Editing fiction and non-fiction: a comparison

The purpose of editing any publication, whether non-fiction or fiction, is to make the corrections necessary to ensure that the author’s meaning, and voice, are conveyed as exactly as possible to the intended audience.

Rules of editing fiction or non-fiction

Both fiction and non-fiction are edited in accordance with a set of rules and guidelines.

Regular non-fiction

Non-fiction  publications are usually edited according to the standard rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation in your country and/or organisation. For more information about editing documents where those standard rules apply, go to: The different stages of editing.

An editor of regular non-fiction has a kind of “licence” to make appropriate corrections based on the style guide and style sheet, without checking a lot of those suggested corrections with the writer. However, an editor of fiction or creative non-fiction does not have the same licence.

Fiction and creative non-fiction

Fiction and creative non-fiction publications are often edited according to the standard rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation. However, these rules are sometimes waived when editing fiction or creative non-fiction, if this is more appropriate, or required to ensure the author’s meaning and voice and the story being told are clearly conveyed.

The editor still has to follow a set of style rules (follow or develop a style sheet for the piece of writing) to ensure consistency of their voice and style, but those rules may not reflect the usual standards of grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Importantly, the editor’s role in structural or developmental editing needs to be fairly “hands-off” when it comes to decision-making about voice and style. The editor can recommend different options to the writer and explain the pros and cons of these, and the writer needs to think about those options and make a decision. The editor needs to earmark the words, phrases or sections that need to be clarified or rewritten, and explain why, and the writer then needs to do the hands-on work of rewriting. This is because the editor is reviewing or  editing a subjective, not objective, piece of writing.

The copy editor of a fiction or creative non-fiction piece of writing is free to simply copy edit the text according to the style sheet that has been produced for the manuscript.

Communication with the author/writer

When editing a non-fiction publication, the editor usually has one or two initial meetings with the author, after which the editor is usually able to complete the editing task without continual consultations with the writer, although they may need to consult with the writer from time to time to clarify an issue.

In comparison, when editing fiction (or creative non-fiction), it is likely the editor will need to consult with the writer several times, and possibly many times, during the editing process. This is because fiction is subjective. The story may include things that are well-known to the author but which don’t make sense to the editor (or, potentially, the reader). The author may think their character’s dialogue sounds natural; the editor may disagree and suggest some changes. The writer may not have used the usual rules of grammar, spelling or punctuation. The editor will need to suggest the best rules to apply, always with the end goal in mind, which is to convey the author’s intended meaning and voice to the audience as clearly as possible.

For more information about the communication between the editor and the fiction writer, go to: The two basic rules for editing (fiction).

Editing poetry

With poetry, the usual rules about spelling, grammar and punctuation do not apply. The main goal when editing poetry is to assist the poet in ensuring that their intended meaning (including feeling, emotion, story) is conveyed to their  audience. Very close collaboration between poet and editor is required.

For more information, go to: How is editing poetry different from editing prose? and also: Collaborative poetry editing.

Image: thanks to Gellinger from Pixabay.



Back To Blog