Nonfiction can be about many things. It can be biographical or auto-biographical; like a documentary, it can be mostly exposition–informative and educational. But self-help books need to have more of a directive, a purpose specific to the reader. The author is giving advise, telling the reader what to do, how to solve a problem.
There are a number of ways to organize a self-help book. One way is to construct the book in three acts: Where you are; How you got there; and How you can get to a better place. Another is to take a chronological approach, with the author sharing her or his own story in order of how the events unfolded. And still another strategy is to attack the most powerful aspects of the problem first, and the smaller issues later.
I recently edited a book that set out to define the self-help process scientifically: What is holding you back? Do you really need those things in your life? What do you want your life to look like? What people or activities do you need in your life? And so on, like a flow chart.
One thing that is different about editing nonfiction, especially self-help, is that the editor has to be diligent in fact-checking. There are so many urban myths and bits of misinformation floating around, especially on the web; it’s easy for a writer to forget to check the veracity of every single claim he or she makes.
Here is a minor example: I remember being told years ago that Andrew Jackson and Jimmy Carter were the only two presidents not to earn a college degree. But if I included that in a story or article, I’d have to look into it deeper. It turns out that Jimmy Carter has a Bachelor of Science from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Jackson was educated, but may not have earned a degree. Still, he passed the bar and practiced law, and this was in a time before there were universities on every street corner, like coffee shops. So, as an editor, if my client was claiming that these two failed to earn degrees, I’d provide him or her with the appropriate information about Carter and Jackson. I would also be curious how common college degrees were in the early days of the fledgling United States. Were apprenticeships more the fashion then? How formal was the education?
An editor doesn’t have to be the expert on a broad range of subjects. My clients are! But I get to make sure everything they claim is backed up in solid research of the facts.
If you want to make your self-help or other nonfiction book sing, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your book deserves an extra dose of awesome!