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.


June 18, 2014

The Business of Editing: Walking the Line

On another forum, a colleague raised several interesting questions, ones that we need to address. Ultimately, the questions, although paraphrased below, boil down to this:

Did I cross the line?

The questions our colleague asked were these (as distilled by me; I did not receive permission to quote directly from the message our colleague posted):

  • Because I have years of editing experience, cannot I assume that my edits are always reasonable and correct and that the client — whether author or publisher — should both accept and trust my judgement?
  • Because the client should accept and trust my judgement, is there really any need for me to provide an explanation in a comment?
  • Because the client is free to accept or reject any or all of my edits, is there any reason why I should spend the extra time to add the explanations?
  • What are the limits, if any, to my role as a copyeditor?

Our colleague’s message began with an example of a sentence that our colleague edited. Because I do not have permission to quote the original sentence and our colleague’s alteration, I have mimicked the original and the change:

 Original: “The regime collapsed as a result of a decline in population from misguided birth control policies, the reintroduction of previously wiped out diseases from the regime’s refusal to allow vaccination, and famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production.”

Change: “The political hypotheses for the regime’s collapse include a decline in population from birth control policies, the reintroduction of epidemic diseases from the regime’s antivaccination campaign, and famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.”

The client pointed out to our colleague that the changes were made without any explanatory comment and asked, as an example, for justification for the change from “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.” Our colleague’s justification for describing the farm policies as “Stalinist” was that our colleague just knew it — the information came from her acquired knowledge.

Did our colleague cross any lines? How do we answer our colleague’s questions?

Because I Have Years of Editing Experience…

Unfortunately, this is the approach of many editors. Yet, it is not a valid approach to our job. No matter what the author has written — be it novel, biography, scientific treatise — when it comes to subject matter, the author is expert, even if the author is not.

The role of the copyeditor is not to developmental edit. The copyeditor’s focus is on grammar, spelling, word choice, not on rewriting. Rewriting should be incidental, an occasional occurrence. Under no circumstance should the copyeditor interject their own knowledge except in the form of a query. This is true for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the author who will ultimately be held responsible for the quality of the book. We have discussed this author–editor relationship before (see, e.g., Relationships & the Unwritten Rules and The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners).

More importantly, “I just know” is not something we would accept from an author. We would require the author of a biography to have a comprehensive bibliography, to be able to cite sources for statements given as fact (opinion, of course, is a different matter). Importantly, even if we construe an author’s statement as opinion, we want it to be the author’s opinion, not the opinion of an anonymous editor whose credentials to draw the conclusion are unknown and may be nonexistent.

In the absence of provable subject matter expertise, the editor’s alterations cannot be given the status of “always reasonable” nor can they, even if reasonable, ever be given the status of blind acceptance: Clients should neither accept nor trust the editor’s judgement on items that fall outside the editor’s known expertise or outside the responsibilities for which the editor has been hired.

Because the Client Should Accept and Trust My Judgment…

This was generally addressed above but the question is really about the need to provide explanations. The need to provide an explanation should be unquestioned. Editors are suggesters not arbiters of fact. If a sentence can be better written without changing meaning or author voice, then making the change and asking the author if the change is OK is acceptable.

But it is never acceptable for the editor to add to or substitute for the author’s facts — except by way of comment. I have edited many hundreds of books in my 30 years of editing, including books in my area of educational expertise. Yet, I have made it a rule to never alter an author’s facts; I always query (e.g., “Do you think that the addition of XYZ would better represent your view?” “According to Professor Smith, ABC was caused by poor logistical planning. Do you think it is worth mentioning or discussing here as further explanation of your perspective? See Smith, xxxxx.”)

If I know something is amiss, I try to let the author know something is amiss by commenting. The one thing I am absolutely certain of is that I am not so currently knowledgeable about the topics I am editing that I can infallibly rewrite what the (expert) author has written.

Comments are always justified; uncommented substantive changes are never justified.

Because the Client Is Free to Accept or
Reject Any or All of My Edits…

This is the traditional editor excuse, yet it neglects to address a very important topic: the editor–client relationship.

First, I never think that an author wants to spend hours going over my edits. Deciding whether the change from about to approximately is justified is boring enough but after seeing the change a dozen times, the author soon learns whether such changes can be skipped over (i.e., the author evaluates the editor’s credibility). But that is not true of substantive changes.

Second, I think about the message I send the author when I make a substantive change without explanation. Am I not telling the author that I am the one who should have written the book? And why should the author have to guess at why I made the substantive change? An author will accept that I changed “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies” because three paragraphs earlier the author referred to the “Stalinist farming policies” as the cause of famine and malnutrition, especially if I make the change and include an explanatory note. But the author is likely to be upset by my change in the absence of the explanation and then resistant to other suggestions and changes.

Basically, I see making substantive changes without explanation as an invitation to disaster. With the explanation, I increase my credibility as an editor; without the explanation, I risk angering the author and making the author lose faith in my ability as an editor. I also risk making the author take a “stand-your-ground” attitude toward other editorial suggestions I make.

Regardless of whether the client can accept or reject any changes the editor has made, not providing an explanation for a substantive change jeopardizes the editor’s credibility. Which brings us to the penultimate question:

What Are the Limits, If Any, to My Role as a Copyeditor?

The line between copyeditor and developmental editor is not a bright line. We discussed the roles 4.5 years ago in Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, but the demarcation is worth repeating.

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure, as well as with the accuracy of the subject matter content. It is the developmental editor’s role to suggest other causes of an event to an author and even to rewrite sentences and paragraphs to reflect those suggestions. Yet, even the developmental editor needs to query the author about the changes being made, although such querying may be done more broadly, such as “I have rewritten the next five paragraphs to reflect the discussion of the subject found in chapter 3.”

The copyeditor’s role, on the other hand, is to focus on the mechanics of the manuscript — such things as, grammar, spelling, punctuation, conformance to a style, and consistency. Rewrites should be very limited, often to compact a sentence by removing redundancies or to ensure that, for example, material is in the present tense. It is not the copyeditor’s job to rewrite substantively. At most the copyeditor should suggest a substantive change in a comment.

In the case of our colleague, I think our colleague crosses that fine line that an editor needs to walk. Hired as a copyeditor, our colleague should not have crossed over into developmental editing without including an explanatory comment.

It is not unusual to see negative comments about editors generally. I think these comments come about as the result of numerous factors, one of which is the crossing of the line. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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