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.

October 1, 2014

What a Tale We Tell

Editing is intended to provide the polish to a story. Cicero gave three reasons for telling a story: “to teach, to please, to move.” Although these are not all of the reasons to tell a story, they do form a sound foundation for telling of all types of tales. Editors take the rough tale and polish it so that the tale does teach, please, and move a reader.

As has been noted many times on An American Editor, editing is a craft. One cannot simply hang out a shingle and magically have the skills to change carbon to diamond. Editors sharpen their skills with each manuscript they work on. How well we polish a manuscript tells a lot about how good an editor we are.

We all are familiar with those books that blatantly boast of poor editing. Yet some of those badly written and even more badly edited (assuming they were edited at all) manuscripts sell well. Why is that? It is because the consumer/reader has been poorly educated and doesn’t recognize dreck when she reads it. (It is also because them author has connected with readers regardless of whether the book is editorially perfect.)

And it seems that things are getting worse, not better. Increasingly, I find editors lack the fundamental skills needed to be editors and business people — they lack both the editing skills and the business skills, a very deadly combination — but they do have one very important attribute: They can be hired cheaply.

And therein lies the tale of editing.

Editing probably began with contracts and disputes over contractual terms. Two people without advanced authorial skills probably wrote and signed a contract and discovered when brought before a third person that what they thought they had written, they hadn’t. As the need for clear expression grew, so grew the editorial profession. We may have been called other things, such as scribe or lawyer or priest, but whatever we were called, our role was to bring clarity to chaos.

Over the years, greater skillsets were needed and editors rose to the occasion. We were among the educated classes, and in those eras, class stratification ensured that editors had distinct skills. Not anyone could be an editor.

Then came the shift in philosophy. No longer were classes based on education. Education became free and universal. Everyone who wanted to be an editor had the opportunity to learn the necessary basic skills. The original editors had to learn every task and skill intimately and had to have mastery over language; there were no electronic aids to provide a crutch as a foundation.

The twentieth century became the great leveler; education became universal. What counted was how much education an editor received and the editor’s grasp of language and vocabulary. The editorial eye had to be sharp because there wasn’t a tool available that could point out misspellings or wrong usage except the editor’s eyes and brain.

The late twentieth century brought a revolution to the special status of editors. First came grade inflation — everyone got an A for effort. Then came personal computers with squiggly lines beneath alleged misspellings. The combination of these two at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries finally leveled the ground to a perfectly flat line. Editing became a profession of whoever wanted to be called an editor; elitism was destroyed.

Amidst that destruction one hoped that editing would suffer a rebirth, have a phoenix moment, but that is not what happened. Instead, the bane of civilization occurred — a worldwide recession. With it came job losses, yet people still had bills to pay and food to buy. Combine the Great Recession with the greatest equalizer of all time, the Internet, and a deadly cocktail for professional editors was born — the door swung wide for the exponential growth of the numbers of editors.

With that growth in numbers of editors came competition for editing assignments. Competition was done on the only known basis for competition: price. Every publisher, regardless of size and including the self-publishing indie author, wanted lower costs, which meant that hidden services, like editing, suffered greatly. Yet, surprisingly, the number of editors didn’t decrease — it increased. So, editors began competing on price.

The more editors competing, the lower the price. Ultimately, the price became a drag on the profession. Increasingly, professional editors struggled. Increasingly, there was author dissatisfaction with the quality of the editing received. Interestingly, an increasing number of book reviewers noted poor editing.

Editors are on the brink of becoming commodities. The link between professional editors and quality editing is being stretched thin — so thin that eventually it will break.

I know that many AAE readers will read this and say this is not true, this isn’t happening to them. They are still both important and relevant to their clients. But if you look at the broader picture and try to see down Future Road, you will see that the walls within which lies the editor’s craft are being assaulted and weakened by the ease with which one can hang out an editor’s shingle that says “open for business.”

We need to write a different ending to this tale while the ending is still in flux. Professional editors need to support more stringent educational standards so that upcoming workers have the intellectual skills and exposure to be good editors. As noted in earlier essays, we need to support and advance certification and education for editors. We need to sell ourselves to the publishing industry as necessary and needed participants in the production process. We must make the case for the differences between professional and amateur editing. Above all, we must believe we are relevant and proclaim it.

We need to absorb some lessons from accomplished authors. The diligence that goes into an author’s telling of a tale is waiting to be learned by editors for application to the editorial process. We need to make sure that the story we tell about professional editing teaches the value of editing and professional editors; that the tale is told in such a way as to capture the imagination of publishers and authors; and that there is a pathway to move from amateur to recognized professional.

In the continued absence of telling our story, our profession will continue to decline. Our standards will become ever more lax and our income ever lower. As that occurs, our skills will decline. Ultimately, future clients will see no need for professional editors; future clients will do as nonprofessional editors do — run spell check and call it editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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