledge kind of way.

Clark: Yes. Exactly.

Right now, the semester has started again, so head first to first class for the creative writing class that I’m teaching this last Monday. Again, it’s hard for me, because I want to just — oh, well I want to talk about this; but yes, but then you’ve got this — and will go on this tangent or something like that. But it really is important for… Especially for them, we’re trying to build this really good foundation, so we were like — alright, let’s talk about story today, and what are the elements of story — like really basics, and then — OK, let’s take this first element, and we’re going to work on that, and we need to go through all of that first before we move to the second element and not be like — well, this connects with this.

We can show that connection later. Let’s just start making sure that they’ve really got a handle on that. Because when you start jumping all over the place — Because things do connect together — but when you start jumping too far ahead, then it just confuses the reader and they’re not going to be understanding what it is you’re trying to put across and that’s going to make them close the book faster.

Peter: Definitely.

Because again, a lot of these nonfiction books like this, particularly in this self-inspiration area, are problem solving books, really. They’re identifying a problem and solving it. So I think knowing specifically what that problem is and how you’re going to teach that to someone who has no idea where to start is going to help with the ordering of this, and you can’t just maybe sit down and just have one chapter that explains how to solve this problem.

There are fundamentals that need to be grasped. Kind of like if you were learning an instrument you’d need to learn about chords before you would learn about a song. That’s a really crude metaphor. [laughs] But you know, along those lines.

Clark: Yes. Exactly.

Which really leads us to our second step here. That’s — making sure that the material in the book… Taking a look at it and seeing that it is too dense or perhaps that it’s actually too light, that you haven’t given enough information in a particular chapter.

One of the reasons why we’re going to look at this — again, going back to what Peter said before — knowing the audience that you’re writing for.

Let’s just talk about writing a book on writing. Are you reaching out to the people who have started something like NaNoWriMo — the National Write a Novel Month — or are you trying to write to professionals who have published several books. Understanding who that audience is is going to tell you what type of information that you should be including, and how much lingo you want to use — that there’s a lot of lingo in a particular field — are you going to be using that? How much of it will you expect your reader to already know, versus how much should you be explaining to them.

Peter: Yes. They’re going to have totally different levels of prior knowledge to read in the book.

I think for that — you touched on it there when you mentioned audience — I think when looking at — is it too dense? Is it too light? Is it understandable and clear — knowing your target audience is really going to… If you don’t know it at this point, it’s really going to show; if it’s over-complicated or if it’s too simple, a lot of this is going to come from the problem of not fully knowing your target audience in the writing stage.

Clark: And along with that is trying to figure out how much that they completely, totally understand about it.

Because sometimes you might be coming across a topic that’s very complex and there’s perhaps a lot of different ways. Because we were talking about solving problems, that maybe you have written a book solving a problem, but the truth is, maybe there are seven different ways to solve this problem, and you’re trying to show each one of these particular ways. That can come across as too dense in the fact that it’s confusing for the reader, and you as the authority, should be trying to say — these are your best ways — and maybe mentioning it at the end — these are some other ones you might want to look at, if that’s not working for you — instead of saying — here are seven different ways that you can solve this problem; I would like you to learn each and every one of them.

Peter: Yes. Because you’ve got to remember that you’re talking to a person that has reached a critical point with the problem that they’ve picked up a book and that they’re trying to solve it.

Seven different solutions is going to be pretty overwhelming and the simpler you can make the solution, the more appealing that book is going to be as the means to solve their problem, and at the end of the day if it’s so dense and so over-complicated that they don’t get to the end of the book — like you mentioned earlier about people often only read the first few chapters — if that’s happening, then it doesn’t really matter how many solutions there were, or how good these were at solving it, because they’ve put the book down.

One of the primary goals is it being clear and simple enough that they can digest the whole book; it’s easily readable; it’s not too long, and that they walk away from that book having inherited the message that you wanted to put across.

Clark: It’s one of the funny things when we talk about writing or editing nonfiction and we think about nonfiction books. There seems to be kind of a ravine trying to cross between this, between the fiction world and the nonfiction world.

The reason why story works so well in helping to teach — like fiction stories — is because it gives people the opportunity to really be engaged with it and see how the character works it out.

Often times, the same way in a nonfiction book it’s why it’s so important to give real examples of people who have solved the problem and how it was that they did it, the idea of — what is the problem, why did it suck and this is how I solved it, and done in a story form instead of just tossing a bunch of fact-based material in your book.

You want to make sure you’re still doing that. Again, we’re talking about too dense, too light. This can help bridge the gap between the two and give an easy entrance for a reader to work through the material and engage them so that they keep turning that page.

