An American Editor

August 25, 2014

The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction

What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction

by Erin Brenner

A copyediting student asked me recently how she could learn to edit fiction. The copyediting and copyediting certificate program I teach in covers basic and intermediate skills of copyediting. While it’s a good program, it doesn’t cover everything (no program could). Hence, my student’s question on what to do next.

To specialize in editing any subject, you should have a good grasp of that subject. I participated in a Twitter discussion lately on how much you have to know to copyedit a subject intelligently. We didn’t conclude anything, but we generally agreed that you have to know something about the subject to edit it.

What I know about fiction, I learned in obtaining my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature. At this point, a lot of it comes naturally to me, so I had to do some research on what resources were out there and what other editors did with fiction manuscripts.

Disappointingly, there aren’t many training tools (an opportunity for someone, surely!) and of those out there, few seem to distinguish genre fiction (science fiction, romance, mystery, etc.) from literary fiction (everything else). Naturally, if you want to edit genre fiction, you want to be familiar with the specifics of the genre, as well.

Here’s what I gathered.

Developmental Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Generally speaking, a developmental editor works with the manuscript’s structure, either before the author has written the book (common in nonfiction) or after (common in fiction). It’s the big-picture view.

As a developmental editor, you’re looking for structural and organizational problems. You’re judging whether the author’s concept or theme works throughout the manuscript. Is the structure logical and appropriate? You’re looking at the author’s voice closely: Is it consistent? Appropriate for the story and audience? You’re also looking for sections that don’t work, whether they ramble on or are starved for detail.

Beyond that, you need to look at the various elements of the fiction work:

  • Plot. Does the plot make sense? Does it hold together? Are there any holes?
  • Timeline and events. Is the timeline logical and believable? Do events advance the plot? Build character? Are there any events that don’t add to the story in some way?
  • Setting. Is the setting appropriate for the story? Does it enrich the story or seem at odds with it?
  • Pacing. Different stories have different speeds. Does the pacing here seem to drag? Move too quickly?
  • Characters. Are the characters well-formed and believable? Do they grow, as real people do? How well do characters interact with each other?
  • Dialogue. Does the dialogue match the character? Does it seem believable? Move the plot along? Is there any dialogue that seems mismatched in some way?

Though it doesn’t deal with fiction in particular, Developmental Editing by Scott Norton is the go-to resource for editors wanting to do this type of editing. The Author-Editor Clinic offers online courses in developmental editing for fiction and creative nonfiction.

For fiction in particular, try resources for about literature itself: themes, models, symbols, archetypes, and so on. One promising book (which I haven’t read) is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. It appears to have a good overview that would give editors a working understanding of general fiction. (If you read it, let me know what you think of it.)

If you’re up for a challenge and really want to dig into literature, check out the works of Joseph Campbell and The Nature of Narrative by Robert Scholes, James Phelan, and Robert Kellogg.

Midlevel Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Any time you define editing stages, someone else will have different definitions. One editor’s developmental editing is another’s structural editing. A third editor might see structural and line editing as the same stage, with developmental being its own stage.

Whatever you call this stage that comes between developmental and copyediting, you’ll be doing a line-by-line edit of many of the tasks in the developmental edit. You’ll also look at flow, usage, and sometimes language mechanics.

I couldn’t find any resources for this specific stage of fiction editing. (If you know of any, please share them in the comments.) A trained editor could pick up the skills necessary from a developmental fiction editing resource, I’d wager.

Copyediting Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Copyeditors look at the word and sentence level of a manuscript. Grammar, usage, spelling, and style are all concerns here. So are logic, consistencies, and basic facts.

To copyedit fiction, you should be familiar with some of the basics of story structure, story elements, and character building so that you can edit without harming the story. You need to be alert for continuity issues (e.g., changes in character descriptions) and plausibility. If the story is set in present day, the details should be right. If it’s set in the future or on another planet, the world should follow the rules the author set up. Keep an eye out for possible trademark and copyright issues, too.

