Winning Nonfiction: A Path for Revision
Focus on the details.
According to Mark Twain, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
Well, maybe it’s not that easy. Often, we have to replace those “wrong words” with better words and flesh out weak areas with more words. We might need to rearrange words and paragraphs as well. This is the work of revising.
Nonfiction writing can begin with outlines and research, followed by drafts of our article or book. The revision process gives us the chance to examine and polish the content, presentation, and style.
Before you revise, put the manuscript aside for a few hours, days, or even longer if possible so you can read it with a fresh perspective. As you review the manuscript, try to be objective. Reading aloud helps many authors to spot areas that need work. Some writers find it helpful to revise in phases. Start by looking at the broad areas of beginning, middle, and ending. As you read, make notes regarding problem areas you can address later.
Beginning: Did you craft a dramatic “hook” that also clearly shows the topic and type of nonfiction (informational, opinion-piece, memoir, biography, inspirational, etc.)? Will readers see what they can learn or how else they might benefit from reading your text? Does the end of the lead/first chapter make an effective transition into the next section?
Middle: Does the material unfold in a logical and interesting way? Do transitions carry readers smoothly from one paragraph (or chapter) to the next? Is there unnecessary repetition? Do any parts drag? Did you cover the necessary material and fulfill the “promise” set forth in the beginning?
Conclusion: Does the ending wrap up the material in a satisfying way? Does it relate well to previous points in the article/book? What will readers take away from their reading experience?
This first reading helps you make sure your foundation is solid. After you address weak areas in the structure and overall content, check these important areas:
Errors can creep in, even when we do careful research and verify information in more than one reliable source. To start, check any dates, directions, measurements, professional titles, and the names of people and places. You don’t want to mistakenly write “Smithsonian Institute” instead of Smithsonian Institution, or refer to the 1400s as the “1400’s” or “fourteenth century,” or carelessly include Africa, a continent, on a list of “countries.” Likewise, make sure the decimals and commas are placed correctly if numbers appear in the manuscript. Sometimes we see what we expect to see—yet it’s incorrect. This can occur with unusual spellings—for example, writing Dr. Green when it’s actually Dr. Grene. Reading your manuscript aloud helps with these kinds of errors. Double-check quotations, too.
Also watch for statements that could be misleading. A misused word or faulty sequence of words can result in problems. For example, don’t write “All stories do not end happily” when you mean “Not all stories end happily.” Placing commas in the wrong place can change the meaning of a sentence, too.
Have you presented opinions as facts when writing informational nonfiction? Here’s an example: “Cow’s milk contains minerals and is a perfect food for everyone.” Some people are allergic to cow’s milk or do not digest milk products well, so this statement is incorrect. Over-inclusive statements can be inaccurate, so watch for the words all, none, only, never, always, everyone, nobody, etc.
We want our intended audience to understand the information and the points we present. One editor says, “If the material isn’t clear to me halfway down on the first page, I probably won’t read any more.” Readers likely agree.
Watch for sentences with too many clauses, overly complicated language, unclear references, and sentences with several ideas that readers must process quickly. Watch for unclear pronouns, too. Readers shouldn’t have to stop and figure out who/what a pronoun stands for in a sentence. The reference should be clear. Here are two examples:
–Milton says that Joe takes good care of his cars. (Whose cars does Joe care for: his own, or Milton’s?)
–That book might upset the group because it’s so progressive. (The book or the group?)
Be specific, not vague, when possible. Don’t write “Long ago” or “Hundreds of years ago” when you can give a more specific time frame—e.g. “During the 1700s,” “During the mid-1700s,” or even the exact year. Use a similar approach with “recently,” “at one time,” etc. Be careful when referencing “today,” “now,” or “currently.” Situations might change by the time an article or book is published. Instead of writing “They are now the number-one team in the world,” you can more safely write “As of September 2019, they were the number-one team in the world.”
Who will read this article or book? Think about the age group, interests, educational background, and other traits that make up your audience. Write accordingly.
It should go without saying that the grammar, punctuation, spelling, and other “nuts and bolts” of writing should be correct when you submit your manuscript. Watch for misplaced commas, missing or misplaced quotation marks, and shifting verb tenses.
Check for these as well:
-Mismatched items in a series:
Incorrect: The new art teacher is energetic, creative, and has plenty of experience.
Better: The new art teacher is energetic, creative, and highly experienced.
–Problems with clauses:
After walking outside, the rain started before she reached the barn. (A person, not “the rain,” walked outside.)
Finally, “show; don’t tell” can add life and interest to nonfiction, too. Consider adding quotes if they can enhance the text. Use sensory details to help readers experience places and events. For the opening of a book about Amsterdam during World War II, I tried to set the stage and help readers to picture life before the German invasion:
The winter of 1939-40 brought icy weather to The Netherlands. In Amsterdam, people wore heavy woolen clothing as they took streetcars, taxis, boats, or bicycles to go to work, do errands, or attend school. Children skated along the city’s frozen canals. At home, Amsterdammers warmed themselves in coal-heated rooms and ate thick pea soup, a traditional winter meal. Life seemed as peaceful and orderly as usual, but the Dutch were uneasy. They listened closely to their radios …
After you complete the steps above, read the manuscript aloud one last time. Aim to stay positive, even if the process seems tedious. Good manuscripts often require several revisions, and this writing practice can lead to better work in the future—including manuscripts that require fewer revisions!
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles, and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria teaches at The Institute of Children’s Literature and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. Recently, she revised—and cut—a 230,000-word book for adults.