Tag Archives: fiction

Reading for pleasure – can editors and proofreaders still do that?

When you come into this profession you may well think to yourselves: is this the end of my nights curled up in front of the fire with a good thriller? Am I going to be able to read my psychology newsletter with the same interest? In this blog post, Alex Mackenzie quizzes editors and proofreaders to find out if they’re still able to read for pleasure.

My preoccupation with this question led me to quiz CIEP members about their reading and whether the job has changed their habits or enjoyment in any way.

Everyone who contributed to this blog post said they have changed their reading habits since starting in the profession, and in these ways:

  • what I read
  • when I read
  • where I read
  • how much I read.

How my reading habits have changed

People who used to read a lot of fiction (up to a hundred books a year) now read less – or have even dropped it entirely – and may compensate with film. People who don’t work with fiction don’t necessarily feel an effect on their reading for pleasure, but possibly have noticed a slower speed when reading non-fiction. Others now select their reading to complement or distract from the job.

‘I wasn’t exactly keen to sit down with a novel after I’d turned my computer off for the day.’

‘I spend all day reading academic writing that’s usually not written too well, so by the time I’m done with the day’s work, I’m exhausted and my brain can’t take in another fact.’

‘When I worked in an office, I commuted across London for an hour each way so I used that time to read, but when I changed career and became a proofreader, working from home, I found that reading on the stairs between the kitchen and my spare-bedroom office wasn’t terribly practical. I’ve always read in bed before I go to sleep, but only for 10 or 15 minutes each night, so I found I wasn’t making much of a dent in my to-be-read pile.’

‘I’ve been struggling to focus on reading for pleasure for quite a number of years (too much work/stress).’

‘I’ve been an editor for 28 years. Historically, I have never been a fussy reader – as long as a book had a well-structured, compelling and plausible story, I was always able to ignore most other issues if not being paid to correct them (!), whereas at one time I prided myself on having finished every book I had ever started.’

‘As my workload has intensified and become more fiction-orientated, I have discovered that I don’t want to read anything too taxing when not working.’

‘My editing work is focused on business and marketing topics, which has allowed me to maintain my strong fiction-reading habit. What has suffered over the years is my professional reading. I used to read so many more books on language, editing and business. These days, I just don’t have the time.’

‘I have a pile of fantastic profession-related books waiting for me to find the energy to read them.’

‘My reading as a result of the job relates more to my translation work than to my proofreading and editing. Last year I was being mentored as an emerging literary translator of Welsh to English and, as I have no training in translation, I read a lot of books translated into English from various languages as a kind of CPD.’

How I feel about this

  • I’ve lost some of the pleasure.
  • I notice mistakes more.
  • I tune into the author’s style straight away.
  • I appreciate good writing.

The people who responded find themselves to be fussy fiction readers. Low-quality writing, an author’s idiosyncrasies and editorial oversights such as sloppy punctuation in dialogue are unwelcome distractions. With cheap ebooks available for 99p, fiction is accessible but often poor, so people now give up on a novel where they never would have done before.

‘My editing brain now hijacks the suspension of disbelief, which means that much of the pleasure I previously derived from fiction has vanished.’

‘I notice mistakes all the time. They just sort of jump off the page or screen. But when I’m reading something that was most likely edited, it’s more difficult. I know that everybody has really tight deadlines and horrendous workloads, so it’s not that the mistakes upset me, but reading something that’s full of errors makes me really, really tired because by the time I get to the end, I’ve mentally corrected each mistake I noticed.’

‘The thing that editing has ruined changed in my reading is that I notice an author’s style really quickly. From favoured sentence structures to being overly attached to commas, it takes me just a few pages to notice it.’

‘I used to read fiction – Arthur C Clarke, Dick Francis, C S Forester – but apart from the latter (whose prose I enjoy for its own sake) I’ve more or less stopped reading fiction, mainly because learning to edit fiction has reduced my suspension of disbelief to near-zero.’

‘My shelves are now littered with books I couldn’t be bothered to finish as they were so poorly constructed/written – including some by well-known and successful authors.’

‘So for me to like [it], there must be some phenomenal writing going on.’

What am I doing about it?

  • I just ‘shake it off’ and live with it, compartmentalising the day job.
  • I choose more carefully (either for pleasure or for professional development).
  • I joined a local book group.
  • I stop reading if I don’t enjoy it.
  • I appreciate quality writing.

People realise the importance of regular reading; developmental editors especially need to read widely. We can be coin-operated, switching our editing brain on and off, and we make a big effort to specialise in areas that don’t trespass on our reading for pleasure. We may be able to compartmentalise our minds, and shifting physical positions helps too – keeping a foot in academia at the desk, critiquing fiction on the bean bag. And sometimes a complete change of routine forces a book upon us, and we find ourselves whisked away by the magic.

‘For a while, I accepted that this was just how things were.’

‘I’ve consciously decided not to edit fiction because I want to keep enjoying reading fiction in my free time. It’s the thing that keeps me going in tough times, and the last thing I do every day before bed.’

‘Were I to edit fiction, I wouldn’t be able to lose myself as easily in my free reading.’

‘Following a house move, I found a local book group and signed up, thinking it would encourage me to read more and in new areas. It was all fine for the first book (yes, I was cram-reading in the hours before the meeting); then, with exquisite timing, lockdown came along. We continued to meet online but I found reading almost impossible during that first period of confinement (there was so much on Netflix to watch, after all) so I missed a couple of sessions. I picked it up again earlier this year and I’m so glad I did. I’ve read some fabulous books that I wouldn’t have even considered normally, and I’ve made some new friends.’

‘I took this book away with me during the first year of Covid and it completely carried me off into another world. The fact that it was linked with a highly infectious disease probably helped!’

