Stop or my dad will write
September 9, 2012 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Help me figure out a way to save my dad's nonfiction book manuscript from doom.

My dad is a noted expert and researcher on a subject, but composition and writing are not his thing.

Because he knows so much about his subject, and has given well-received talks about it, a major university press invited him to submit a proposal, then later a manuscript. I helped him with both, acting as his literary agent. I'm now over my head and need to figure out how he can get help without me, his frequent co-writer. Maybe by hiring some kind of book editor? If so, what kind would be appropriate?

It was one thing polishing up a sexy book proposal that got him through the door. But it has been another thing to try and corral his manuscript, a 500-page trove of unorganized and often puzzling and redundant research. I tried my best with the first draft, but he insisted against my warnings that it was ready to send into the publisher, and was rejected.

The publisher is giving him a second chance. But I don't think his nonfiction writing skills are up to something this big and I don't have the time to rewrite this m.s. from the ground up. My dad is the kind of guy who can write about a single incident with a beginning, middle and end, but has trouble weaving together an overview or a theme, or sounding a tone. (The nature of the book requires that it be both a smooth narrative and something that argues for significance, but it's not all that academic.)

The main challenge is that the way he writes, it takes serious work to try and dig out what he's trying to get at. The facts are all there, laid out without the topic sentences I have been trying in vain to get him to use. Like an AP History teacher, I just want to write "Sig?!?" [significance?!] next to every paragraph.

This actually could be a really good book in its field, but I just don't have the time or resources to redo everything in it. Any suggestions would be really appreciated, including what kind of editor we might be able to go to who would be willing to work with him and tease out themes and stuff.

(Not looking for advice that I back out of this as I'm pretty committed to the project's success for reasons that I can't go into here.)
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (7 answers total)
Is there any possibility that you guys could go back to the drawing board and conceive of the book as a series of printed lectures or interviews, a la most of Noam Chomsky's writing?

Does he have any advocate at the academic publishing house? I don't know a lot about academic presses, but in the mainstream publishing world a book editor usually comes from the publisher.

What about some kind of ghostwriter?
posted by Sara C. at 10:34 AM on September 9, 2012

Maybe by hiring some kind of book editor? If so, what kind would be appropriate?

You might check out Tweed Academic Editing. Her services may be what you're looking for, and if not then poking around her website might at least help you get a better idea what you are looking for.
posted by cribcage at 10:37 AM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think there are quite a few people who do developmental editing as an independent consulting job. Here's another you might try to get a quote from. Or you might post it on MeFi jobs--I'm pretty sure I've seen this kind of work mentioned in someone's profile here.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:50 AM on September 9, 2012

A developmental editor is what you want (disclosure: I freelance as one). This sort of editor will be able to identify--or help construct--a salient thread through the manuscript that turns it from random musings and information into a meaningful narrative.

The first place I would look for one is the Editorial Freelancer's Association. Given your description of the book, I would certainly try to find someone with non-fiction experience in the discipline or industry your dad's writing about. It'll just be more bang for your buck: someone who can find that thread and also suppress the noisy parts that compete for attention, because they know what's significant about the topic.

In terms of what you can do yourself that will also help when you talk to an editor:
- Is there an overarching thesis or argument to the book? If not, spend a little time writing some mock "back cover blurbs" to see what nuggets you can boil the content down to.
- Is there a table of contents or inherent structure to the material? A developmental editor may suggest something other than chronological based on where s/he sees a compelling narrative, but if you have any sense of organization and direction, that will help.
- Who is the audience? Who, perhaps not obviously, is not the audience? There may be more than one angle or lens through which to approach the content. Which is the best one? This is a good guide for trimming content so the book is appealing to the right reader.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have other questions. I also know a few freelancers who have come out of academia and might be able to field more detailed questions for you.
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 11:14 AM on September 9, 2012 [8 favorites]

Seconding the Editorial Freelancers Association. It is free to post a job listing there, and you will certainly get dozens of highly qualified and experienced applicants.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:10 PM on September 9, 2012

When I was a starving grad student a prof I knew paid me to turn 500 pages of ramble into a publishable book. It took me a couple of months of work every evening and weekend. He paid me a couple of thousand dollars. It worked out well, except that I felt I should have got SOME credit for it - if not co-authorship, then at least something in the acknowledgements.

Maybe it's worth asking grad students with good writing skills that he knows?
posted by lollusc at 2:45 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depending on the topic, my assistant is an ex history professor, and does developmental editing for my publishing company. I could see if she's interested -- just MeMail me!
posted by at 4:05 PM on September 9, 2012

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