Peter: Yes.

Now, just sort of slightly off topic, but relevant to this. I’ve just recently started… We love to go off topic, but it’s not too far.

When I was away through France, I passed through a town where like during the Second World War a terrible massacre took place, and a company of the Waffen-SS passed through.

This town has been kept as it was then, as kind of like a memorial. So I grabbed a book from there, which is the true accounts of everything that took place. Obviously this is a form of nonfiction. Obviously it’s different to self help. It’s historical. It’s not solving a problem or anything like that.

But I’m not an avid reader of historical works, fiction or nonfiction. So I was a little bit like — oh, am I going to be able to digest this and understand this?

But it did a lot of the things that we’re talking about here. The first few chapters were explaining terminology and some of the different companies that were involved and individuals, and laying the groundwork so that I could understand the later chapters, and also holding back a lot of the terminology that perhaps an avid historian might want, or want to understand.

But in doing so, and in keeping this lightness and correct order, it’s allowed me to get to the latter chapter and to get through the book. So I think this applies really broadly all nonfiction.

Clark: That’s what you’re wanting to do with any of this. How many times do we say this? You’re talking about engaging a reader and getting them to turn the page and keep with the book.

Again, whether it’s memoir, whether it’s the solve-a-problem book, it works in all those nonfiction areas.

Which kind of leads us into our next one, our third step out of four, here — we want to make sure that what we are teaching is actually correct.

It’s so important to make sure that you’re checking facts when you’re doing your nonfiction work and you’re doing your editing on it.

Peter: [laughs] This, by the way… Don’t pull us up on not doing this for the show. OK? We’re outside the rules here.

Clark: That’s right. [laughs]

We did. We did some fact checking today.

Peter: Yes, we did.

Clark: One of the things that we wanted to make sure — this idea — because a lot of times, you’ve written a book based on ideas that you’ve got. I mean, you’ve got — you are a problem solver; you’ve worked in a particular field for a long time; you’re writing about that; you’re going to be able to help people out, and it’s stuff that you’ve learned.

But sometimes the things that we’ve learned, we’ve actually learned incorrectly, or that we didn’t really catch it.

I know this sounds a little funny about nonfiction — we’re going to jump over to movies real quick, here — but movies are so often misquoted, and other times famous quotes are mis-attributed to a person, and we just don’t even think about it.

For instance, like the most often misquoted line from movies of all time, is from The Empire Strikes Back. We have that —

What is it Peter? Can you say it?

Peter: You totally should have said it was from Return of the Jedi. [laughs]

Clark: I should have. Should have done that.

Peter: Just throw that little curve ball and see if anyone picked it up.

Clark: Return of the Jedi and it was said by Sauron.

Peter: Yes. [laughs] And he said “Frodo I am your great auntie.”

Clark: It’s the “Luke, I am your father” line, and in the actual movie, Darth Vader does not actually say “Luke.” He just says, “no, I am your father.” Yet, we all say it that way.

Or from Casablanca — “Play it again, Sam.” He actually doesn’t say “play it again, Sam,” and it’s really interesting that he says instead — “you played it for her, you can play it for me; if she can stand it, I can; play it.”

That’s the line, and then somehow in our culture we’ve just changed it all to “play it again, Sam.”

This can happen a lot. We think we know something; we think we heard it some way; everyone says it that way, and yet sometimes it’s still incorrect.

So making sure that you’re right on the money with the information you’re putting in there is really important.

Peter: And also, not worrying about the facts, because we all get these wrong. I think making peace with the misquotations. Just not in print.

Clark: Exactly. This is more than just misquoting.

For instance, I’ve been working on a nonfiction book myself, and I’ve had these ideas in my head for the last year and a half, and it’s all about… Because you know, I am all about story; I love story; story is powerful; story is what shaped our world, and I’ve just been recognizing that a lot of times we tell ourselves all these stories, and those stories hold us back. Sometimes the stories actually help move us forward.

But as an editor, that’s what I do, is I change story.

I’ve been thinking in my head — how can I help people change the stories in their lives that have been holding them back, so I’ve been putting this book together, and it came time that I started to assemble it, and I was like — you know, I need to make sure that I’m doing my fact checking here.

I’ve just been pulling this all out of my own experience; I haven’t been reading anyone else’s books or anything. So sure enough, there’s actually a field of study, and it’s called narrative identity which deals all about this.

I picked up several of those textbooks, and I’ve read through them, and just double-checked to make sure that the information that I was writing about and trying to help people with was actually the real science, and that I wasn’t getting something completely and totally wrong.

Peter: Then, in a way, you’re building on what’s gone before, which is a great approach. But also not sort of looking out there and being — oh, this has been done before, so I can’t do it.