‘In informal, unedited writing, I can just shake it off (after all, I know my writing is also bound to be full of mistakes). To combat this, I’m picky about the stuff I read, from news websites to novels. I choose sources with writing that is generally carefully edited and produced over a longer time, I don’t read any self-published novels, and I tend to favour authors who have been writing for longer. I have stopped reading some authors just because of an annoying tic in their writing. I just choose my authors with care. When a book is written really well, the mistakes fade into the background because my mind is filled with vivid imagery. My tiredness fades away because the book is giving something back. Some books manage this with plot, some are really funny, some have characters who feel truly alive, some are like paintings done with words, some are written with almost painful empathy, and the very best manage to do it all.’

‘I read fiction almost exclusively (non-fiction tends to be limited to a few articles a week), and usually fiction that isn’t too heavy. I also like videogames with good stories, where I can zone out and read a few lines at a time. [Some] are brilliantly written games that have a lot of stories to tell, but you’re only reading a little every few minutes, so it’s not so exhausting.’

‘I churn through vast quantities of best-selling crime fiction and thrillers, and various other types of commercial fiction, which, apart from allowing me to switch off, also keeps me abreast of the latest trends and conventions in the various genres. And of course, finding out whether I guessed correctly how they’re going to end or whodunnit is always entertaining – I’m rarely wrong, which is, I suppose, an occupational hazard, but doesn’t usually detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.’

‘I save more demanding works of literary or ‘must-read’ fiction for quieter periods of work or for holidays, when I can give them the attention they deserve.’

‘I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, as well as 19th- and early 20th-century literature or stories that take place during those times. I like to be taken out of my everyday life. Sometimes I like a slow, reflective pace (especially in the winter) and other times, I like a fast, adventurous pace.’

‘If the story is good enough I won’t think.’

Reading choices mentioned:

‘Anything about how things around us, and about us, work.’

‘[certain authors] for when I want to shudder/marvel at the universality and resilience of the human condition, [others] for when I want to marvel at a writer’s ability to unfurl, with tenderness, the gender roles and hypocrisies of people in a seemingly moral society. And love that makes you weep.’

Videogames: ‘Sunless Sea’ and ‘Sunless Skies’

Authors: Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Jane Austen, Rutger Bregman, the Brontës, Bill Bryson, David Eagleman, Giulia Enders, C S Forester, Neil Gaiman, Kevin Hearne, N Mahfouz, Naomi Novik, Maggie O’Farrell, Herman Pontzer, Catherine Poulain, (as translated by Adriana Hunter), Kate Quinn, John Scalzi, Ali Smith, John Steinbeck, Ian Tregillis, Anthony Trollope, Ali Turnbull’s blog.

Wrapping up

The bottom line is that there are occupational hazards, but good writing is worth the distractions. And we appreciate how editors invisibly facilitate our reading for pleasure!


Without contributions from CIEP members, this would be a short and dull read! My thanks go to: Caroline Petherick (especially for editorial assistance), Riffat Yusuf, Erin Brenner and Melanie Thompson, among others who prefer to remain anonymous. Thanks also to those in Cloud Club West who incidentally dropped me a tasty morsel!

About Alex Mackenzie

Alex Mackenzie is a British copyeditor and proofreader living in Asturias, Spain. She moved into editing from a 30-year career in international schools across nine countries. Alex is a published English language teaching (ELT) author with a Master’s degree in education. Areas of specialism are ELT, education, sustainability and meditation, adding creative non-fiction and fiction. She is a Professional Member of the CIEP.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: coffee and cake by Pixabay, couple reading by Andrea Piacquadio, books by a window by Lum3n, all on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

The 2021 CIEP conference: Fiction line-editing essentials: Narrative distance

This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Katherine Kirk reviewed Fiction line-editing essentials: Narrative distance, presented by Louise Harnby.

Near! Far!

Louise Harnby is one of the most helpful editors around, and her Switching to Fiction course will earn you two points towards CIEP membership upgrades. This year, conference attendees got a taste of that high-quality content with Louise’s fabulous introduction to narrative distance. In her session, she explained:

  • what narrative distance (or psychic distance) is
  • why it should be dynamic, not static
  • how problems with narrative distance connect to showing vs telling, info-dumping, head-hopping and other common pitfalls
  • how editors can show writers how to adjust narrative distance to make their writing stronger.

Discussed in more depth in The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, narrative distance is a stylistic tool that affects point of view, showing versus telling, and more. It’s all about the relationship between reader and character: how deep in the character’s head is the reader, and how connected are they to the character’s emotions? To understand narrative distance, editors should know about narrative perspectives and their effects. Second-person is creepily intimate, third-person objective has the widest narrative distance, and third-person omniscient may have some intimacy between the reader and narrator, if not the characters. Editors who want to learn more about these would get a lot out of the CIEP’s Introduction to Fiction Editing course.

Louise describes narrative distance as a continuum that readers can zoom in and out of. The level of intimacy should gently ebb and flow. When it leaps around, that’s where problems come in. Overreliance on a wide degree of narrative distance makes the writing static and can result in info-dumping (and pace-killing). Spending too long in an intimate distance, putting emotion before description and action, can feel sentimental and overblown. Jumping too far from one degree to another can be jarring, like shifting gears too fast. Head-hopping is where the perspective leaps abruptly from one character to another, and readers get confused or can’t invest in the character’s experience. Some authors might overuse filter words (noticed, watched, felt) to avoid head-hopping, but this adds a degree of distance between the immediacy of the experience and the reader.

Louise says editors should not be too prescriptive regarding narrative distance. Instead, we should use our instincts and acknowledge subjectivity. A small change that shifts the narrative distance can have a huge effect on pace, emotional impact, and characterisation. We can use techniques like:

  • free indirect speech
  • removing filter words and words like ‘suddenly’ or ‘instantly’
  • using characters’ full names
  • changing direct speech and thought to reported speech or thought.