Editcetera has a correspondence course on copyediting fiction, and at Copyediting we’ve covered fiction editing in a couple of ways:

  • A fiction-editing audio conference with Amy Schneider. For those who don’t know, Amy works as a freelance copyeditor for the big publisher, and authors regularly request her (translation: she really knows her stuff).
  • The April-May 2013 issue of the Copyediting newsletter. This issue contains several articles on fiction editing, including one by Amy on the style sheet she developed for editing fiction. I’ve used the style sheet; it’s fantastic.

As I said at the beginning, a lot of what I know about fiction I internalized a long time ago. What other tasks do you think are particular to fiction editing? What resources do you use to obtain the skills necessary? Share your thoughts below!

(Starting in September, you can read more about fiction editing in Amy Schneider’s monthly column.—AAE.)

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.



  1. About 90% of my work is fiction these days, and the type of editing I apply is directed by the client, be it publisher or indie author. Thus, I’m often in the position where the work needs a developmental edit but the budget only covers a copy edit. As has been discussed on many forums, this is hard to swallow sometimes. I’m managing it by focusing my work on the five C’s: editing for clarity, consistency, and choreography, and inserting comments/queries re: content and concept where applicable.

    A lot of authors are great at storytelling but weak in writing mechanics, so this approach lets me keep the time and cost down while giving the author some direction to improve the work if they so choose. If not, then at least the book is in good physical shape when it gets submitted or published.

    Many times I suggest the book Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. This how-to guide breaks storytelling craft down to its basic components and shows how to recombine them into successful tales. Since the majority of my clients are interested in commercial success, the craftsmanship tools provided can really help them. The book has helped me a lot as both writer and editor. It takes a more mechanical than literary tone, but the elements of storytelling are universal.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Carolyn — August 25, 2014 @ 5:20 am | Reply

  2. Thank you for a most timely article as I prepare to outline my book on self-editing BEFORE you send the manuscript to an editor. Self-editing is no substitute for an editor, but can reduce your costs. I totally get what Carolyn is talking about. I work 100 percent with Indie authors, who are on a shoestring budget. What is the most common question I hear: What type of editing levels are there and what do they involve? Some want the world for copy editing rates but, unfortunately, reaching for the moon doesn’t work with my bottom line. So, I copy edit with a lot of comments. Thanks Carolyn for the tip about Techniques of the Selling Writer. Will definitely check that out.


    Comment by Darlene Elizabeth Williams — August 25, 2014 @ 6:29 am | Reply

  3. […] What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction by Erin Brenner A copyediting student asked me recently how she could learn to edit fiction. The copyediting and copyediting certificate program I teach in cov…  […]


    Pingback by The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to ... — August 25, 2014 @ 6:54 am | Reply

  4. This is an excellent post! I know a lot of editors who would welcome more resources on copyediting fiction. Chicago is an excellent guide—but not comprehensive or even on the mark sometimes for dialogue, foreign terms, and special treatment of words in fiction.

    Re: a resource for line editing, “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King is an excellent start for learning to line edit genre fiction. And for recommending to authors before an edit!


    Comment by Kyra Freestar — August 25, 2014 @ 11:35 am | Reply

  5. Don’t forget that Amy Schneider will be presenting a session on editing fiction at this year’s Communication Central conference (Erin Brenner will also be presenting, on a different topic)! Laura Poole’s Copyediting Intensive on the day after the conference, at the same location, probably also will be useful for people interested in editing fiction. Details are at, and the deadline to use the early-bird rate has been extended to August 31.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 25, 2014 @ 11:55 am | Reply

  6. The Author-Editor Clinic ( has some very good online programs for developmental editing. SavvyAuthors is for authors, but it’s a great place for classes on plotting, pacing, dialogue, etc. ( Also, see if the genre in which you are interested has groups (and classes). I work mostly in the crime fiction genre and there are tons of books geared specifically toward mystery writing (and even editing). Writer’s Digest is another good source; they have many good books and webinars.


    Comment by Lourdes Venard — August 25, 2014 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  7. […] another perspective on fiction editing, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction — […]


    Pingback by Thinking Fiction: An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting | An American Editor — September 8, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply

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