An American Editor

October 6, 2014

Thinking Fiction: The Mind-set of the Fiction Copyeditor

The Mind-set of the Fiction Copyeditor

by Amy J. Schneider

Before we delve into the details of copyediting fiction, I’d like to talk a bit about the general approach and mind-set that a copyeditor needs to develop when editing novels, short stories, and the like. Although some elements of the nonfiction editor’s approach remain, some adjustments are required.

I’ll start with an anecdote. When I was a greenhorn freelancer in 1995, I pretty much fell into copyediting textbooks, and that soon became my comfort zone. But during that first year, on a lark, I also took a fiction copyediting test (on hard copy!) as part of my application to work for a major New York City publishing house. Sometime later I heard back from the managing editor, who told me that she would like to start sending me novels to copyedit. And (don’t ask me why) I actually argued with her! I told her I didn’t know anything about fiction writing, I had never written anything “creative,” and how could I possibly be qualified to edit someone else’s creation? Bless her, she argued back. She told me that I was exactly what they were looking for — someone who wasn’t a writer and wouldn’t be tempted to put his or her imprint on the author’s work. So I agreed to try. And I’ve been working for her and her colleagues at that same publisher ever since.

So with that story in mind, let’s take a look at the fiction copyeditor’s mental toolbox.

  • Tact. Put yourself in the author’s shoes. You’ve opened a vein and labored over your story to get it just right. You’ve presented it to your writer’s group and gotten feedback, and you revised it some more. After that, your agent and the publisher suggested further revisions. Now it’s perfect, right? Time for copyediting. And you just about feel like you’ve been revised to death. Many authors are extremely sensitive to editing at this point, if they weren’t already. So it’s important that you consider your edits and suggestions carefully. Take care that you are making or suggesting a change for a very good reason, and not just for the sake of change or to impose “correctness” where it is not required; in other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, cast your queries and comments gently and objectively. Nothing is “wrong”; it is “unclear” or it “doesn’t seem to make sense because [give the reason]” or it “may contradict” something elsewhere in the story. Bring possible problems to the author’s attention, explain why they could create problems for the reader, suggest possible fixes if you can, and let the author decide what to do.
  • Respect. Remember that you are not the author, nor are you a ghostwriter. Your job is to help the author tell his or her story, not yours. I remain in awe of the process of story crafting; it seems like sorcery to me. And that is true for a first-time author or an established New York Times best-selling author. It seems to me that a work of fiction must be so much more personal than, say, a textbook. It takes incredible courage to put one’s creation out for the whole world to see. The story, location, or characters may be taken from the writer’s own life. The theme may be close to the writer’s heart. The writer may be taking a plunge, following a dream. If I can find the author’s website, blog, or Facebook page, I look it over. I look at what other books the author has written. Most important, if I can find a photo of the author, I keep it handy so that I remember the person behind the words.
  • Flexibility. Most book publishers follow Chicago style — but because Chicago is intended mainly for use with nonfiction, in fiction editing it’s more of a guideline (being, after all, a style guide; see, for example, Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance). Publisher’s house style may overrule Chicago, and so may the author’s chosen style. House style may specify the first spelling in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, unless the author’s preferred choice is the alternative spelling. The publisher or author may specify correct grammar, spelling, and usage in third-person narrative, but more leeway in dialogue or first-person narrative. (Garner’s Modern American Usage is an excellent tool for understanding variances in usage.) Most difficult of all for the copyeditor with prescriptivist tendencies is knowing when to leave something that is “incorrect” alone. Balancing all of these options can be a tricky business.
  • An open mind. You may be asked to copyedit manuscripts in a variety of genres — some of which may not be part of your personal pleasure reading. No matter; during the time you spend copyediting each book, you must embrace the idiosyncrasies of that genre and the world of those characters, whether you personally like them or not. Of course, if you get to copyedit an author you adore, great! But that’s not always the case. Periodically my clients send me military thrillers — which are definitely not my cup of tea! But while I’m copyediting that thriller, I immerse myself in the terminology of weapons, aircraft, land vehicles, and military rank and protocol. I make sure all the f-words muttered by bad guys and good guys alike are treated consistently. When foreign characters speak broken English, I make sure it stays broken, and in some cases I’ve broken it for them (with a query). Keep a variety of capes in your editorial closet. And speaking of capes…
  • Spidey-sense. Unlike nonfiction, the “facts” of a fiction work are usually not presented in a linear, logical order. There is no table of contents and no index. Story elements are described throughout; a character’s eye color may be mentioned in chapters 3, 4, 7, 13, 18, and 25. And as mentioned earlier, the story has likely been through many revisions, during which inconsistencies may not have been caught, or perhaps have even been introduced. The author may not have a clear grasp of how a certain process works in the real world, or simply may have been caught up enough in telling the story not to have paid attention to such details. A wise copyeditor questions everything. Was this character present in the scene from four chapters ago that she is now remembering? Can you drive from City A to City B in six hours? To steal an example from film, the director of Driving Miss Daisy did research to determine whether a proper Southern lady would eat fried chicken with her fingers. (The answer was yes.) When in doubt, check it out. Keep meticulous notes (which I’ll cover in future essays). Take nothing for granted.

I like to think of the job of copyediting fiction as sanding off the rough edges. The author has done the design and construction; I’m just smoothing and polishing, maybe pounding in a nail that sticks out here or there, maybe applying a little putty where something had to be taken apart and redone. If I’ve done my job correctly, my work is invisible — but it shows off the author’s work to its best advantage.

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.

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