Editing Fiction: A Short Introduction

I Olsen, Society for Editors and Proofreaders, 2012, 22pp, £5.00 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 95631644 8

Reviewed by Wendy Toole

Buy this guide

Few readers of this review will be unaware of Imogen's expertise and years of experience as a fiction editor. Indeed, there was a time when it seemed that Imogen was the only 'real' fiction editor in the SfEP, as she was the one to whom all queries on fiction-editing were directed via SfEPLine and by whom they were most authoritatively answered. Those days are gone. Today, many members are working as fiction editors, and many more are aspiring to do so. This latest SfEP Guide has therefore been eagerly awaited.

The Guide describes itself on its cover as 'A short introduction' (19 pages of text plus 3 of resources), and in Chapter 1 we are told that it can only offer an overview of what is a very wide area. The main challenges and requirements facing aspiring fiction editors are set out succinctly in this first chapter.

Chapter 2 of the Guide, on working for publishers, outlines a novel's traditional route to publication, and suggests that the copy-editor's role in this is quite straightforward. The client will supply a brief indicating what is required. It's when an editor is working for an individual author that the biggest challenges are met.

Individual authors often approach a freelance editor to help them tidy up their manuscript before submission to an agent, and Chapter 3 contains much advice for authors – including cautions to beware of amateur editors! – that we as professional editors can helpfully pass on. '[M]any novice authors don't realise … that almost every traditionally published novel is the result of a long line of drafts', and the editor's task may be to push the author gently towards a creative writing group or a writing course as a next step, and only after that agree to give their manuscript a final copyediting polish before submission to an agent.

Increasingly, authors will decide to self-publish – no longer merely as a last resort but as their preferred route to publication. It is from this group of authors that many freelances will get their first fiction-editing commissions, and, as there will be no official brief, it is vital that they establish what kind of help the author requires and a budget for the job. It is likely that when working with self-publishing authors the editor will need to take on some degree of structural editing as well as copy-editing, and Chapter 4 describes the various aspects of 'structural analysis' that must be mastered: topics covered here include narrative voice, point of view, pace, dialogue and 'beginning and ending'.

When it comes to copy-editing fiction, the subject of Chapter 5, we are reminded that 'there are no rules' – but there are certain characteristic problems that must be dealt with. The editor will be looking out for inconsistencies of all kinds: of timing (can someone redecorate an entire house in one day?), of detail (do someone's eyes change colour between one chapter and another?), of continuity (was that glass of wine actually a cup of coffee when it was poured out?). The possibilities for such errors are infinite, and the editor has to be constantly vigilant – and should consider making notes and drawing up timelines, just in case.

There are many other problem areas, from repetition of entire passages or omission of events subsequently referred to (these both perhaps resulting from previous self-editing by the author), to similarity of characters' names causing unintended confusion for the reader. Where the novel engages with the 'real world' there may be errors of fact or accidental anachronisms, and on occasion the possibility of libel. Presentation of dialogue and unspoken thoughts can cause dilemmas for the editor too. How should dialogue be punctuated? Are quotation marks essential? Should italics be used to represent thoughts, or reserved for particularly startling thoughts?

The Guide concludes with two brief chapters on creative writing and self-publishing. These are followed by an excellent list of resources, most of which are aimed at authors rather than editors. (An exception is Barbara Sjoholm's An Editor's Guide to Working with Authors, which I have recently purchased as an ebook, as it appears to be no longer available in the 2010 print edition.)

Like all SfEP Guides, this is a very slim volume, and readers may feel a little disappointed that it does not contain a lot of actual 'nuts and bolts' editing advice. But, as the author says on p1, 'fiction editing can't be learnt from a book, any more than writing can'. I would recommend this Guide to editors with some professional training and experience who are new to or hoping to begin fiction editing. If they absorb the author's advice and access some of the valuable recommended resources, they will be in a position to offer worthwhile editorial services.

Reviews of other editorial guides All book reviews