With apologies to Jane Austen, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that most editors enjoy reading’. I say ‘most’, as there will undoubtedly be an exception somewhere – and when you find them, please let me know! Of those who read for pleasure, I would hazard a guess that the vast majority probably opt for some sort of fiction, although again, a small percentage will not.
But those who don’t will quite possibly enjoy memoirs or biographies that share many narrative traits with fiction, as ultimately they encompass a good ‘story’, and require pace and drama.
Fast-forward then to the surprising number of editors who recoil in horror at the thought of actually editing fiction, preferring the relative order of non-fiction subject specialities, academic guidelines and referencing systems over the perceived unwieldiness of fiction.
Spot the difference
And yet, is non-fiction/academic editing really so different from fiction editing?
We all pass an unconscious critical eye over our reading material, of whatever ilk – newspaper articles, web text, books… And how often have we come to the end of a novel only to wonder what happened to a particular character who inexplicably disappeared from view at some point, or to query why an author suddenly switched to American idiom for a protagonist previously noted for their ‘West Country vernacular’?
Is this really so different from spotting in a work of non-fiction that the Russian Revolution occurred momentarily in 1817 rather than 1917, or that Reggio Calabria had transformed into Reggio Emilia, which is at the opposite end of Italy? Leaving incorrect or inconsistent facts in any type of text can lead to unnecessary reader confusion.
But what about all that dialogue and jargon? How is an editor supposed to ensure conformity in a text written in teenage slang, for example? Well, for those of you with teenagers in the house, a quick question in this regard will not only engender a snort of derision, but will also provide the necessary clarification if required. Even if you don’t have direct access to this subspecies of the human race, there are wonderful online resources to keep you up to date, just as there are helpful organisations to keep you abreast of changing terminology and ethical considerations in other areas of your editing life.
‘But there are no rules to fiction,’ I hear you cry. Well, that’s not entirely true, is it? The basic conventions of grammar, punctuation, tense agreement, spelling and so on still apply … just not always with the same regularity as in other texts. The key is to find the pattern and then impose consistency. Think of it as a challenge, a puzzle to unravel. Patrick Ness’s phonetic transcription of language in his Chaos Walking trilogy isn’t unintelligible; it’s innovative, consistent and apt. It’s completely sensible to expect that a teenage protagonist with no formal education might write ‘station’ as ‘stayshun’. In non-fiction or academia, the word ‘anxiolytic’ might have more resonance for its target audience than the term ‘anxiety-reducing’. Ultimately, it’s a matter of context … and uniformity.
Genres, interest and expertise
But that still doesn’t address the elephant in the room – the huge array of genres: thrillers, young adult, erotica, crime, romance, fantasy, science fiction, children’s, and so on. How can an editor possibly deal with all of that?
Well, most fiction editors don’t. Generally, our editing specialities reflect our reading preferences, in the same way that many non-fiction editors focus on their own areas of general interest or academic expertise. We all have our comfort zones. After all, if you read a lot of crime fiction, you are more likely to spot a glaring narrative discrepancy in a similar work – especially if the ‘error’ concerns the plausibility of that one vital piece of information on which the entire plot hinges – than if you usually read magic realism.
And if erotica or science fiction are not your bag – as self-help, politics or Celtic religion might not be someone else’s – then why would you even consider working on them? It’s not compulsory. The beauty of fiction is that there is such a range to choose from that there really is something for everyone. And nowhere does it state that you have to edit fiction to the exclusion of other types of work.
At the 2018 SfEP conference, I attended two excellent sessions on very different aspects of fiction editing. Although some might think that I had little to learn, given that I have been editing fiction in one form or another for a very long time, I would beg to differ, as I always discover fresh ways of looking at old topics. The sessions brought together newbies and veterans, and each had as much to offer to the discussion as the other. One thing that emerged was that everyone could cite novels that had had an impact on them at some point, and were able to verbalise the reasons why. The same applied to their responses to the various exercise texts.
And if you can articulate your reaction to a piece of narrative prose, you can edit fiction!
Fiction is uniquely subjective and everyone has a different – and equally valid – opinion of what works and what doesn’t, and it is this existence of ‘no right answer’ that scares those who avoid it.
It is true that no two fiction editors will ever highlight exactly the same things in the same narrative, although there will be commonalities. Things that bother me may not bother you, and at the end of the day who’s to say that I’m right and you’re wrong, or vice versa? We can posit an opinion, but what the author does with that information is up to them – as with non-fiction editing.
Fiction editors provide authors with an invaluable service. Not only do they tidy up a text, and ensure that plot details tally, the text is reasonably clean, pace is maintained and the chosen spelling conventions are consistent, but they also stand in for the final reader – the book buyer! They let the author know what works and what doesn’t, and so help them to avoid those often minor, yet erroneous details mentioned above, which can ultimately detract from an otherwise great story.
So, if you are now thinking that fiction editing may not be quite as scary – or as alien – as you first thought and might like to give it a go, or if you have members of staff who would benefit from an overview of how to get started and what to consider, perhaps you should contemplate the CIEP’s online Introduction to Fiction Editing course.
Written by a variety of experienced fiction editors, it offers a broad overview of the basic things to look out for when copy-editing a work of fiction. There are no fixed ‘rules’ as such, but you will hopefully discover that fiction editing is not quite as lawless or ‘unquantifiable’ as you envisage.
Above all, the course provides ample reassurance that, as long as you can justify your opinion in the context of the novel, your very own ‘no right answer’ might actually be correct. But there’s only one way to know if I’m telling the truth, so why not confront your demons and learn how to kill those darlings?
The CIEP also publishes a guide to Getting Started in Fiction Editing, written by Kat Trail.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.
Originally published October 2018; updated March 2021.