What is content editing for a nonfiction book?

Content editing, also called developmental editing, is the process of examining your manuscript as a whole to ensure clarity, consistency, and purpose.

Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, every book deserves this attention if your aim is to sell your book to readers. It’s a must before you publish your book to avoid the embarrassment of unfavorable reviews later.

How to start editing your content

After finishing the first draft of a nonfiction book, let the manuscript sit for a couple of days, a week, or even longer. I know you can’t wait to get it done, but there is a reason. Waiting allows your brain to process and make sense of the information. You can distance yourself from the words themselves and get a clearer picture of the project as a whole. Editing nonfiction with fresh eyes reveals inconsistencies and errors you may otherwise overlook. The time away also allows you to renew your enthusiasm and passion in an often arduous editing process. So, catch your breath and then forge ahead.

Read the entire manuscript

To begin content editing, read the entire manuscript in as short a time span as possible to most fully connect with the content’s tone and flow. You are looking for an overall sense of how you constructed and organized the manuscript. At this point, it’s best not to stop to fix a typo, rewrite a sentence, or decide on the perfect chapter title. There will be plenty of time for detail work in the next rounds of edits.

Look for gaps in content

Did you jump from one topic to another without an appropriate segue or explanation? Make sure you don’t assume a reader comes with the same understanding as you or the same background knowledge.

Look for logical organization

Although a reader may jump skip chapters or jump around to glean particular information in some kinds of books, assume that most readers will read your book from beginning to end. Even nonfiction books need to have a defined story arc or tell a story in a logical way for the reader to follow.

Look for consistent voice

Because you don’t write a book in a single sitting (I hope you don’t), your mood may differ from day to day and chapter to chapter. If you are writing in an analytical way, a humorous chapter may jar the reader or vice versa. Your voice should be the book’s underlying feeling and shouldn’t jump out and bite the reader.

Look for consistent content

Your vision for the project may have changed from day one, and Chapter 10 is more inspired than Chapter 1. Or, you may have been in such a rush to finish that you skimped on content, insight, or extras toward the end. Ask yourself if you fully developed each chapter throughout the book.

Look for places the book gets bogged down

Is there too much information or too many examples, stories, quotes, or technical background information that interferes with the reader’s experience? As hard as it is to chop your precious words, sometimes it is just the thing to free your best writing. There is no need to delete the words from your life. Park them in a separate file for another project, whether that is a book, seminar, blog article, or social media post.

Look for repetition of words or phrases

Variety makes the world and your writing a beautiful thing. If you found a clever phrase or unique way of describing something, use it sparingly. Watch for individual words or sentences that jump out in your writing. If you suspect you are overusing words or phrases, use the find feature in your word processing program to sniff them out. There will undoubtedly be some words you use over and over about a particular subject but, when used with care, will blend seamlessly into your writing.

Look for variety in sentence structure and length

Like varying your choice of words, vary the sentences to make your book interesting and engaging. Read your work aloud and pay attention to the rhythm of your words. Note how you start each sentence. Particularly in a memoir-style book, watch for the overuse of “I” or “my” as a sentence starter.

As mentioned at the beginning, the best practice in editing nonfiction at this level is to make note of needed changes but refrain from rewriting and fixing problems to avoid getting bogged down. Plow through from beginning to the end in this first round of edits.

Best tools for content editing

Two tools I use at this stage are the highlight and comment features in Microsoft Word. The highlight feature is on the Home tab and can be activated by highlighting (clicking and dragging over text to be changed) and then clicking on the colored highlighter. The comment feature is found in the Review tab. Place your cursor where changes are needed and select New Comment from the Word ribbon.

how to use Microsoft Word comment feature for content editing a manuscript

Two other essential tools in my editing toolbox are Grammarly and ProWritingAid. Both are paid programs but pack valuable insights to make your writing better beyond just spellcheck.

Once you’ve read the entire manuscript for readability and content, reflect on your project as a whole. Ask yourself these additional questions:

Does it speak to your ideal reader?

Does it deliver on your promise to the reader to solve their problem?

Is it presented in a way that achieves your business and/or personal objectives?

Finally, use the insight gained from your first pass through the book to begin making changes. It makes sense to avoid focusing on grammar and punctuation details until the general layout of the content is complete. You may eventually delete or change some content. I hate doing double work. Don’t you?

The number of times you need to repeat this level of editing depends on how much editing was required in the first round. If your manuscript required major changes, repeat this process again until broad changes are no longer needed. Once complete, narrow your focus to the details of grammar and punctuation and other sentence-level changes to make your book pop.

Your readers will appreciate and reward you when your published book is well-edited.


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