Conna Craig
June 27, 2022
Woman Writing on a Notebook Beside Teacup and Tablet Computer (source: pexels, Tirachard Kumtanom)

Before You Write Your Book: An Editor’s Insights

In this article, we’ll cover what you can do to bring the best version of your manuscript to an editor. The right time to begin considering these steps is before you get started. However, it’s never too late to apply the advice presented here. By doing so, you will improve your work and streamline the editing process.

We’ll cover these steps: 

  1. Identify your audience;
  2. Write three summaries of your book;
  3. Put everything together into one file or on one platform;
  4. Add “to do” notes where necessary, including “to do” steps you need to take regarding style, references, any further research required, or ideas that come to you during the writing process; and
  5. Maintain consistency throughout the project: titles and subtitles (headings), writing style, length of sections and chapters, and transitions between paragraphs and chapters--but most importantly, tone.

Once you have worked your way through these steps, you will be in a position to clarify just what you need from your editor. 

Let’s get started. 

Part I. Identify Your Audience

Who is your reader? Who is the person who will find your book impossible to put down because--if it's a nonfiction book--it answers the questions that he or she has about a specific topic? If you are writing a novel, who is the reader who will say, “This story is unforgettable"? 

If you answer, “Everyone!” that's a hopeful approach. Is there a book that has an audience of all readers? Even the most influential books in history have had detractors. 

I have worked with authors who were confident that their books would be international bestsellers. These were excellent books--intriguing and well-written--but international bestsellers? It’s perfectly natural to hope that your book will top the charts, win awards, and be translated into multiple languages. I know that I feel that way about the books I am writing. 

We must consider: how do we go from concept to outline to book… and what takes that book “over the top” to the bestseller list? 

The answer begins with knowing your audience. For whom are you writing the book? It’s most likely not for your family or close friends. Think about the person in the bookstore (brick and mortar or online) who says, “Yes! This is the book I’ve been looking for!” Who is that person?

A helpful exercise is to create personas for whom your book will be appealing and beneficial. For example, imagine that you are an experienced gardener. You know a great deal about gardening and have years of experience, including trials and errors that helped develop your approach to solving gardening dilemmas. You cannot even count the number of times people have told you, “You should write a book!” OK, so many of your friends, neighbors, clients (if you work in the field, so to speak), and even a handful of strangers who have seen pictures of your gardens on social platforms have told you that you should write a book. It’s encouraging to hear this, and after a while, you begin to say to yourself, “Yes, I should write a book. Everyone I know wants me to write a book.”

Most people know about 150 people. 

If everyone you know bought your book, you might sell 150 books. Now, if everyone you know purchased two copies (one to give to a friend), your sales would double to 300. That’s exciting, gratifying, and maybe enough to make it worth your time and effort to write your book. But selling 300 books is not the same as creating an international bestseller. 

How Can I Sell More Books?

There are many resources on how to sell more books--classes, articles, and of course, books about how to sell books! You can pay for advertising or hire a PR firm. You can build your platform, which we’ll cover in another article because it is so vital it merits its own post. However, an essential step in growing your audience is identifying who is in it. 

Let’s go back to the gardening book. While it’s true that most people appreciate a well-tended garden, not everyone is in the market for a book about the topic. Your job as an author is to identify who would likely be interested in gardening and why. My clients have found it helpful to create reader personas with as much detail as possible. 

Creating Reader Personas for Your Book

Who is the person looking for a book just like the one you are writing? Imagine yourself at a book fair… who would be most likely to strike up a conversation with you about your book’s topic? 

1. The person who appreciates gardening and is an absolute beginner.

We’ll call persona #1 Greta. Greta has always loved beautiful gardens, but she thinks of herself as someone with a “brown thumb.” She is very much a beginner and willing to learn. Greta would like to understand “Plant Hardiness Zones” so that she can choose the best plants for where she lives. She would also like a quick reference guide (e.g., an infographic) for where and how to start various types of flowering plants--from seeds planted indoors, from cuttings, or a plant nursery. 

2. The hobby gardener who would like to enhance his or her garden.

Persona #2 is Jordan. He has a flower garden in his front yard, and he has maintained it for years. Now he would like to grow an herb garden. Should he grow the herbs inside, in the kitchen window? Can he grow them next to the flowers, or do flowers and herbs require different soil types? If he grows the herbs without pesticides, does that make them “organic”? 