Being aware of narrative distance helps editors with the flow of prose, the shifts of intimacy with a single narrative style, and shifts of viewpoint. It helps authors to know how and why to fix problems, and it helps readers to enjoy the story more. Within a day of Louise’s talk, I’d already applied it to my own work. I can’t wait to see the lightbulbs pop on over my clients’ heads when I explain narrative distance to them.

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who lives halfway up a volcano in Ecuador. She works on all types of fiction for adults, especially Science Fiction and Literary Fiction.

She also edits Tabletop Role-playing Game (TTRPG) content. Katherine spends far too much time on social media, and is an Intermediate Member of the CIEP.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

The 2021 CIEP conference: Guiding principles for developmental fiction editing

This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Umber Khairi reviewed Guiding principles for developmental fiction editing, presented by Sophie Playle.

‘Remember, it’s not your book!’

That was one of the important principles of developmental editing that Sophie Playle reminded us of repeatedly throughout her well-attended session at the 2021 conference.

Her presentation was useful for both experienced editors and relative newbies to fiction editing because it revisited what exactly developmental editing consists of. Sophie emphasised the need to formulate a framework of guiding principles to steer your work as a developmental editor

Before understanding what developmental editing is, one needs to understand what it is not. Sophie made this clear, reminding us that as a developmental editor you are not acting as a beta reader – a reader whose response is essentially subjective and reactive. Neither are you acting as a copyeditor; your role as a developmental editor is to help the author get the foundation and structure of the book right, rather than polishing it and adding finishing touches. Here, she used the analogy of acting as an architect or engineer rather than as a professional involved in the decorating and finishing work on a building.

Sophie shared the four guiding principles she uses as a developmental editor. She said these help to keep you focused on the nature of your role. Her four principles are:

  1. It’s not your book
  2. Define your service
  3. Be objective
  4. Understand the ‘rules’.

As she elaborated on these four points, Sophie pointed out that having clear principles in place can ‘keep things consistent and give you a clear sense of direction’…

Sophie emphasised the importance of remembering ‘It’s not your book’; it’s not the developmental editor’s job to rewrite the book. Instead, you should aim to understand the author’s goal and simply help them to make it the best book they can. This is where communication with the client is key. Sophie pointed out that it is fundamental to understand the author’s objectives – what they are trying to achieve with their book and their publishing goals (eg mainstream commercial or a family history project). Once you have understood their intent, you should make sure you are empathetic to the author’s vision; also, when you give feedback, do not be didactic or overbearing, rather ‘frame your feedback as suggestions’.

In terms of the second point – that you need to define your service – this is obviously key in any job that we, as editing professionals, take up but it is especially crucial in developmental fiction editing. Authors may be confused as to what exactly this involves and some may be under the impression that the developmental editor will magically transform the book, rather than help the author to work on pulling it all together. Sophie mentioned that you can choose how to name and define the service you are providing and what exactly it will entail. She added that the author must be made aware that you won’t be copyediting their work – the only line edits a developmental editor will make relate to the ‘bigger picture’ in terms of the book.

Her third guiding principle related to the question of objectivity and here Sophie emphasised that in developmental editing work, ‘analysis is key … tastes will vary but analysis is not opinion’. She mentioned that analysis should be rooted in theory so a developmental editor should have some knowledge of this as well.

The last principle was that a developmental fiction editor should understand the ‘rules’, that’s to say the conventions and expectations of different genres (romance fiction will have different expectations and ‘rules’ from a crime thriller, for example). She said it is true that convention can be flexible but that it is rare that authors can successfully subvert genre conventions – some do experiment but very few succeed.

There was a lively and useful Q&A session following Sophie’s presentation and quite a few participants seemed interested in the courses on developmental editing that she offers through her business, Liminal Pages with several people asking if these could count towards CIEP points for upgrading.

All in all, this was an extremely interesting and engaging session and one which provided clear and constructive guidance.

Umber Khairi is a new CIEP member and has a background in journalism (print, then news websites, then radio). She took early retirement from the BBC in 2018 and she is co-founder of the independent, journalist-owned magazine, Newsline, in Pakistan. She is a compulsive proofreader. Areas of interest include South Asia, Islamic culture, the news media, current affairs, new fiction and health and nutrition.

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Using plain English to maximise immersion in fiction

When most people think of plain English, they think of functional, practical non-fiction texts rather than stories. Here, Katherine Kirk looks at how the plain English principles can be applied to works of fiction.

In this article, I’ll explore these questions:

  • What is plain English and why does it matter for fiction?
  • How can plain English principles improve the fiction reader’s experience?
  • Does writing in plain English mean stripping fiction of its artistry?

Striking the right tone

In my former life as an English teacher, I found that many of my students, in an attempt to elevate their English to the highest possible level, were obfuscating their concepts by becoming fixated on implementing linguistic arabesques which were utterly drenched in verbosity at the expense of clarity.

If you’re still reading after that ridiculous sentence, thank you for sticking around. Most readers wouldn’t.

Using loftier words to sound like a ‘better writer’ is more common than you’d think. Students trying to pad their essays will devour a thesaurus whole and vomit the longest words onto the page. Writers for whom English might not be their first language – and some for whom it is – will often turn to the flashiest word and throw it into a sentence it has no right to be in, having missed the connotations and nuances that make a word fit just right.

Writers who hold the literary arts to be the most profound form of human expression (and rightly so!) might feel that they would be doing their book an injustice by writing it the way they speak, and that readers who come across simple sentences and words might feel that their text lacks colour.