Because I don’t agree with that. I think that everything can be out there. When someone’s stuck in their life and they have a problem, and I’m sure you’ve seen it with the people around you or maybe even yourself, where you keep hearing the advice and you hear it over and over again, and then all of a sudden, perhaps someone just puts it a particular way where it just makes sense and it falls into place and you get past this wall that you’ve been at for a while.

So I think when you do look out there and maybe you come across something that you were trying to work on, see it as a sign that you’re on the right direction and that there is a market for this, and then use that — like Clark said — to kind of build on what’s gone before, and to get your facts right.

Clark: Exactly. Again, reiterating here with Peter. In class this last week… I gave two assignments to my students this week. The first was daily writing, and these were people who were just starting writing so I just wanted to establish a daily writing habit of 50 words per day, just get in the habit.

Then the other thing was, I know I asked them — how many people are scared of sharing their stories? — and almost everyone had raised their hand. That was the other assignment, was that they had to go out and share with someone else one of the story ideas that they had.

Because one of the reasons why people are scared of sharing their stories, they’re scared of someone stealing it. But the idea is that you are the only person who is qualified to tell the story in that particular way.

Same thing with the nonfiction. You bring a different voice to it, just like Peter was saying. You’re writing it at a different time. You’re going to be able to touch somebody’s life, because the way you present it is going to be so different than everyone else.

But at the same time, you don’t want to simply plagiarize [laughs] what someone else has done and just like copy and paste the information. Or be like — oh they said it better that way, so I’ll just grab that and toss it in.

Peter: I was just going to say, just before we move on from facts. Similar in a sense, to facts, is the reference and metaphors you use. I would say, if you can, it’s a good idea in nonfiction to try and have them stand the test of time.

You might be inclined to go for something really relevant to now, if you want to use a metaphor for something, or make reference to something. Perhaps like pop culture. But I would say, check your references; check that they’re accurate, but then also consider — can I use something that’s going to be relevant in five years’ time, or in ten years’ time? Then as Clark just said, that you have the right to use any references.
C: But you’re absolutely right on that last thing, is making sure you’re not talking about stuff that doesn’t make any sense.

— And this is how the most important part of contacting your new people, is through the fax machine.

It can be completely and totally dated, so you’ve got to watch out.

But yes, let’s get into making sure that we are going to protect ourselves, here. This is really important. You went through school, heard about plagiarizing all the time, heard about all of this, and this is something that you could get into serious trouble with your work if you’ve done this incorrectly.

The law in the United States does allow for what they call “fair use.” When we’re talking about fair use, we’re talking about copyrighted work, material that is in print today that is still under copyright law. There are times when yes, you can go in and use a portion of a copyrighted material in your own work without permission. That is very rare. In fact, sometimes even though you think you can use it, it still ends up not being used.

A particular case here in the United States, is The Memoir of Gerald Ford — there was a magazine that used a quote from it… And understand, this memoir is large; I believe it was over 80,000 words, and they only used 400 words, so it was a very small amount; it wasn’t like they were copy-and-pasting entire chapters out of his memoir; they used a 400-word selection from it.

But as you may or may not know, Gerald Ford was — this is all about the Nixon pardon — and this particular 400 words was that part about that piece of history. And it was actually probably the most important selling part of the entire book.

After the lawsuit came along, the suit was won by the publisher because it was the most important part of the work and it couldn’t be used under “fair use” even though it was just a very small portion.

Peter: We have a particular point that refers to this in the UK copyright law, that basically says the quoted material is justified and no more than is necessary as it is included.

This could scare people off, couldn’t it?

Clark: Yes.

Peter: And sometimes you might want to use a reference, or quote someone, which is why it’s important to get clued up on this sort of stuff.

Clark: And don’t be afraid to reach out to the publisher, reach out to the author, and seek permission to use it. If you’re not belittling them or using it in a disparaging way, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to get permission to use a particular direct piece from that copyrighted material.

This does not stop you from saying things like — in so-n-so’s book they talk an awful lot about this particular subject, and these are a couple of main topics out of here that might be interesting to you.

You can use things in generalities, because you can’t copyright knowledge. You can’t copyright like, gravity and how it works, or something like that. But you couldn’t…

I’m trying to think of some particular… But if the book that you wanted to use from has a series of steps, it’s like a 7 step process to solve your problem, and you’re writing a book about this. You can’t go in and use their seven steps in your book. That doesn’t work, because that’s their method.

But their method is based on information that could be learned. They’ve done research to figure it out; you can do that research and figure out a different method and you can have that in your book.