3. The homeowner who is interested in raising the value of his or her property.

Persona #3 is Mary. She owns two homes: her residence and a rental home listed on several short-term rental sites. Mary is looking for gardening solutions that will add value to her properties. Mary’s neighbors have planted roses and hydrangea, and she would like her homes to be just as appealing as her neighbors’ homes. In both cases (rental property and her primary residence), Mary is willing to invest in landscaping. For the house she rents, she is particularly interested in hearty plants and shrubs that will do well with automatic sprinklers; her idea is to make the rental feel more welcoming without requiring weekly gardening. 

4. The real estate salesperson who wants to advise her clients on “curb appeal.” 

Persona #4, Clara, helps clients sell their homes. She has a great sense of style for interior design and would like to learn about gardening. The more she knows, the better recommendations she can make and the more equipped she will be to negotiate with gardeners and landscapers she hires. 

Greta, Jordan, Mary, and Clara are all interested in gardening. Notice that Greta and Jordan are the group's most hands-on gardeners. Mary is interested in keeping up with the neighbors, and Clara has a professional interest in gaining gardening knowledge. All four represent potential readers. 

Keep these four in mind while laying out your chapters, then write one article (which will be the basis for a chapter or chapters) that addresses the needs of each persona. Congratulations! You have just planted the seeds that will exponentially grow your audience. 

Creating reader personas is hard work. Once this step is done, everything else--the title of the book, cover design, tone, and more--will fall into place. The process of creating personas takes time and research. It’s something we can help you with, either as you start writing your book or once you have a manuscript prepared. 

Part II. Write Three Summaries of Your Book

“What’s your book about?” 

You will hear this question countless times during the process of planning, writing, and promoting your book. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a great time to think about your answer is before you begin writing. However, no matter where you are in writing your book, it’s an excellent time to write three distinct summaries. 

The One-Page Summary

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, describing the book's highlights in a one-page summary is an essential exercise. Does one page seem too long? Imagine giving a talk about your book; what would you say to engage the audience? For a work of fiction, how would you convey just enough information to reel in a potential reader without giving away the ending? If you are writing nonfiction, you may want to start with your most important findings and encourage the reader to follow along with you on the path to uncovering those revelations. 

Spend as much time on the one-page summary as necessary to make it not only polished but also enticing. You will have the chance to reuse all or part of this summary--in your online book description, your bio, cover letters to potential agents, and talks you will give about the book. 

Summarize Your Book in One Paragraph

Some might call this the “elevator pitch” for your book. Imagine you have only a few minutes to sell your book--whether at a book fair, a book signing, or a conference in your field of research. Do not waste a word in this summary. Eliminate phrases like “It’s a book I’ve wanted to write for years” and “Oh, I think you’ll love this.” Summarize the book. Be direct and keep it short. 

Your one-paragraph summary is not a synopsis of your book. No spoilers. 

  • For fiction, set the stage: where and when the story occurs. Introduce the protagonist and the challenge that he or she faces. Mention some of the elements that could affect the story’s resolution. Then wrap up with a question, “Will [protagonist] meet [his/her goal]?” 
  • For a nonfiction book, introduce the topic and explain why your spin on it will benefit the reader. Do you solve a pressing question about the issue? Have you uncovered something new and thrilling about your topic? If the subject presents a challenge to the reader (e.g., how to make money with NFTs), can you walk the reader through the challenge by presenting key information? Will your reader one day look back and say, “Yes, that book changed everything for me…”?

Writing an excellent summary is an art. Practice by choosing a book you know well–for example, a favorite book or a book that inspired you to become a writer–and creating a one-paragraph summary of it. 

Summarize Your Book in One Sentence

Simplicity is powerful. The one-sentence description of your book is the one you will use most often. A few examples: 

One-sentence summary (nonfiction book): A man buys a horse for $80 to save it from the glue factory, and the horse goes on to win the horse show jumping triple crown.

Book: The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation by Elizabeth Letts

One-sentence summary (fiction book): Klara is an Artificial Friend (a solar-powered robot) given to a precocious child in a dystopian future. 