As copyeditors, one of our aims is to have the readers’ interests at heart. Hopefully, this article will help you to show your clients that writing in plain English doesn’t mean writing in boring English, and how simplifying their texts makes it easier for readers to fall in love with their story.

Aristotle said, over two millennia ago, ‘The virtue of style is to be clear … and to be neither mean nor above the prestige of the subject, but appropriate.’ He’s talking about using the right language for the job at hand. The fiction writer’s job is to write a story their readers can escape into. Our job is to help them.

What is plain English and why does it matter?

When most people think of plain English, it’s with regard to non-fiction texts, such as warning labels, legal or government documents, or instructional guides. Laura Ripper and Luke Finley wrote an excellent introduction to plain English for the CIEP blog a few years ago.

Most plain English principles tend to be aimed at businesses and organisations that want their users, clients or readers to be able to access the information as easily as possible. But how does that apply to fiction writers?

Dr Neil James sets out more general principles, saying that plain English writing should have:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • a clear core message
  • the right level of detail
  • a fit-for-purpose structure
  • coherence and flow
  • clear document design
  • a light but professional tone
  • a readable style
  • an active voice
  • an efficient style
  • an error-free text
  • evidence-based testing.

I think these can apply to fiction too. Let’s dive in!

A reader-centred approach

Good writing transmits ideas from the writer’s mind to the reader’s. The reader imagines the world, hears the dialogue, and feels the emotions. That is immersion, and the best way to get the reader into it is by the most direct route possible – using the same language they think in. When this fails, readers write reviews like ‘I felt lost’ or ‘I couldn’t get into it’. Keeping the reader in mind means making the writing accessible to them.

A clear core message

To successfully transmit that message, it needs to be clear. In fiction, the message is multifaceted: the writer is trying to convey who the characters are, what the story is, and why it matters. If the complexity of their language is getting in the way of any of those things, then readers will feel lost. They might lose interest in the story, too. Writers must beware of tangling up the meaning and concealing it behind words readers need to look up, and sentences they’ll need to read three times to decode. They should also be careful of having a storyline so convoluted that the reader needs a wiki to keep track. If the message is clear and accessible, the reader will have a better experience (and come back for more).

The right level of detail

Sometimes in the effort to convey that image clearly to the reader, a writer might veer too far in the opposite direction by being overly specific and spelling out every little detail. Encourage your clients to give your readers the benefit of the doubt and to trust them to fill in the spaces between the words; removing the fluff will make that easier.

A fit-for-purpose structure

Plain English is about more than just sentence-level clarity. If the story jumps from flashback to flashback, wanders aimlessly through nested dreams, explodes into en dash confetti and then suddenly switches to a second-person account written entirely in italics, the reader will absolutely get confused. Some books manage a labyrinthine structure. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the labyrinth is the point. For genre fiction, though, the ease with which your reader can navigate the story directly correlates with their ability to be immersed in it.

Coherence and flow

We can’t all be James Joyce or Samuel Beckett; sometimes the best stories are the ones that readers can actually follow. Leading readers on a journey through the story is what good writing is all about. You don’t want to lure them into the woods only to run off, leaving them to either struggle to catch up or get lost entirely. Writers should be walking just ahead, beckoning the reader around the next corner.

Clear document design

Literary fiction can be a tricky genre to get right because many writers think it means you have to be innovative with punctuation, structure and formatting. Experimentation is fine, if it’s done well – but for immersion’s sake, for writing that disappears behind the story, it’s better to give readers what they expect by following established conventions.

A light but professional tone

Readers may feel intimidated by overly formal text, or text that is dense and inaccessible to them. They might respect the writer, but they probably won’t have as much fun reading the story as they would if it were easier for them to understand. Throwing themselves entirely into the writer’s world takes a certain kind of vulnerability, and if readers feel shut out by language they can’t understand, then they’re not going to do that. Using the right language helps readers to trust the writer and to be willing to open themselves up to having their hearts absolutely destroyed by the story. If the writer is too caught up in trying to sound smarter, then they lose the readers’ trust.

A readable style

The key thing is readability. The most beautiful sentence in the world might be a multilayered, poetic work of art, but if it requires a doctorate to unpick and understand, then the writer is excluding the majority of their readership – and for what? To show off their thesaurus?

An active voice

Now, this is where many people who like to give advice to writers tend to overgeneralise and lead writers astray. It’s also where robotic grammar checkers tend to overcorrect at the expense of clarity, flow and readability. Active voice is about making it clear who is doing what, but passive voice isn’t wrong. In the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen isn’t wrong to use the passive voice; she’s making a point, and a sarcastic one at that, setting up the entire premise of the novel.

The passive voice can and should be used with intention. Above all, aim for clarity.

An efficient style

Another bit of writerly advice that well-meaning but often misinformed people give is to cut specific words or sentence structures. It’s silly to make blanket rules when language is infinitely variable. What writers (and editors) can do is try to be as efficient as possible, such as choosing a strong adjective over two weak ones.

Simplicity doesn’t always mean fewer words. Sometimes it means using a few simpler words to convey a complex idea. Having an efficient style means getting the idea from your mind into your reader’s mind without a detour into the dictionary.

An error-free text

The purpose of grammar and punctuation is to eliminate ambiguity and enhance clarity. A logically and grammatically consistent text ensures the reader understands the story the way the writer intended them to. If the writer is trying to force the grammar into doing something it’s not meant to, they’re more likely to make a mistake. They may find themselves tangled up in semicolons and en dashes, and the reader will be just as muddled. That said, fiction is far more forgiving of its rules being bent. Being able to strike a balance between accuracy and a comfortable narrative voice is one of the key skills a fiction copyeditor needs to develop.

