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Standards Communication Task Force

Standards at Work: Fiction Editing

Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards (PES) describe the responsibilities of an editor. The scope of PES is broad; this series explores how the standards apply to a variety of editing contexts.

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Karen Conlin is a freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction and young adult fiction (YA). She does structural, stylistic and copy editing, mostly for self-publishing authors. In 2018 she was awarded the ACES Robinson Prize for excellence in editing. I spoke to her about how PES relates to her work in genre fiction.

“Before I begin a job, I say to the author, ‘Tell me about your story.’ I want to know if they’re doing YA, fantasy, or what. Who are their readers?” Karen’s opening comment on her editing approach evokes one of the first standards in PES: fundamentals of editing standard A2 is “Know the importance of the audience and the purpose of the material.”

Asked about structural standard B2 (“Reorganize material to achieve a coherent structure and sequence, a logical progression of ideas, and a narrative or expository flow”), Karen provides this excellent example: “Two characters in this novel who spent most of the story together ended up separated, like a thousand feet apart, each of them doing what they needed to be doing. The narration went back and forth between them. But at one point it stuck on one for too long, so I lost track of what was happening to the other.” Karen suggested a new, clearer structure for the scene. “I actually used scissors and tape, spreading pages out on the floor, to work it out,” she says. While she usually recommends structural changes rather than implementing them herself, in this case, her hands-on approach “got the author back on track.”

When it comes to stylistic editing, Karen’s motto is “Register matters!” She has presented a webinar and an ACES conference session on the topic of register. Although this term doesn’t appear in PES, the concept is largely captured in C11: “Establish, maintain, or enhance tone, mood, style, and authorial voice or level of formality appropriate to the content and for the intended audience, medium, and purpose.” “We may use different terminology,” Karen says, “but good editors apply the same skills no matter what they call them.”

In fiction, maintaining “authorial voice” is complicated by the inclusion of dialogue. “A really common comment for me to make,” Karen says, “is ‘I don’t hear this character saying this. Would they say X instead?’ ”

Among copy editors on Twitter, Karen is famous for the hashtag #spellcheckcannotsaveyou. She tweets gleefully about catches like “to canvas the area” in a discussion of police procedure (D3: “Correct errors in spelling [e.g., typographical errors, errors arising from homonyms and similar-sounding words].”)

Most copy edits involve style sheets (D9: “Develop a style sheet, or follow one that is provided, to track editorial style and apply it consistently”), but few are as much fun as those of fantasy fiction editors. In one series Karen has worked on, for example, the style sheet reminds her that time in this world is specified not as minutes and seconds but as moments and eyeblinks. And characters never use the word perhaps but always mayhap. “I always do a search to check,” she says. “That may seem minor, but the flavour of the language is so important. You don’t want to do anything that’s going to pull the reader out of the story.” This style sheet, which the author maintains on a Google doc, took on even more importance recently when the author began branching out, publishing short stories set in his world but written by other writers — all edited, naturally, by Karen.

What about you? Have you edited science fiction or fantasy? Other kinds of fiction? What’s the most fun entry you’ve ever made on a style sheet? How do the standards mentioned here apply to your work?


Previous post on the PES: Standards at Work: Memoir Editing.

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3 Comments on “Standards at Work: Fiction Editing”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Nice. It is great to have someone mention that editors look at things like audience, purpose, coherence and flow. Although the bit about searching for «mayhap» is delicious.

  • Karen’s style sheets sure sound like a lot more fun than mine, that’s for sure! ;-p

  • I specialize in S&SF, and one of the key things to look for is whether the world-building makes sense. For example, the hero can’t be a truck driver in a future with self-driving vehicles. And wizards can’t just wave their wands and have stuff happen—the magic system has to have consistent rules and limitations and energy expenditures commensurate with the result, or it doesn’t work. Similarly, a lot of bad SF has a feudal system laid over an interstellar civilization, but social relations arise out of the relations of production which are determined by the means of production, so those have to match. I force authors to go deeper into their world-building to come up with something more original and logically consistent.

    I think each genre has its own internal standards that go beyond what can be contained in the generic standards. If I edit a mystery, I can catch the kind of inconsistencies that are laid out in the standards and so can bring the novel up to a professional level of writing, but there remains the danger I might miss elements specific to the genre–like, not knowing ‘the butler did it’ is a cliché.

    I’m sure as an SF&F specialist, Karen attends to all these elements. I’m just saying we cannot expect generic standards to begin to cover all the picky elements of editing different genres. We have to view the published standards as a starting place, not as the definitive guidebook that can cover every contingency.

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