The following is a guest post by Senior Editor Bob Nirkind offering essential advice for authors.
I’ve been a book editor for over 35 years, and during the long haul I’ve worked in both educational publishing—on books for the elementary, middle school, high school, voc-ed, two-year college, and four-year-college markets—and trade publishing—on books bought by individuals presumably interested in its content rather than forced to read it for a class. If there’s one critical rule I’ve learned that has been passed on to many of my authors in working on their manuscripts, it’s to assume no prior knowledge on the part of readers.
I was once involved in developing an American history textbook. During a conversation with the author, he mentioned that in teaching his students, he had to continually remind himself that their frame of reference was very different from his. The example he gave was bringing up the 1968 My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, when American soldiers were accused of gunning down between 347-504 unarmed civilians—women, children, and the elderly (I’ve just assumed no prior knowledge by adding this information).
As he spoke, he told me, he looked around the room and saw an ocean of blank expressions, at which point he realized that not one of his students had even been born in1968, much less knew anything about the war.
Whether working on a textbook or a trade book, I’ve kept this author’s story in mind, and consequently have driven any number of authors mad asking who this person was, what good or service that company sold, where this organization was based, when that particular event occurred, and why . . . you can’t even begin to imagine all the whys. Many have expressed gratitude for being prodded for the additional information (or so they wrote). Grateful or not, my overriding concern has been that readers not be left in the dark. Yes, there’s probably not a fact that can’t be looked up on the Internet, but I’ve yet to think of a good reason why readers should need to if you, like I do, consider every book to be a small, sometimes valuable, self-contained unit.
Bob Nirkind is a Senior Editor at AMACOM Books. He specializes in acquiring titles in sales, customer service, project management, and finance. Prior to joining AMACOM, Bob worked as Executive Editor at Watson-Guptill Publications and Senior Development Editor at St. Martin’s Press. You can visit our website for freelance development, copyediting, and proofreading opportunities.