Evidence-based testing

What is being tested? It might be the theme or hypothesis behind the story (the ‘what if?’), or it might be the conflict between the characters, or the plausibility of the made-up science. Testing the characters by putting them under pressure is what fuels character development. Show, don’t tell means that fiction writers need to give their readers the evidence of that development by letting them see it unfold.

Reading levels in the UK and US

Putting all these principles together can help editors to make sure their clients’ writing is at an appropriate level for their target readers. According to the Center for Plain Language, the majority of American readers are reading at 8th grade level (12 to 14 years old), and the National Literary Trust reports that many adults in the UK have poor literary skills. So, having the novel in a register that requires a tertiary education to understand means the writer is probably not going to sell many books.

Maintaining the writer’s voice

Some writers may balk at the idea of simplifying their language, thinking that to do so would be to rob the text of any sense of artistry. Editors may worry that they’ll be stripping away the writer’s voice. Be careful to maintain the balance; suggest rather than dictate, and let the writer make the call.

Achieving clarity takes a certain kind of artistry. Do it with the readers in mind and they’ll keep coming back for more.

Wrapping up: plain English in fiction

The elements of plain English writing can apply as much to fiction as to non-fiction texts. Writers and editors can aim for:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • the right level of detail
  • coherence and flow
  • a readable and efficient style
  • an error-free text.

How do you apply plain English principles in your writing or editing? Drop us a line in the comments below.

More guidance on working with plain English

The CIEP has some helpful resources to help you work with plain English.

About Katherine Kirk

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who has to force herself to simplify the English in her own writing.

Rumoured to have eaten a dictionary as a child, she suffers from abibliophobia (the fear of running out of books to read). She speaks four and a half Englishes and can often be found muttering to herself about the New York Times Bee’s prejudice against most of them.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: reflection by Jingwei Ke; hedge maze by Tycho Atsma; straight road by Karsten Würth, all on Unsplash.

Manuscript critiques: piecing together the puzzle

By Sophie Playle

When a novel crosses my desk for copyediting but I can see ways beyond the sentence level the book could be improved, it can be frustrating. By that point in the publishing process, though, it’s often not helpful to provide suggestions for large-scale revisions.

Perhaps you’ve been in a similar position. Or perhaps you’ve felt – on an instinctual level – that a manuscript could be better, but you just weren’t sure exactly how.

When an author comes to me for a manuscript critique, it’s my job to figure out how their novel can be improved – and it’s so, so satisfying when that author comes back to me for copyediting, too, because I get to focus on the sentence without that sinking feeling that the manuscript could be so much more.

Developmental editing vs manuscript critiquing

A manuscript critique is a kind of developmental edit. With both services, the editor analyses the manuscript as a whole and suggests how it can be improved. All the big-picture storytelling elements and techniques that go into a novel are considered.

Things like:

  • story
  • plot/structure
  • character
  • tension
  • theme
  • point of view

… and so on. These elements are usually considered in tandem with the novel’s suitability for its target readership and genre, and how publishable and marketable the manuscript is.

A manuscript critique is essentially a developmental edit lite. With a developmental edit, you analyse every scene, every character arc and every plot point in a novel. With a critique, you provide more general analysis that focuses on the main ways an author can improve their book. And instead of showing the author every instance of every problem (as you would with a full developmental edit), the author will comb through their manuscript and find the places they can apply your feedback.

Of course, take my descriptions with a pinch of salt because every editor will work slightly differently.

How the client benefits from a manuscript critique

With fiction, it’s usually the author who hires an editor for a manuscript critique. Fiction publishers look for compelling, effective novels – and competition is high. Because of this, authors need to be able to submit their best work. It’s a similar story for independent (self-publishing) authors. They also need to publish their best work in order to attract readers and good reviews.

A critique provides an author with a professional, objective perspective on their novel – and is more affordable than a full developmental edit. They can use the feedback to strengthen their novel’s foundations, increasing their chances of being published or minimising the risk of poor sales or bad reviews.

The critiquing process

A critique should come before any sentence-level editing. Not every author needs (or wants) a professional critique, but I’m yet to read a manuscript that wasn’t sent to me by a publishing house that wouldn’t have benefited from some larger revisions.

My critiquing process is very straightforward:

  1. I read the manuscript.
  2. I set the manuscript aside for a few days to let my thoughts percolate.
  3. I write up my thoughts and suggestions.

The author can email me with any points they need me to clarify, but then I leave them to make their revisions.

Skills required to offer manuscript critiquing

The skills you need to be able to offer manuscript critiques are the same skills you need to become a developmental editor (of fiction). These include:

  1. Knowledge of writing-craft theory – You need to know what makes a good story, how different writing techniques work, and what makes a novel publishable and compelling. Otherwise, you’ll have no concrete way to back up your suggestions.
  2. Ability to read fast but carefully – To earn a competitive fee, you need to be able to read a manuscript as quickly as possible while still absorbing enough detail to be able to provide your critique.
  3. Objectivity and detachment – You need to be able to keep your preferences out of the equation. You aren’t telling an author how you would have preferred the book to be written, but how changes to the book can best help the author achieve their creative and publishing goals.
  4. Ability to organise and structure your thoughts – A novel is a huge, complex piece of work made up of many overlapping elements. You’ll need to create processes that help you untangle your thoughts and shape them into clear feedback.
  5. Creativity – Even though you need to be objective, you still need to be creative enough to provide the author with suggestions. Suggestions help authors understand your criticisms and demonstrate how the problems with their manuscript can be resolved.

Summing up

It’s really satisfying to be able to help authors improve their novels on a deeper level.

I just love being able to take a novel-in-progress and turn it into a puzzle – seeing which pieces are missing, which bits can be discarded, and which shapes need to be changed in order for the bigger picture to become crystal clear.

Critiquing is both an analytical and a creative challenge – and one that I relish. It’s both my pleasure and my privilege to be able to offer this service to my clients.

