An American Editor

September 8, 2014

Thinking Fiction: An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting

Today’s essay introduces Amy Schneider and a new monthly series, “Thinking Fiction,” to An American Editor. Amy’s focus will be on fiction editing and writing. Please welcome Amy as a new columnist for An American Editor.


An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting

by Amy J. Schneider

When I mention that I spend a fair amount of my professional life copyediting fiction, colleagues (especially those who have edited only nonfiction) and laypeople alike are fascinated. Wow, so you earn your living by reading romances and thrillers? Neat! Well, as with all editing there’s a bit more to it than just reading. Nonfiction editors recognize this, but they worry about getting so caught up in the story that they forget to edit judiciously. Or they worry about sullying the author’s creative work. In my contributions to An American Editor, I hope to address some of these issues and share my approach to copyediting fiction.

What Fiction Copyediting Is Not

  • If you are an aspiring or actual novelist, this is not the time or place to try to take over the telling of the story or critique the work. Your job is mechanical only. You may certainly set your writer’s or critic’s hat off to the side and glance at it from time to time as you copyedit, but do not even think about putting it on. A common saying among editors is “It’s not my book,” and this certainly applies when we are copyediting fiction.
  • This is also not the place to apply your own moral code. Unlike in most nonfiction, you may encounter naughty words, unpleasant people and actions, blasphemy, and (gasp!) sex scenes. Your job is to copyedit the narrative and dialogue in all its unsavory glory. You may certainly choose not to accept projects in genres such as erotica or violent military or paranormal thrillers — but once you do, you’re duty bound to edit the text respectfully and keep it true to itself. (Is that term for a sexual act one word or two? Decide and put it on the style sheet. Not every style sheet is one that you would show to your mother.)
  • In fiction, grammar, punctuation, syntax, style, and the like are much more fluid. Fiction authors often use words to paint a picture, create a mood, wax poetic. Characters may or may not speak grammatical English, whether in dialogue or in first-person narrative. If you are a stickler for language perfection, you must retrain your brain a bit when copyediting fiction. Mind, it’s not a free-for-all, and when copyediting for a publisher you need to balance house style against the author’s voice, but you must also be aware of when it’s okay (or even necessary) to break the rules.

Making the Transition from Nonfiction Copyediting

When I started freelancing, my bread and butter was copyediting college textbooks. Very formulaic, strong adherence to rules. So when I started editing fiction, like my nonfiction editor colleagues mentioned earlier, I worried about interfering with the story or offending the author. But really, copyediting fiction is just wearing a different hat. Instead of keeping the text 100 percent in line with the real world, it is your job to ensure that the story is internally consistent within its own world, whether real or fictional. This means checking both real-world facts (are there mountains in Wisconsin?) and fictional ones (which colors of magic stones are sentient and which are not?); errors in either case may interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the story (keeping in mind that authors sometimes deliberately fictionalize locations and other facts for various reasons). If the book is part of a series, ideally the same copyeditor will have handled the series from book one onward to ensure continuity across the entire story arc (I’ll talk about series copyediting in a future essay). Here are some of the things you’ll handle as you copyedit:

  • General style sheet: Every book needs one, and fiction is no exception. You need to track treatment of numbers (e.g., they are usually spelled out in dialogue, but not always). You need to keep a list of abbreviations for both real and fictional entities. How is dialogue punctuated? How are we treating internal thought, telepathic dialogue, remembered speech, handwriting, text messages, and so on? These need to be noted on the general style sheet. Which terms of address are capped (Officer, Detective) and which are not (ma’am, sweetheart)? The author may choose one style or another. Or the publisher may request that the author’s style be changed. Because these choices are so fluid in fiction, you need to note them for each book.
  • Characters: Some authors keep rigorous track of their characters’ attributes — but many do not. Or they make changes but don’t catch every instance. Marcel becomes Malcolm. Julie’s eyes change color from blue to green. Greg is left-handed but wears a golf glove on his left hand (oops — most golfers wear the glove on their nondominant hand). Lee is single and an only child — so how is it that she has a niece? Back when you edited book one in the series, you noted that Claude could read ancient Greek, but now in book three he has mysteriously lost that ability. Time to query!.
  • Locations: Again, you’ll track both real and fictional locations. Cathy’s bedroom is on the second floor, and the walls are painted blue. Sticksville is 25 miles from Cityscape. The tree on the west side of the park is a magnificent oak. And so on. So when Cathy walks in the front door of her bungalow and down the hall to her green bedroom, it’s time to query.
  • Timeline and plot: The level of detail here will vary. Some authors use only vague time markers (a few days later; by spring), if any. Others are more specific, mentioning dates, days of the week, and times of day. You need to note all references to time, whether vague or not: Carlos’s birthday is next month. The Friday night knitting club meets tomorrow (in which case today had better be Thursday). The last mention of time today was nine a.m.; has the action moved along sufficiently that it can now be midnight? I use a Word table that looks like a monthly calendar page to track time-related facts, because that’s how my brain works; it also helps me follow timelines that range over weeks or years, to make sure that six weeks isn’t really three or that it’s not snowing in Minnesota in what should be July.
  • Kid gloves: The most important part of your fiction copyeditor’s uniform is your kid gloves. As I alluded to earlier, a work of fiction is the author’s creative work — the author’s baby. Often there is no clear “right” or “wrong.” Query carefully and tactfully. If wording seems awkward enough to pull the reader out of the story, suggest a revision and explain the reason, rather than making the change outright. (Remember that it’s not your book.) I use the word perhaps a lot when querying: “Perhaps substitute [word or phrase] here, [give reason]?” Couch your queries in terms of what’s best for the story or for the reader’s enjoyment.

