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Saturday, February 21st, 2004


Thinking like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction -- and Get It Published

by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato

A review by Doug Brown

Don't be put off by the subtitle; Thinking like Your Editor is a useful resource for anyone writing nonfiction, be it great, serious, or otherwise. Rabiner was a nonfiction editor for many years at publishing houses such as Oxford, St. Martin's, Pantheon, and Basic Books. Thus, she brings years of practical experience to the table, and this book is filled with good -- though often sobering -- advice.

Before I get started, though, a note about Rabiner's curious blind spot: the term "serious nonfiction." Not only is it emphasized in the subtitle, the word nonfiction rarely occurs in the book without the adjective "serious" preceding it. When Rabiner became an agent, she encountered a surprising amount of resistance; as she recalls, "The confusion, I slowly figured out, lay not in my list of books but in my terminology. Many of these editors associated the term serious nonfiction with impenetrable academic tomes." Curiously, she did not then choose a term that better represents the subject, like "popular nonfiction" or the publishing term "trade nonfiction." For this is what Thinking like Your Editor is about; how to write popular nonfiction books like Sobel's Longitude or Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek.

Once you learn to stop seeing the word serious, much grist for the mill lies herein for anyone with an idea for a nonfiction book. In the chapter on putting together a proposal, Rabiner lays out five questions to address:

1. What is the book about?
2. What is the book's argument and how is it new?
3. Why are you the person to write the book?
4. Why is now the time to publish this book?
5. Who makes up the audience for the book, and why will they like it?

Not all proposals will need to address all five of these questions. Nevertheless, they make good starting points within your own head to begin fleshing out that great idea you've been cogitating on. Rabiner covers each question in depth, noting publishers often place emphasis on number three. If you don't have an advanced degree or years of work experience in the field you want to write about, you should be a well-published journalist or demonstrate you have uncovered new evidence. Most publishers will pass on nonfiction books written by people without direct experience in the field, no matter how well written (cue sound of cold water splashing on face). Think about it: how often do you pick up a nonfiction book and open to the back flap to see what the author's credentials are? If the author blurb on a Beethoven biography said, "The author studied snakes in college, but really likes listening to Beethoven CDs," most folks would put it right back on the shelf and choose one written by a musicologist or musician.

After addressing the proposal, the book's next section covers the writing process. Along with some suggestions for different overall structures, there is a good chapter on fairness. Rabiner lists various traps to watch out for, and emphasizes the danger of giving short shrift to opposing views. As she phrases it, "If you don't make the best case for the other side's position, you will sorely challenge your best readers to." To knowledgeable readers, straw man arguments suggest the reason an author doesn't support a position is he or she doesn't understand it.

A former Powell's employee who has published many magazine articles recommended this book to me, and I in turn recommend it to anyone who has ever had the vague thought of writing a nonfiction book. Thinking like Your Editor will help sweep away the cobwebs and illusions about writing and publishing such a book, while illuminating what challenges you will need to focus on most. Just ignore the word serious.

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