Book: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Read your one-liner aloud until it sounds natural. It should pique the potential reader’s interest without giving too much away. Consider that you may use it as a subtitle. A great example is Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. In this case, the one-line summary explains the book and helps define its freaky title. 

Part III. Put Everything Together into One File or on One Platform

Putting your notes together might seem like an obvious part of the writing process, but many writers find this step daunting. If you have been keeping notes for years, you may have jotted down ideas on index cards, the backs of envelopes, in text messages, on your laptop. If the process of putting these together is preventing you from writing your book, we can help. 

First, collect all of your notes. I advise a time limit for this: work in two-hour phases, then return to the project the next day. The reason for this approach is that sorting, tidying up, and organizing does not “spark joy” for everyone. It’s hard work. Perhaps you’ve got several drafts of your book already written; don’t stop to review them, just put them in the “box” (a literal cardboard box, a file on your computer, or an online platform like Overleaf or Google) along with your notes.

The next step is creating an outline--even a rough one will help. The outline will be the basis of the table of contents. If you need help, take a look at the one-page summary of your book. Next, sort your material into chapters, keeping in mind that this is an early iteration, and you may later be moving text from one part of the book to another. 

If you don’t have a lot of notes but do have plenty of ideas, write them down and follow the steps above. You are on your way to writing a book.

Part IV. Use %TODO Notations 

The “%TODO” notation is used in coding across many languages. I was first introduced to this convention while editing a book in Overleaf. The “%” mark at the beginning of a line in LaTeX will suppress what comes after it (e.g., it doesn’t show up in print). And “TODO” is a term that is easy to search for and not likely to be part of another word or phrase (as opposed to, for example, “CHECK” which might show up as part of “checked” or “unchecked” or “checkers”).

As you prepare your summaries, outline, and the first draft of your book, use %TODO. Rather than stopping to fact-check, just add %TODO. You can also add a note like this:

%TODO Find the etymology of this term

%TODO Fact-check this quote

%TODO Perhaps write more on the history of this topic

The idea is to keep writing, keep moving forward. A later step will be to work through the %TODOs.

Part V. Be Consistent

Once you have identified your audience, summarized your book, and put together your notes, it’s time to organize your manuscript (or your concept).

You may wish to create parts of your book and consider the chapters as elements within each part. For example, if your book is a travel guide to South America, you could dedicate each chapter to a country. But there are other ways to organize your material, such as creating parts for “Best Hiking Trails,” “Favorite Spots for Photographers,” or “Romantic Getaways,” and then writing chapters within those parts. 

There is no rule that every chapter or section has to be identical in length. Sometimes one sentence can be powerful enough to constitute a chapter. A chapter from Lewis Carroll’s  Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There:  

“And it really was a kitten after all.”

In terms of consistency, the essential element is tone. It’s not easy to assess one’s own writing, but that’s where editing and brainstorming can help. 

Just remember, work step by step. And don’t give up. You have something important to say, and your readers are waiting to hear it. 

Just remember, work step by step. And don’t give up. You have something important to say, and your readers are waiting to hear it. 

There are five important steps to preparing a book manuscript:

  1. Identify your audience;
  2. Write three summaries of your book;
  3. Put everything together into one file or on one platform;
  4. Add “to do” notes where necessary, including “to do” steps you need to take regarding style, references, any further research required, or ideas that come to you during the writing process; and
  5. Maintain consistency throughout the project: titles and subtitles (headings), writing style, length of sections and chapters, and transitions between paragraphs and chapters--but most importantly, tone.

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About the Author

Conna Craig

Hello, I’m Conna Craig. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Clemens for eight years. Being thousands of miles apart, we have worked remotely the entire time.  

I’m a writer, editor, and experienced public speaker. After graduating from Harvard, I co-founded a research organization that created policy blueprints for the domestic policy councils of two White House administrations. I have edited 27 non-fiction books and have spoken before audiences totaling nearly 30,000 people.

I live in Monterey, California, with the world's most adorable dog, Carl.

Conna Craig

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Book publishing has evolved with POD (print-on-demand) services. While it's never too late to write the next great novel or an award-winning nonfiction book, many people see book publishing as a marketing tool. No matter what your approach to your book, the challenge is finding and writing for the right audience.


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