In future essays, I’ll discuss these and other topics in more depth. I look forward to engaging with you and getting down to the nuts and bolts of editing fiction.

(For another perspective on fiction editing, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction — AAE)

Amy J. Schneider (, owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.



  1. Welcome, Amy, and thank you. I enjoyed your examples and look forward to your future posts on this subject. I, too, was anxious about editing fiction when I started doing so, but pretty quickly it became simply another project—and often enjoyable. I find the work to be just what you wrote: a job “to ensure that the story is internally consistent within its own world.”


    Comment by Camille DeSalme — September 8, 2014 @ 11:25 am | Reply

    • Thank you, Camille! I hope you find my contributions useful.


      Comment by Amy Schneider — September 8, 2014 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  2. Amy J. Schneider deserves an operatic “brava!” for today’s article on the world of fiction writing. Years ago, a prospective client forwarded an action romance story for review. Yikes! It was a short story consisting of few sentences and the author felt something was missing. Many queries later and after assembling a style sheet, the updated story resembled a book – formatting made a difference – locations matched, characters kept the same appearance and name throughout the story, punctuation was added, conversations were easier to follow, and “romantic” scenes had a sequence. The author won an award for the revised edition and we worked together on subsequent stories. The joys of copyediting fiction are many.


    Comment by JJ Hall — September 8, 2014 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, JJ! Thanks also for sharing an excellent example of how keeping a good style sheet can make a story better.


      Comment by Amy Schneider — September 8, 2014 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  3. Nicely done. I can’t wait to hear Amy expand on her experience and insights in editing fiction when she presents at this year’s Communication Central conference (!


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 8, 2014 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

    • I’m looking forward to it, Ruth! The CC conference is one of the highlights of my year.


      Comment by Amy Schneider — September 8, 2014 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  4. Looking forward to more of this series. Thanks, Amy! Great post.


    Comment by EditCassandra — September 8, 2014 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

  5. Wonderful article. Saving to my ‘read again’ folder. Welcome, Amy, and thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by editingpen — September 8, 2014 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

  6. […] Today's essay introduces Amy Schneider and a new monthly series, "Thinking Fiction," to An American Editor. Amy's focus will be on fiction editing and writing. Please welcome Amy as a new columnist…  […]


    Pingback by Thinking Fiction: An Overview of the World of F... — September 9, 2014 @ 2:42 am | Reply

  7. I once sent in a story narrated by a guy who talked in very long sentences with very informal (but carefully chosen) punctuation to an anthology editor who had requested one and was then very bitchy about it when it was (admittedly, very) late. Later on he had a question and sent me a sentence or two from the proofs. It didn’t look right and so I asked to see the proof of the whole thing. The editor was even bitchier, calling me arrogant and saying that other authors in the anthology were grateful and honored to be included. I said, great, can I see the proof of the whole thing? He sent it.

    The copy editor had repunctuated. The. Entire. Thing.


    Comment by Joel Derfner — September 10, 2014 @ 8:14 am | Reply

    • Joel, how unfortunate! I often receive a note from the publisher about unusual author style and what to watch for, what should definitely be maintained per the author’s preferences, etc. In fact, I’m working on a novel right now where the author has many unconventional preferences that we are maintaining, as noted on the style sheet from a previous book by the same author. Of course, it is also on the copyeditor to sense when unusual choices are deliberate, and/or to query the publisher or author about them. As you might guess, I’ll discuss that in a future column. Not sure when, but I’ll get to it!


      Comment by Amy Schneider — September 10, 2014 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  8. Engaging, helpful, and entertaining. Thank you for this, Amy! I especially enjoyed your examples, showing just how astute one has to be in this work.


    Comment by Paula Sarson — September 11, 2014 @ 3:15 pm | Reply

  9. Welcome, Amy! I attended your webinar on fiction editing and found it extremely helpful. I’m looking forward to learning more from you here. Great idea, Rich. Thank you!


    Comment by Linda Branam — September 11, 2014 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

  10. I am moving from a career in corporate editing for global companies to freelance work, targeting the fiction book business. I read everything I can find on how copyediting works in publishing, and this was a fun and exciting post. Thanks for sharing your insights.


    Comment by nancy carollo — September 12, 2014 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  11. Great post, Amy! Thanks for sharing. I’m definitely bookmarking this for future reference.


    Comment by Shawna Willoughby — September 15, 2014 @ 1:22 am | Reply

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