Sophie Playle is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP. She’s a specialist fiction editor who provides editorial services to authors (and publishers) – and trains other editors through her online courses, too.

 

 


In the CIEP directory of Professional and Advanced Professional members, 25 listings include ‘manuscript critique‘.


Photo credits: puzzle – Kieran Wood; open book – Kiwihug, both on Unsplash

Proofread by Lynne Baybut, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Editing fiction and non-fiction: can you do both?

By Sara Donaldson

Can you have it all?

When you start out you might want to become a brilliant fiction editor. One who works on amazing stories that make your heart flutter when you spot someone reading them on the train. Or you might want to work on excellent non-fiction that delights and informs those around you. Many editors are drawn to one or the other.

But what if, like me, you love working on both fiction and non-fiction?

When I started out, I moved from indexing to editing and project managing almost in the blink of an eye. While I learned on the job I was also working through editorial training, so it was a natural progression to carry on with non-fiction. But when the opportunity to take part in a fiction editing workshop at a SfEP conference came up, it was too good an opportunity to miss. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It really is history – that’s my speciality. But I’ve worked on general fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction and lately, one of my favourites, crime fiction. All while editing non-fiction too.

If you want to work on both fiction and non-fiction there are some things that are roughly the same, but there are also some obvious differences. Bear in mind that my experiences may differ from those of other editors – we all have different ways of working and varying backgrounds – but this might help you decide if both are possible for you.

Is it for you?

Dare I say it, but no editor can edit every type of writing. At least not well. You may be great at editing historical fiction, but rubbish at science fiction, and with non-fiction you may need to be a subject specialist. The more subtle editing often needs someone with a deep knowledge of the subject, or a willingness to learn it quickly. As an academic subject librarian I worked closely with law and civil engineering books, but there’s no way I would edit one.

Before jumping into a new type of editing, make sure it’s really for you. Look at what you read and your subject knowledge – if you don’t read fantasy and sci-fi you might find it difficult to come to terms with genre expectations, jargon and world-building. And you might want to steer clear of scientific non-fiction if you don’t know the difference between the types of ion.

Make sure you’re trained for whichever type of editing you want to do, then there’s no reason why you can’t mix and match, and enjoy the variety that brings.

Similarities

There are definitely similarities between both types of editing: the most obvious are the technicalities of how you approach the documents.

Make sure everything is there

When you receive the files, look through them and make sure you have everything you should – is the word count what you expected, is everything there (check chapter headings, sections and any appendices, tables, images, etc), and is there anything you weren’t expecting? Even in fiction, whole sections can be missing or duplicated.

Pre- and post-edits

Generally speaking your checks will be the same whether you’re working on fiction or non-fiction. I tend to create a style sheet, if one hasn’t been provided, through using Paul Beverley’s Docalyse and a few other macros that let me know the author’s preferences. Then a spellcheck and a sweep through with PerfectIt make sure I’m ready to edit.

Logical flow and no plot holes

With both types of editing you have to make sure the narrative is logical and there are no plot holes. Are the chapters coherent, in the right order, and does the narrative flow logically and with ease? You might come across plot holes – or ‘holes in the argument’ or missing information in the case of non-fiction – that you need to sort out.

Differences between fiction and non-fiction

Despite the similarities, there are enough differences to … make a difference.

Plot sheet/character sheet vs chapter diagram/mock-up

When you’re editing fiction it makes sense to have detailed plot and character sheets to make sure that everything flows well and your brown-haired, green-eyed heroine doesn’t change physical characteristics halfway through the book.

However, when you’re editing non-fiction you’re more likely to have a detailed list of the chapters and the information they contain, perhaps with a mock-up of the book’s insides, and lists of tables, images and diagrams. It’s crucial to make sure that nothing’s missing, you know where everything fits in and that the size and density of the chapters reflect the weight of what’s contained in them.

Style guides

Often fiction authors don’t have style sheets or use guides, whereas non-fiction authors may already use them. Academics especially may use a preferred style guide and should be able to access a copy for you; if they’re an independent non-fiction author, without a style guide/sheet, you might have to work closely with them to pinpoint expected conventions.

Plot, characterisation and consistency vs clarity and organisational flow

With all writing the content needs to be easily understood by the target audience.

One common problem with non-fiction is that you might have multiple authors to contend with. It feels like herding cats sometimes, so you must keep everything in check. You have to make sure the terminology is consistent throughout and that everyone is working towards the same clear message.

With a fiction book you usually only have to deal with one author, so plot, characterisation and consistency can be easier to deal with as you get used to their writing tics.

Levels of intervention

These can differ greatly. With fiction editing you can be more hands-on with the structure and development of the book, but non-fiction will often be under the guidance of the author (and/or publisher). You might have to work with facts, references and notes. Ask any editor who has to work with reference lists – they can be a love/hate relationship and can take a LOT of time to go through.

How to switch from one to the other

If you do think you can cope with the complexities of both fiction and non-fiction, you’re going to have to decide how you manage your workload. Personally, I tend to work on only one or two jobs at a time, so I find it easy to switch between the two. As an editor, my brain tends to compartmentalise, so I find it easier to split my day and work on non-fiction in the morning, when my logical brain is more active, then move over to fiction on an afternoon when I’m more relaxed and open to the flow of a narrative. If time allows I might work one whole day on one, then work the next on the other.

How you work will depend on what makes you comfortable, but once the pre-edit is done it makes sense to allow a chunk of time for fiction, to allow you to get into the flow. But you have to be meticulous in all your work – fiction is definitely not an easy option, and non-fiction doesn’t have to be hard.

So can you have it all?

Yes, you can. But respect yourself and your clients – make sure you’re trained and have the expertise to edit to the best of your capability. CIEP has excellent courses, such as Introduction to Fiction Editing, that will make sure you have the skills to build upon.

