The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
Today I'm exploring the differences between fiction and non-fiction editing, and why fiction work isn't for everyone. To keep things tidy, I'm talking in the main about line editing and copyediting because I specialize in sentence-level work, but some of the key principles will apply to developmental fiction editing too.
Why fiction editing is a different kind of artistry
Have you ever tried something for the first time and found it difficult?
Did someone review your initial effort?
Did they outline problems before celebrating your achievement?
If so, how did you feel?
I suspect most of us have encountered this scenario at some time or other. I have, and it feels just awful. A review of anything that focuses only on the negatives – however kindly those negatives are offered – is a poor review.
It matters not whether you’re an editor, a business executive, a marketer, or a parent; if you can’t find a single good thing to celebrate in the work in front of your nose, then you’ve not done the job properly.
When editing fiction, the ability to celebrate first is critical – more so, I think, than with non-fiction. Note that by non-fiction I’m referring to academic, technical and journalistic works, not narrative non-fiction (sometimes called creative or literary non-fiction) such as memoir or biography, where I think the editing challenges are similar to the fiction specialist’s.
In a nutshell, editing criminology requires a different touch to editing crime fiction.
Every writer’s book is their baby, and most writers will infuse their tomes with their own experiences. But when those experiences concern matters of love, grief, sex or despair, the process of writing – and of being edited – takes on a whole new level of intimacy.
I’ve lost count of the number of authors who’ve told me they felt physically sick at the thought of contacting an editor, never mind emailing me the file. Many feel vulnerable, exposed, embarrassed.
And why wouldn’t they? Imagine handing over hundreds, even thousands of pounds to a stranger to look at an image of you and suggest how to make it better – not just any image, mind. You’re naked in this one. For many, that’s what it feels like to be edited.
And so the fiction editor is charged with a responsibility. And it’s huge.
Best versus best fit
Put 10 fiction editors in a room and ask them to work on the same 2,000 words. You’ll likely come back with 10 very different samples. That’s because fiction editing is subjective.
It’s not that the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation don’t apply. It’s not even that they apply less rigidly. It’s rather that they apply differently.
Just a single change to a punctuation mark can affect tension, pace, mood.
One of my regular authors has a mantra: ‘Louise, as always, keep it lean and mean.’ He’s a crime writer. It’s high-octane stuff. Low on adverbs. Low on conjunctions. Short, choppy sentences. The protagonist looks over his shoulder a lot. And if the punctuation is sympathetic, the reader looks with him.
Compare this with another recent project. It’s essentially a love story – a woman’s search for her exiled family. The tale is one of heartbreak, abandonment, reconciliation and redemption. The author’s style is more fluid, prosaic. The protagonist isn’t looking over her shoulder but searching her soul. Every change needs to reflect this.
How I go about reflecting these authors’ intentions will not necessarily be the same as one of my colleagues. It’s not that one of us is better at editing than the other. Rather, it’s how we interpret those intentions – and seek to mimic them – that’s different.
We’re not talking about who’s the best, but who’s the best fit.
That’s something the author must decide. And it’s tricky. How does a writer search for best fit on Google, or in an editorial directory, or on social media? How do they find that elusive emotional responsiveness to their writing?
Gauging emotional responsiveness – the sample edit
Fiction editors don’t have a monopoly on sample edits, but there is, I believe, an added dimension here in which samples really come into their own.
Physically working on a piece of text helps every editor get a sense of the writing style, where the problems are and whether they’re capable of solving them, how long the job will take and how it should be priced.
For the fiction editor, there’s something else, though – the feel of it. It’s our first opportunity to find out whether we can get under the skin of the author. And if we can’t, it might mean walking away.
If we can’t respond emotionally to the author’s intentions – feel our way through the words and into the characters and the world they inhabit – the edit could be impaired. You can’t mimic an author seamlessly if you’re unmoved by what you’re reading.
There’s a lot of talk about authorial voice in the editing world. In fiction editing, the concept can be a tad limiting.
A sample edit has its limitations, of course, by virtue of size. But it gives the author and the editor a glimpse of whether that emotional responsiveness is present and how it’ll be managed on the page such that the fit feels right.
Ultimately, fiction editing is as much about the heart as the head.
The mindful rules of fiction editing
Once the author and editor have found each other, the mindful rules of fiction editing will come into play ... during the edit, and in the post-edit summary or report. Here are mine:
Fiction is a specialism
Fiction editing isn’t for everyone. If you’re keen to specialize in this kind of work, ask yourself where you lie on the empathy scale.
Many specialist fiction editors I know describe themselves as being a little on the oversensitive side. Terms such as introspective or contemplative are never far away. I cry at some adverts, so it’s no surprise to me that I ended up in this line of work! This emotionality can serve the fiction editor well, but it’s not something that can be learned on a training course.
That’s not to say that specialist fiction editorial training isn’t worth doing – far from it. But mindfulness is your friend, too – don’t be afraid to embrace it in your editorial practice!
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.
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