So there’s a lot of this. You want to be careful with it because you don’t want to end up in a lawsuit; you don’t want to end up in trouble somewhere.

You just have to be very careful when you’re going in and taking from someone else’s work and trying to use it in your own.

Peter: Yes, because sometimes you may write something down, and it is something that you’ve read and that has come out onto the page and you didn’t perhaps realize. That’s going to happen and that’s fine because it has gone through the filter of “you.”

It is when you’re using direct quotations that you’re really going to risk stumbling on to this sort of thing, and you want to look at the proper way to do it, so dependent upon what country you’re in, check out the individual laws. But there are ways that you can go about doing this and that you can do it, and like Clark said, if you can, reach out to the person, because it’s publicity for them at the end of the day, and it’s flattering that you want to quote their work, and cite it and use it as a relevant source.

So give that a shot, because reaching out to people opens amazing doors beyond just getting their line, a quote from their book in yours. They might be like — oh, send us a copy when you’re finished, because I’m really interested in your angle on this — or whatever.

But reach out, and if not, just check the relevant laws for your individual country.

Clark: Along with the double-checking for copyright and different uses, when you’ve gone through and you’re making assumptions here, this is coming back from over ten years of working in broadcast journalism, the ideas where you’re like — well, most people feel this way — what is “most.” “Most” is a very vague word. If you actually are using statistics, you can use statistics. “This is the percentage of what happened, and this is why.”

Don’t be just really super vague out there because you’re afraid of getting in trouble of using someone else’s work. Make sure that you’re attributing it properly. If you do get the permission to use it directly — even if you don’t get permission to use it directly and you’re going to try to slip it by — please, attribute it correctly, whether you’re using footnotes at the bottom or you’re using a bibliography in the back, that you’re giving proper attribution to where it is that you’re getting your sources from and where you’re grabbing your information.

Peter: By using these statistics, and studies, by citing particular studies, instead of just saying “most people” or “8 out of 10” or “I’ve noticed this” and it’s just anecdotal, by using proper peer-reviewed studies, it adds credibility to your work, which then adds authority to you, and creates you as an authority figure, which is the aim of writing a nonfiction book, at the end of the day.

So put in the bit of extra work; look up the relevant studies, because is just going to benefit you and the book in the long run.

Clark: Yes. Absolutely.

When I did the course [Punch Them in the Gut] Writing Fiction with Emotional Impact, all of my research came from scholarly papers that had been written on psychology and why people read, and how the brain chemistry works when people read, and all of this is in the back as a bibliography, identifying where those sources came from, and it’s important to have this done right.

That’s what we’re trying to do here — these four steps. Making sure how you’re content’s ordered, that it’s properly ordered, the material, you know whether you’re trying to do dense or light, depending on your audience, you’re checking your facts, and then you’re going to double-check to make sure if you’ve got fair use, because you don’t want to end up in a law suit. This is all done of course, so that you can have a really polished nonfiction book and be able to get it out in the hands of and engage your reader.

Peter: Excellent.

Clark: And unfortunately, there’s nothing to talk about Michael Bay with with this. It’s just…

Peter: Nope.

Apart from the fact that that has happened is nonfiction.

Think about that.

Clark: Yes. I will.

Peter, do you have anything to add to the show today on the end here?

Peter: No, I don’t. I think perhaps just take away the thought that if you’re looking at taking a work of nonfiction, it can be daunting, especially coming from if you’re a fiction author. But it’s going to give you an air of authority, and it’s best to go about that the right way, which is why you’re here. So thanks.

Clark: Exactly.

Exactly what Peter is saying — don’t be scared off by the idea of having to check facts and copyright and all of this. Get in there; share your knowledge and use these steps to help make it the best it can possibly be.

I hope you enjoyed this show, and if you do, as always, please leave us a review on iTunes, a Like on YouTube. Hopefully YouTube. Actually right now, we forgot to have our moment of silence here.

Peter: Oh, yeah.

Clark: We should have that.

Peter: You’ve got to tell them.

Clark: Google Hangout Events are no longer in existence through Google, and that’s how we always have been recording the show, and so hopefully this show sounds OK, because we really had to jump through some hoops to get this on the air.

So let’s have a moment of silence for the wonderfulness that was — the Hangout Event.

OK. I think that’s long enough.

Peter: That was powerful.

Clark: That was.

So definitely give us that Like on YouTube if we’re still there; jump by, we’ve got the Facebook page, The Book Editor Show, Like that.

Let us know what’s going on. If you’d like to be a guest on the show, drop us a line at thebookeditorshow.com.

I’m Clark Chamberlain, for my co-host Peter Turley, keep writing, keep learning and build a better book.