Sara Donaldson is an Advanced Professional Member of CIEP who works on both fiction and non-fiction, specialising in history and heritage. She’s also a professional genealogist and content writer – when not working she can be found lost in online archives for no reason whatsoever, or in her local theatre.

 


If you want to widen or deepen your editorial skills, have a look at the full range of CIEP courses.


Photo credits: books – Paul Schafer; writing – Priscilla Du Preez, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Kelly Urgan, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Project fear: fiction editing

By Gale Winskill

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.

Drawing of a book with a visualisation of a story coming from its pagesBut 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.

Bookshelves with clouds and birds aboveNovel impact

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.

And next…

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?

Gale WinksillGale Winskill is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP who enjoys a challenge. She co-wrote the CIEP’s online Introduction to Fiction Editing course.

 

 

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.

A look at editing romance novels

Romance novels get a bad rap sometimes. They are often viewed as being less deserving of praise – and more deserving of being classed a ‘guilty pleasure’ – than literary fiction or other genres such as crime or science fiction. But I’m an unabashed lover of romance novels and not in the least bit guilty about it. And that love spills over into my professional life, where it’s one of my specialist fields as a fiction editor.

Editing romantic fiction is, in many ways, like editing any book. It’s just as worthy an endeavour as editing literary fiction, and romance novels are just as deserving of good editing as any other book (and believe me, romance readers have extremely high expectations and standards and can be vociferous when something doesn’t meet with their approval). You have the same concerns about consistency, correctness, clarity, and all the other Cs to look out for. But romance novels also have their own set of quirks and genre expectations.

What makes a romance novel?

In order to edit a romance novel, an editor must first understand what a romance novel is and what it is not. It might seem obvious, but a romance novel is not just a piece of writing that contains romantic elements.

A romance novel – as a piece of genre fiction – must have a happy ending to be classed as such (or, as the Romance Writers of America put it, an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending”). Tales of woe where the protagonist dies of some dreadful disease and his soulmate is unable to go on and leaps off a cliff are not romance novels. They may be novels with romantic elements, but they are not, strictly speaking, romance novels. And advertised as such, they can create a quite surprising level of anger and annoyance from readers who have sat down to enjoy a feel-good romance and have been left bereft and confused.

Most romance novels are character-driven as opposed to plot-driven. That means that characters’ interactions with each other and their journey and development are the primary focus of the novel. Compare this with adventure novels, which are usually plot-driven; while there may be elements of character development, the main focus is the twists and turns of the storyline. Romance novels are sometimes criticised for their lack of imagination or formulaic storylines, but the relationships between characters are the real heart of the story.

The big picture: characters and their development

When editing a character-driven story, it’s vital to focus on the believability of the characters and their development. If you’re coming in at a developmental or evaluation stage as opposed to a later copy-editing/proofreading stage, this is where you need to focus your efforts. Are the characters likeable? Are their flaws believable and not too drastic? For example, a bad boy who comes to the defence of the protagonist in a bar fight is fine, but one who beats up the protagonist or cheats on her time and time again? Not fine, and readers will swiftly put the book down, never to return. Is their romance believable? A writer can get away with stretching the boundaries of believability slightly, but readers will be turned off by something that is so far outside the realms of possibility it becomes ridiculous.

What’s the conflict and is it strong enough? Conflict is what drives a novel. Two people meeting and falling in love, with no barrier or obstacles, is not a story. There needs to be something stopping them being together which drives their actions, such as a jealous ex-boyfriend, a protagonist who has vowed never to fall in love again, or the time-honoured favourite of romance novels – the secret baby. When you’re editing a romance novel at a more conceptual stage, these are the big questions you need to ask and examine.

Details: dialogue and consistency

When you reach the copy-editing stage, I’d recommend looking closely at dialogue. Dialogue is super important in romance novels. Sometimes there isn’t a great deal of action going on, so it’s imperative that the dialogue is sparkling enough to carry the story and keep readers’ attention. Romance also suffers from some slightly odd dialogue tags sometimes, and you’ll face a balancing act of changing the most egregious ones (people ‘grinding out’ sentences, perhaps) and leaving some of the others. At times, romance novels almost have their own language, and it’s worth familiarising yourself with it before making sweeping changes. At all times, make sure the dialogue is natural and that there’s enough back and forth between characters. Long soliloquies rarely work. Readers want conversations, not monologues.

Pay close attention to things like changing eye colour and hair colour. These things are usually mentioned quite regularly throughout a romance novel, and you would be amazed how many times someone’s appearance changes over the course of the book. Also, keep an eye out for things like contraception not being mentioned or considered by the characters – modern readers expect things like this to be discussed or at least referred to. Sex scenes in general often require careful editing as many authors struggle to write these – and many editors just skip over them or don’t give them the attention they deserve. Editing romance novels means you sometimes have to put your embarrassment to one side and write some quite unusual author queries from time to time!

Keep careful notes of character backstory. Backstory can often be of immense importance (something the protagonist did ten years ago can come back to haunt her later, for example) and it’s important to make sure it’s consistent. Consider keeping a timeline if there’s a lot of going back and forth. That will also iron out issues such as people going to work for seven days in a row or children going to school on a Saturday.

And if you’re editing a historical romance novel, make sure your author has done their research. Historical romances can be great fun to edit, but one written without proper research can quickly turn into a time sink while you check whether words, phrases, and even concepts were commonplace at the time the book was written.

Katherine TrailKatherine Trail is a former newspaper chief sub-editor who now specialises in fiction. She lives in Aberdeen, and when she isn’t editing she can usually be found tramping through the wilderness with her spaniel, Daisy. KT Editing Services

Common problems encountered in fiction editing

When I was asked to write a blog post on common problems encountered in fiction editing, I wondered where on earth to start; it’s such a big topic. Being first confronted with a work of fiction can seem overwhelmingly daunting, especially if you are a newbie, but the satisfaction you get from editing fiction is unrivalled.

Whether you are carrying out a developmental edit or a copy-edit, after a while you see the same problems crop up time and time again – and you begin to realise that if you can catch the common problems the rest will follow.

So here are a few problems that crop up frequently when editing fiction, starting with my favourite first:

Inconsistencies

When you are dealing with a novel, you are bound to come across inconsistencies, and catching them can be quite an art form.

Characters  

If you don’t make sure that things like height, build, hair colour and eye colour remain consistent your readers are going to notice. But if the character has a liking for frequently changing their image, then you need to let the reader know that they dyed their hair, were wearing funky contact lenses or had been on a new medical retreat to add that few extra inches of height.

Make sure names remain the same. You’ll often find throughout the manuscript that the author has spelled the name incorrectly. This is a very common problem – Brian can become Bryan or Bryn or even Brain. Decide on the character’s name and stick with the same spelling, after consulting with the author.

I use a modified Dungeons & Dragons character sheet to keep track of characters in a novel, which I admit is a hangover from my student gaming days. And if you deal with fantasy and sci-fi these are even better, just go ahead and use a Dungeons & Dragons sheet! Or you can use an Excel spreadsheet or whatever takes your fancy. Just make sure you have a way to know your characters by the end of the book.

Staying within character

This can be subtler but is something to watch out for. Rather than enforce a stereotype, stick with the character traits. Would someone who generally behaves in a certain way stray from their normal way of doing things? If they do stray there usually must be a damned good reason, and this can often be the catalyst for the story, but if it’s stated that she hates milk would she put it in her coffee? If she never drinks tea, watch out for her ordering one in the middle of the book. Small things can easily be missed, but I tend to add these to the character sheet.

Also, are the characters interesting enough and are they rounded individuals? If not, you may have to gently nudge the author into a rewrite.

Places

Make sure that buildings and the story settings are consistent and don’t suddenly change appearance. Keep track of where buildings and places are – if the scene is set in a run-down area of town, the narrative should reflect that. If the scene is set in a place that gets little rainfall, would the character really be carrying an umbrella?

If you have a character regularly moving around a room or building it can make sense to draw out an internal layout for yourself – this might stop your character from going through a door that in one chapter leads to the kitchen and in another leads to the bathroom. It may seem like a lot of work, but it all adds to the authenticity and allows you, the editor, to catch mistakes.

Plot holes

Does a character disappear for a cup of tea and never return? Is there a reason the characters move from Central City to the back of beyond? Is the main character’s life journey so thin you can see right through it? Plot holes can be so huge that they don’t need pointing out, but some only appear because there’s something wrong … but you can’t quite put your finger on it. As editors, it’s our job to catch the plot holes – that’s why keeping track as you go along is a good idea.

If you don’t sort out the loose threads of a plot the readers will notice. A good way to do this is to go through and read only the pages dedicated to a certain plot line – this may be enough to have the holes jump out at you. Make sure everything is resolved, and that the plot is believable; even if it’s fantasy or sci-fi, the readers need a satisfying experience.

Practicalities

This can be fun and appeal to your pedantic side, or it can drive you crazy. Keep an eye out for things that pop out at you – for example, will it only take ten minutes to do everything that the character needs to do? Can your character really walk ten blocks in three minutes? Was 15th November 1976 really a Monday? (It was.) And can a helicopter/plane/car/motorcycle really make the journey on one tank of fuel? My favourite example is when the cowboy fires away, bullet after bullet, from an old-fashioned six-shooter, without reloading. When it comes to the practicalities of the story, you can bet that someone, somewhere will notice.

Timeframes

Make sure when working, especially on subplots, that the timeframes match up. If you don’t catch a mismatch your character may end up knowing something before it happened, or before being told. A simple (or not so simple) linear timeline for each character can help – if you know where your characters are you can keep track of what they know or don’t know. Create a calendar for the story if it happens over a period of time.

Point of view, head hopping and tense

A very common problem has the author changing point of view (POV) or engaging in a bit of head hopping. Maintaining POV can be difficult at times, but an editor should be able to spot when the POV changes for the wrong reason. Head hopping is disconcerting as readers are forced to move from one character to another in a scene – it just gets muddled and confusing. If the author really needs to have different character POVs suggest they use them sparingly, for a reason, and don’t have changes in the same scene: save them for different sections or chapters.

Make sure the author doesn’t change from past to present tense and back again; you’d be surprised how often it happens!

The rest

There are so many other problems encountered that are more developmental than copy-editing:

Pace – avoiding that saggy middle and keeping the reader interested.

Plot – is there one or is nothing much happening? What about subplots: are there enough, too many or too few?

Conflict – is there enough to move the story forward? Somebody wants something and strives to get it. Make sure there is enough tension to keep the reader reading.

Voice – the voice needs to be consistent to stop the reader popping out of the story. It’s also a way to catch plagiarism … if the voice suddenly changes be wary.

You might come across some of these problems in your fiction edit or, if you are unlucky, you may get all of them (in which case there are grounds for going back to the author and having a chat about scope and fees). Remember though – changes may have knock-on effects for the rest of the novel, so keep good notes and remember good communication with the author is important.

Sara DonaldsonSara Donaldson is a freelance editor with an eye for a mystery. When not editing a range of projects (mostly historical fiction and non-fiction) she can be found with her Sherlock hat on as a professional genealogist. You can find her on Twitter

 

 

Image credits: Lego Dungeons and Dragons by Marco Hazard CC2.0

Posted by Tracey Roberts, blog coordinator

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.