The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
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!).
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I'm an Advanced Professional Member of the UK's national editorial society.
All text on this blog, The Proofreader's Parlour, and on the other pages of this website (unless indicated otherwise) is in copyright © 2011–17 Louise Harnby. Please do not copy or reproduce any of the content, in whole or part, in any form, unless you ask first.
Author Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). I abide by its Code of Standards in regard to my status as an independent writer.
Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I'm a signatory to its code of practice as a professional editor.
Featured in The Book Designer's Carnival of the Indies: Joel Friedlander's collection of 'outstanding articles recently posted to blogs'.
Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.