Do you ever wish you could edit novels? No matter whether it's a good old-fashioned romance, a high-octane thriller or a sci-fi romp – you just want to get your teeth into some fiction.
But instead, here you are – editing user manuals. Or textbooks. Scientific papers. Cook books. Dissertations. CVs. All because you can't edit fiction. You don't know how. Your skills don't transfer. You can't handle the creative nuances. You just know you'd mess up the author's vision. You're simply not cut out for this.
Or so you keep telling yourself. But what if I told you that you don't need some innate kind of creative instinct to be able to do this? That editing fiction is a skill you can learn?
Well, it is – and it's easier than you might think. Here's what you need to know:
The different types of fiction editing
In an ideal world, a fiction manuscript will go through three stages of editing: macro, sentence, and proofreading.
A macro edit will look at the big-picture components of a manuscript and assess how good the story is and how well it’s been told. Manuscript critique and development editing fall into this category.
Sentence-level editing addresses issues at, well, the sentence level. This category includes line editing (sometimes called substantive editing) and copy-editing. Line or substantive editing looks more closely at the artistry of the sentences with the aim of improving the writing; copy-editing looks more at the mechanics of the writing, with the aim of correcting the punctuation, grammar and spelling and addressing inconsistencies in style.
Proofreading is the last level of quality control, designed to make sure no errors have slipped through after the previous stages. It's the final polish.
How to break into fiction editing
Copy-editing and proofreading are the easiest gateways to fiction editing because they focus more on addressing the mechanical issues rather than the stylistic ones. If you’re an experienced editor in another field, you’ll find that it’s fairly simple to transfer your technical editing skills to fiction editing.
The main thing to keep in mind when copy-editing or proofreading fiction is that there’s more scope for ‘rule breaking’. It’s important to remember that style guides and conventions of grammar and punctuation are guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules that must be obeyed.
Use your judgement to decide whether the author hasn't followed convention for effect or because they simply didn’t know a particular guideline. And if the author writes in a slightly unconventional but consistent way (which doesn’t impede the reading experience), unless you’ve been asked to address the issue, you can let it slide.
Special issues to address when editing fiction
Novels contain long narratives, so when editing fiction it’s critical that you keep track of not only technical details (such as whether the author prefers the serial comma), but certain story details too – those of consistency, logic, time and point of view.
Consistency: Using a style sheet that includes lists of each main character’s details will help you spot that David has blue eyes in chapter three but green eyes in chapter seventeen.
Logic: Be alert to plot details as you edit. How has Jasmine just switched on the television when she’d stormed out of the room three paragraphs ago? How is it that Zach knows what clouds are when he’s lived his whole life in a dystopian underground city?
Time: Create a basic timeline of events as you edit. This way you’ll be able to spot whether a two-hour drive accidently takes all day, or whether a week accidently has two Mondays in it (God forbid).
Point of view: All novels have a narrator in one form or another, and the perspective through which the narrator is experiencing the fictional world is known as the point of view. Good novels use point of view consistently and for effect. If the point of view jumps from one place to another in a jarring or illogical way, this is called ‘head hopping’ – usually a result of an author not fully understanding (or slipping up with) point of view. As a fiction editor, you should keep an eye out for this issue and correct it (or flag it up for the author to address) where necessary.
How to become an informal expert (and why this helps)
Perhaps you don’t feel fiction is your expertise. However, I bet you love reading novels. You probably have a favourite genre, too, and have devoured hundreds of books. Your love of a good story might seem like just a hobby – but it’s likely you’ve subconsciously absorbed a lot of knowledge.
To become a better fiction editor, you simply need to go one step further: read more books slowly and analytically. Pay attention to the nuances of language, the rhythms of sentences. Why did the author choose to put that comma there? What effect did it have? Why did they use this verb over another? You’d be surprised how much you can learn by observing and thinking.
And you can go another step further than this, too: read books about novel writing. That way, your editorial decisions will be grounded in the same guidance and information as the writer’s decisions. I recommend Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan to start.
Why you should specialize in fiction editing
I don’t recommend that you add fiction editing to your existing editing business. If you target vastly different types of client – such as fiction authors and technical writers – you’ll find it difficult to build a cohesive brand and focus your marketing. (Though I do think the exception to this rule is if you want to offer proofreading to multiple types of client, since the skill is so transferable – just look at Louise’s awesome brand!)
Choosing a niche will help you be seen as a specialist – and that's important. Being a specialist means you’ll attract more clients and be able to charge them more. You might think you’re excluding a huge number of potential clients, but in fact the opposite is true. Instead of competing against every other editor, you’ll stand out to your target client – who is presumably searching for things like 'science fiction editor' or whatever your chosen niche is. If you want to work with novelists and fiction publishers, who do you think they will be more likely to hire? The editor who edits anything for anyone, or the specialist fiction editor?
If you’re not satisfied with your existing specialism (or you don’t even have a specialism) and you think fiction editing could be for you … Why not go for it? Try it out. You could even build up a separate brand and test the waters before deciding to become a full-time fiction specialist. You’d be surprised at how deciding to focus your business increases your confidence – and make you see yourself as a specialist, too.
How I can help you become a fiction editor
If you like what you've read so far and are interested in venturing into fiction editing, I have just the thing. I run a six-week online course specifically designed to help people build fiction-editing businesses from scratch.
Each week I provide a new set of information, instructions and assignments (which I give personalized feedback on). By the end of the course you’ll be that much closer to your editing dreams – and may even be ready to go right off the bat!
Head on over to StartFictionEditing.com to learn more (and grab your free introductory module!).
Over on my column for Rich Adin's An American Editor blog, I take a look at the business of proofreading – in particular, how new entrants to the field might benefit from visualizing the tasks related to business growth as a wheel rather than the more traditional to-do list.
To read the article in view, go to: 'The Business of Proofreading: Taking a Long and Interconnected View'.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour. She is also the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, and Omnibus: Editorial Business Planning & Marketing Plus.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
PerfectIt is my go-to editorial software when I'm copyediting and proofreading in books Microsoft Word. Here's why I think you should use it ...
Needless to say, this review only scratches the surface – to understand all of the tests and checks that PerfectIt can do for you, you really need to get stuck in and play with it.
I’m not going to use this article to provide an instruction manual for how to use PerfectIt – the developer, Daniel Heuman, has provided plenty of guidance on the Intelligent Editing website and a stack of video tutorials on the Intelligent Editing YouTube channel.
What I will do is highlight the new features that I find most useful when proofreading and copyediting for those clients who want me to work directly in Word. Readers who are specialist copy-editors or who have different client groups may well have different preferences.
Disclaimer: I have a PerfectIt licence and am a long-time user of the software. However, the developer has not asked me to write this review, nor have I been remunerated in any way for doing so.
The views expressed herein are mine and based solely on my experience of using PerfectIt on a regular basis.
What is it?
For those readers who are not familiar with this software, PerfectIt 3 is a sophisticated consistency checker. By customizing its built-in style sheets, or creating your own, you can define your preferences and let PerfectIt locate variations and possible errors.
Note: PerfectIt is not compatible with Macs. If you’re a Mac user, you’ll need software that specializes in enabling Windows applications to be run on a Mac (e.g. VMware Fusion or Parallels).
What's so brilliant about PerfectIt 3?
There are two reasons why I fell in love all over again.
To get the best out of PerfectIt, you must tell it what you want it to do. That does mean launching one of the style sheets and taking the time to look at all the various options (and there are a lot).
In my early days of using PerfectIt, I didn’t do this. The result was that I didn’t get the most out of the software because it was ignoring inconsistencies (or flagging up false positives) that I'd marked as not relevant, when the opposite was true.
It isn’t that PerfectIt wasn’t working properly, but rather that I wasn’t.
Here are two examples:
There’s a developer summary of all the new features and improvements of PerfectIt at ‘What’s new in Version 3’. The following is a brief overview of what I love the most.
PerfectIt 3 allows you to harness the power of wildcard searches using exactly the same terms that you’d use in Word.
I love this feature because it means I can work more efficiently – I don’t have to run a set of find/replace searches in Word and then go and do a bunch of other stuff in PerfectIt. I can consolidate all my wildcard searches in one place, which saves me time.
Example: one of my clients has a house style that asks for comma separators in four-digit numbers (e.g. 2,999), but fixed spaces in five-digit (and above) numbers, e.g. 12 999 or 112 999. In Word, the wildcard search is:
I can add those exact same instructions into a PerfectIt style sheet, customizing it via the Wildcards section in the Style Sheet Editor. Then, every time I use that style sheet, PerfectIt will test for the pattern in red and adjust the comma to a space.
Note that you can tell PerfectIt to always use comma separators (or alternative renderings) but the wildcard search comes into its own when your house style asks for inconsistency (as in this example).
As my colleague Sarah Patey wisely pointed out, wildcard searches in Word can be problematic when Track Changes is switched on. Word doesn’t always behave itself! However, PerfectIt seems to handle wildcard searches with TC rather better.
Missing brackets and quotation marks
This is a gem for those of us who work on academic projects with lots of brackets (e.g. author/date citations or quoted matter) and those of us who proofread and edit fiction (e.g. dialogue).
To take advantage of this function, launch PerfectIt, select your preferred style sheet and click on the Tests in the sidebar to activate the dropdown menu. Then select ‘Tests and Options’, choose ‘Formatting’ and make sure that ‘Brackets and Quotes Left Open’ is checked.
The debate about whether the Oxford comma is useful or unnecessary rumbles on in the world of words. No matter – editors and proofreaders often find themselves instructed by their client to use it or bin it (except where enforcing the preference would lead to a lack of clarity).
PerfectIt allows you to set a preference either way – just make sure the test is checked (it’s in the ‘Formatting’ section mentioned above, and that you’ve actually set the preference.
To tell PerfectIt what to do, click on ‘Edit Current Style’ on the top ribbon, choose ‘Settings’, scroll down to ‘Oxford (Serial) Commas’ and make your choice.
If your client has insisted that a particular word is italicized (or not), you’ll love this function. PerfectIt already has a built-in list of words that can be styled, but you can add your own.
Here’s a quick example: some clients want [sic], some want [sic] and some don’t care as long as it’s consistent. In ‘Edit Current Style’ on the top ribbon, select ‘Italics’. Then choose an existing word or add your own.
You can then tell PerfectIt whether it should be italic, Roman, consistent, or italic at first use only. This is one of those functions that really does save time if you work on lengthy academic texts.
Here, again, PerfectIt 3 enables us to harness the power of Word’s styles palette. You can set your preferences for several different heading levels, e.g. sentence case, initial caps on significant words, upper case, or all initial capitals.
As with the italics check, this is particularly useful when working on academic books and theses.
Additionally, those who regularly work with clients who have a specific house style that explicitly defines how heading levels should be formatted (e.g. journal article editors) will love this too, regardless of the length of each individual project they’re working on.
Dashes and non-breaking spaces
These searches are my final wow tools! If, like me, you regularly work on documents riddled with hyphens that should be spaced en dashes or closed-up em dashes, or you want to ensure that all those space-separated numbers and measurements are not going to end up falling over the cliff, you’ll adore this function.
Again, these are issues that can be corrected using Word’s find/replace tool, but being able to consolidate the searches within the PerfectIt platform is simply another time-saver.
The fewer programs I have to use to get high-quality consistency within the framework of my client’s brief, the more time I save and the better my hourly rate.
A few final comments
One of the big plusses of PerfectIt is its stability. Despite the fact that it’s often asked to work on very large Word documents and check a tonne of stuff, it doesn’t crash.
This was true for older versions, and PerfectIt 3 is no different. For me, this is important – I feel confident when I’m using it.
I also think US$99 for a permanent licence that never expires and permits me to upload PerfectIt onto my laptop and desktop for no extra charge is great value for money. However, I do want that US$99 to offer me a product that’s fit for purpose. PerfectIt 3 is.
If you’re someone who’s reluctant to use software to complement your beady eye, I’d urge you to try this. I don’t say this within the framework of one of those human-vs-machine arguments. Rather, it’s about time.
Even if your eyes are so beady that you will spot every single hyphen that should be an en rule, every double space that should be a single, every missing closing quotation mark, every comma in a large number that should be a non-breaking space, every Mrs. that should be a Mrs, every heading with initial capital letters that should be in sentence case, and so on, using a program such as PerfectIt enables you to make all of those hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of changes more quickly.
That’s something that can’t be argued with – it’s a fact that PerfectIt works faster than my hand, so why would I not reduce the likelihood of eyestrain and RSI by getting it to do the donkey work?
The faster I work to bring high-quality consistency to my clients’ files, the sooner I can get down to the business of actually reading the text word by word and line by line, for sense and context.
The more efficient I am, the better my hourly rate. Increased efficiency means I can accept more projects from more clients because I have more time.
I want my business to be profitable. I want my clients to be thrilled with the quality of my work, so much so that they retain my services. PerfectIt is one tool that enables those two ‘wants’ to sit at the same table with ease.
Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader & Copyeditor, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
If you're an author, take a look at Louise’s Writing Library and access her latest self-publishing resources, all of which are free and available instantly.
'Louise uses her expertise to hone a story until it's razor sharp, while still allowing the author’s voice to remain dominant.'
'I wholeheartedly recommend her services ... Just don’t hire her when I need her.'
J B Turner
'Sincere thanks for a beautiful and elegant piece of work. First class.'
'What makes her stand out and shine is her ability to immerse herself in your story.'
'A million thanks – your mark-up is perfect, as always.'
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