Fiction Freelancing: Part II – Editing Fiction for Independent Authors (Ben Corrigan)
The Fiction Freelancing series presents the individual experiences of editorial freelancers working on the genre of fiction within both the publishing sector and the independent-author market. Here in Part II Ben Corrigan focuses on editing for non-publisher clients. Ben has been a freelance proofreader and copy-editor since 2009. Prior to that he was a proofreader for Yell and a TV-listings writer and sub-editor. He lives in Bristol. You can contact him via his website: The Whole Proof; and on Twitter: @thewholeproof.
Other posts in the series cover proofreading for trade publishers (Part I; Louise Harnby), editing adult material (Part III; Louise Bolotin), and editing genre fiction (Part IV; Marcus Trower).
As a freelance proofreader and editor with a passion for fiction, I consider myself extremely fortunate whenever I have the opportunity to work on poetry or prose.
Independent authors might approach an editor or proofreader for a number of reasons. In my experience, a significant proportion are thinking of sending their work to an agent or publisher and want to make sure the manuscript has been polished before they do so. I have also worked with authors who are planning to self-publish their work, or who have already self-published and want the next edition to be free from mistakes; who are intending to enter their writing in a competition; and who are curious about what an editor will bring to their work.
I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, graduating in 2008. The MA was a challenging, occasionally terrifying, and always inspiring experience. I would do it every year for the rest of my life if I could, because if you are passionate about writing, then being able to write, to share your writing with other writers, and to talk about writing week in, week out, is an amazing way to spend your time. As a colleague of mine said after the course, you really felt, for that year, as though you were a writer.
While I do not think that you need to be a writer to be an editor of fiction, the course taught me two important lessons: first, how to be a better reader; and, second, how it feels to receive feedback on your work. I can remember all too clearly how I felt the first time my writing was workshopped. I had not really shared my writing before then, and to have it subjected to such close scrutiny was bizarre. I understand that, whatever your subject, writing is extremely personal and an extension of yourself, and I try to keep that in mind whenever I am editing fiction, and to be sensitive when suggesting changes.
In the vast majority of my work with independent authors, my role has been as a copy-editor, or has covered the area between copy-editing and proofreading that Louise mentioned in her post. To date, I have not worked with an author who has wanted a structural edit. I have found that authors are generally happy with their story and are more concerned with the nuts and bolts of the writing. Naturally, having a clear brief before starting out is a must. For longer pieces, I will always offer to provide a sample so that the customer can see the kinds of changes and suggestions I might make.
My own approach to copy-editing when working with independent authors is to intervene as little as possible. Unless they have stated otherwise, I will assume that the writer is happy with what they have produced. This might seem self-evident. But it is important to be aware of how easy it can be, when editing, to start imposing your own style. For instance, I am aware that I am quite fond of commas. Where commas are preferential, I will prefer them. This may not be in line with the author’s style, and may not be appropriate for the writing. Of course, we all have our preferences, and that is one aspect to be conscious of when copy-editing. Does the writing have three or four semi-colons in each paragraph? Do you keep noticing the same adjective or the same expression? This kind of repetition might have been employed for effect, but if you are certain it hasn’t, you might feel you can improve the writing by varying the style. Any verbal or grammatical tic that might distract a reader, and break their suspension of disbelief, is worthy of consideration while editing.
The layout of the document can be a thorny issue, and is best discussed with the client. Poetry is a separate case, but for fiction, I will encourage an author to adopt a traditional layout that is easy to read: double spaced, a simple font (Times New Roman is fine), with paragraphs indented and with no spaces between them. (I use Word 2007 and do not understand why the default setting is to have a space between paragraphs … But that is a gripe for another time!) It helps to have an understanding of how fiction is (more often than not) presented: for instance, how to indicate a break in a chapter. The author might not know, and you can therefore help to bring clarity to a story by making the right changes.
In this regard, the layout of dialogue is probably the most demanding area when working on fiction. Louise made the important point of authors choosing to break with convention, and there are many ways to present and indicate dialogue: inverted commas, quotation marks, em dashes, or no punctuation at all. Cormac McCarthy is a good example of a writer who prefers not to use punctuation for dialogue. He is skilled (together with his editor, perhaps!) at making sure that, despite the lack of punctuation – and thus no obvious distinction between action and dialogue – there is no confusion over who is speaking and when. Whatever style the author chooses, an understanding of how to present dialogue simply and clearly, so that there is no doubt about which character is talking, is a must. This can be a particular issue if there are more than two characters in a scene. If I can’t follow the conversation, I will flag the offending lines for the author to clarify if they wish.
Character consciousness can also be indicated in a variety of ways. I have just started to read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, in which thoughts are presented in the same way as speech. This is perhaps unusual and old-fashioned, but is it wrong? ‘This is how to present character consciousness,’ he thought. This is how to present character consciousness, he thought. This is how to present character consciousness, he thought. I think these are all valid ways to present a character’s thoughts. The important point is to ensure a consistent approach has been taken.
I might look to sharpen up the writing by cutting out words that are redundant. An author may use multiple adjectives without realising that two are synonyms, for example. Similarly, adverbs can be abused and overused and are an element that I will sometimes be more ruthless with. If I was being pressed – which I am not, but this is my first blog post, so I am going to be bold and tell you anyway – I would say that the words most commonly (over)used by budding authors of prose fiction are ‘quickly’ and ‘slowly’. I think they are often employed to bring urgency to the writing – even in the case of ‘slowly’, which seems to be trying to add some drama to whatever action is being described. These kinds of words can be used once too often, in which case I will look to intervene and draw the author’s attention to the repetition.
There are of course basic aspects to editing fiction, such as ensuring characters’ names do not change inexplicably and that the action and description are not contradictory or unclear. I think there can be a certain mindset involved in carrying out a line-by-line edit – where you are looking closely at each sentence and the way it works – which may not involve seeing and understanding the bigger picture of the story and the way it unfolds. Louise highlighted the danger of enjoying proofreading fiction too much, and getting lost in the story. I don’t think this is such a problem when copy-editing fiction. In fact, I think the opposite might sometimes be the case, and the problem is that you don’t get lost in the story enough, and therefore fail to see holes and inconsistencies. Depending on the nature of the project, it can be helpful to read the text more than once so that you have a full appreciation of the setting, the characters, and the story.
In some cases I might go deeper into the writing and consider issues such as point of view (if the writing is in the third person). Point of view can be subtle and tricky, and I don’t want to go into it in too much detail in this post. I will say that it is generally more common for contemporary writing, when written in the third person, to take a close or limited third-person point of view, rather than an omniscient one. That means the action is seen from one character’s point of view. Authors might adopt this for the most part but slip into the points of view of other characters, turning a limited point of view into an omniscient one. If this is a mistake rather than deliberate, intervention may strengthen the writing. I might also look to move action into the moment, if possible, or at least suggest this as a possibility. For instance, a passage that begins ‘I often went to the shops’ might be more powerful if it can be turned into concrete action: ‘I went to the shops.’ This kind of intervention can involve significant rewriting and is best discussed with the author.
Freelance editing can offer up a great variety of interesting work, and, to me, fiction is the best example of this: always unique and never a chore. In a selfish sense, writers can also be a good source of repeat work! If you can develop a good working relationship with an author and perhaps bring something extra to their writing, they are likely to come back and use you again. Having gone through the process of working with an editor myself, when producing an extract for the MA anthology, I can testify to the virtues of having another set of eyes look at your writing.
I will end with a quote from a writer to an editor (the editor of a newspaper, I understand; the writer is Raymond Chandler): ‘when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.’ The method – ‘eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive’ – sounds to me like a sound one to adopt when editing fiction, too.
Copyright Ben Corrigan 2012
Have you copy-edited fiction for independent authors? If so and there's something you want to add about your own experiences, please let us know in the Comments section.
3/6/2012 04:32:38 am
Interesting from the point of view of a beginner proofreader who has also written a novel (and shares Ben's fondness for commas!). I do think dealing with POV slippages is quite far into editing territory, and probably further than I'd fancy going if working on a self-published author's work. Very helpful piece - thanks.
3/6/2012 04:48:41 am
Hi Sue - yes, it's definitely something I wouldn't do as a proofreader. I wouldn't even know where to start, actually! I was particularly interested to get Ben's input in this series because of the contrast with my kind of work in this field. I love the flow of his writing, too!
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