Tag Archives: non-fiction

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.

Wise owls on editing non-fiction

Non-fiction covers a vast array of topics, including music, psychology, architecture, science, and memoirs, and new editors may find learning and following the conventions of non-fiction daunting. Editors will be asked to work with authors who are experts in their chosen field, and you will need to (tactfully!) help them bring structure to their work as they share their extensive knowledge with their audience.

This month, the SfEP parliament of wise owls share their experience of editing non-fiction, including tips on references and style guides, and working efficiently to meet clients’ needs for consistency within an often limited budget.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford

Learn to love references, in all their multifarious glory. I get great satisfaction from making a clean and orderly references list from the dog’s breakfast I was handed. I edit a lot of academic tomes in HSS (humanities and social sciences) and have long realised that there are almost as many variations of Harvard as there are authors.

This is why it’s important to get a clear brief from your client. The publishers I work for vary greatly in how closely they want references to adhere to house style. Indeed, some are becoming more relaxed about it over time, often settling for ‘apply author’s style consistently’. If you are to avoid wasting a lot of time, do talk to your client about how much of your effort they want spent on changing the style of references.

One trick I’ve recently adopted is to make my own sample list of references for each of the variants in the job in hand (such as book, chapter, article, website, grey literature and archive – and some of those will have print and online variants, too). This is particularly helpful if I’m working with the short-title system, where a reference will look a little different in the note and in the bibliography, so my own note of the same reference in both presentations is an efficient way of checking I’m applying the correct version of the style in the right place – far easier than flipping through the pages of a style guide.

Liz Jones

It can seem that editing non-fiction is more bound by conventions, formats and rules than fiction. Whether you think that makes the task easier or harder is all down to personal preference! Often a non-fiction client will supply a style sheet, and even if they don’t they might indicate an established style guide that they’d like you to follow. In this way it can be quite different from editing a piece of fiction, which is much more likely to follow its own internal logic. Remember that the author’s voice can be just as distinctive and important to a piece of non-fiction – they’re still telling a story, even if it’s rooted in fact – so there’s a need to be sensitive and to think hard about what to retain as well as what to change. You might require a certain amount of tact to negotiate changes with the author to help their work conform to the required style, without applying rules slavishly and arbitrarily. Finally, non-fiction is often quite clearly structured, and this can be really helpful to the editor. Tweaking text to better fit the structural patterns that run through it can be immensely satisfying, and might make all the difference to a piece of writing – transforming it into a polished and coherent document that’s ready to be sent out into the world.

Abi SaffreyAbi Saffrey

Whenever I tell someone what I do, pretty much the first question they go on to ask is ‘What do you edit? Fiction?’ When I say that I work in non-fiction – generally economics and social policy – there is slight dismay in their faces. Fiction is the glamorous face of publishing, and non-fiction is seen as its frumpy but reliable best friend.

It’s fulfilling when my knowledge overlaps with the content I’m editing, and I can ask informed questions and add substantial value. When it’s a subject area I haven’t worked in before, I’m exhilarated by learning new things and I’m often prompted to go and read something related for pleasure.

Just as with fiction, it is critical to keep the author’s voice (or brand voice) intact and use a delicate touch to enhance the content rather than interfere with a heavy hand. Non-fiction brings with it tables, charts, diagrams and the mighty references list – they may appear intimidating at first sight but all they need is to be handled gently but authoritatively.

Non-fiction has been my bread and butter for over 17 years and I still get excited when a new project pops into my inbox – who knows what joys (and possibly terrors) those documents hold?

Sue BrowningSue Browning

In my experience, non-fiction publishers rarely have generous budgets, so one of the arts of making a decent living out of it is to master the various tools that can make you more efficient. These include the features available in Word, in particular keyboard shortcuts, wildcard Find & Replace and macros. Many of mine are home-grown, but I also plunder Paul Beverley’s magnificent and generous Macros for Editors. It’s also worth exploring the various add-ins you can get. I regard PerfectIt as an essential, and I also have Reference Checker (sadly no longer supported), both of which save a lot of time and help you produce a more consistent result – something that non-fiction publishers tend to be especially concerned about.

So once the mechanical style aspects have been tidied up and the references thrashed into submission, I can get down to the fun part – engaging with the content and the author. Here I particularly love the challenge of phrasing queries collaboratively (‘Perhaps we could…’, ‘Do you think x would be clearer?’) and sometimes catching the odd boo-boo, usually to the author’s heartfelt gratitude. But oh, the angst of querying a missing ‘not’ – have I completely misunderstood? will the author think I’m dumb?

Editing non-fiction can sometimes be challenging and frustrating, but it also brings the pleasure of working with subject experts and contributing to the spread of knowledge in a small but, I would argue, essential way.

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP