Editing fiction and non-fiction: a comparison

The purpose of editing any publication, whether standard non-fiction or fiction/creative non-fiction, is to make the corrections needed to ensure the writer’s intended meaning, story and voice, are conveyed as clearly as possible to the intended audience; and to ensure the content is easy to read and engaging so they will read it to the very end of the book.

Certain rules need to be followed when editing a manuscript and these are usually detailed in a “style sheet” for that particular publication, as well as following the “style guide” that the publisher (or self-publisher) has decided to use for all their publications.

But the rules around editing a fiction or creative non-fiction manuscript may be totally different from the style rules that would normally apply to a standard non-fiction publication.

Note: editors should always use Track Changes when editing a manuscript.

Standard non-fiction

Non-fiction  publications are edited according to the standard rules of spelling, grammar and syntax, and punctuation in your country and/or of the publisher. For example, in Australia, the Australian Government Style Manual is the usual style manual, in additional to the style guide of the publisher. The style manual includes some recommendations or other options, in addition to non-negotiable rules, so a style guide and/or a style sheet also need to be used to further clarify the style to be used in the publication.

Editors adhere to the rules and recommendations in the chosen manual unless there is a very good reason not to do so; and any rules for the publication that differ from the rules outlined in the manual need to be detailed in the style sheet for the publication.

The editor needs to prepare a specific style sheet for the manuscript they are editing, that is based on the publisher’s (or self-publisher’s) style guide.

With a non-fiction publication, the editor’s job is to ensure that the chosen style rules are maintained consistently throughout the publication.

Often the editor has to make style decisions but the editor always has to remember this manuscript belongs to the writer and it needs to retain the writer’s voice and style, as long as that style is engaging. The editor must be honest with the writer if the text is not engaging, or clear, in which case the manuscript may need to be restructured or rewritten.

Identifying any structural or style problems that need to be addressed is the job of the editor initially working on the manuscript, who (if they identify such problems) would conduct a structural edit. When editing non-fiction reports or publications for business or government, the editor usually identifies any style  or structural issues themselves, notifies the writer of the problem and how it can be addressed, then (with the writer’s approval) corrects those problems. When editing other non-fiction, the editor may identify the issues and advise the writer how to correct the problems, and the writer may then implement those instructions.

The final stage, the copy edit, is aimed at perfecting the manuscript, so it is clear, engaging and consisent in style, as per the style sheet.

Fiction and creative non-fiction

When editing a fiction or creative non-fiction manuscript, the style rules are often not the same as the rules and recommendations outlined in your country’s style manual. For example, many instructions in the Australian Government’s Style Manual do not apply to fiction or creative non-fiction.

If the publisher or self-publisher has a style guide, the editor needs to follow the rules in that guide regardless of the genre of the publication they are editing. The editor also needs to prepare a specific style sheet for the manuscript they are editing, that is based on the publisher’s (or self-publisher’s) style guide.

Often the editor needs to make style decisions that are subjective and this is where the importance of collaborating with the writer comes to the fore.

The editor always has to remember this manuscript belongs to the writer. It needs to retain not only the writer’s voice but also the writer’s style, as long as that style is engaging enough to keep the audience’s eyes glued to the page. The editor must be honest with the writer if the style, or point of view, or structure, or dialogue language, or plot “does not work” and needs to be changed, so the publication is engaging and clear.

Usually the above major style issues are addressed by an editor conducting either a manuscript assessment, or a developmental edit, where the editor suggests various options for the writer to consider then, based on the editor’s suggestions, do the rewriting and self-editing needed to improve or correct the style, structure or other aspects of the manuscript.

When editing fiction, the editor never does the actual restructuring, major changes to style, or rewriting. The editor’s role is to suggest a range of improvements, so the writer can decide what to do, not make those major decisions for the writer, or do the writing for the writer.

Fiction and creative non-fiction publications may be edited according to the standard rules of spelling, grammar/syntax and punctuation, and the editor  has to follow a style guide and/or style sheet to ensure consistency of voice and style. However, when editing creative writing, it is more important to preserve the writer’s particular style than to ensure grammar, spelling or punctuation are correct. As long as the meaning is clear, the style is consistent, and the style and plot are engaging enough to keep the reader’s eyes glued to the page, the writer’s own style (including unusual spelling, language, grammar or punctuation) is the right style for the publication.

The final stage, the copy edit, is aimed at perfecting the manuscript, so it is clear, engaging and consisent in style, as per the style sheet.

Communicating with the writer

When editing a non-fiction publication, the editor may have one or two initial meetings (or instructional and Q&A emails) with the writer, after which the editor completes the editing task without needing to collaborate with the writer, apart from consulting with them from time to time to clarify or change a style decision.

When the editor comes across text that is so unclear they cannot edit it (as they are not sure of its intent), or a minor issue they cannot edit (such as two separate statements that are contradictory, and the editor does not know which statement is correct), they notify the client about those issues via Track Changes comments.

When editing fiction or creative non-fiction, the editor usually consults with the writer several times during the editing process, and usually places a large number of suggestions or feedback in the “comments” tool in Track Changes, for the writer to read and think about. If stylistic or structural changes are needed, the first edit is called a structural or developmental edit; this may include meetings, Track Changes comments and/or a report for the writer. The writer can then use the editor’s feedback and suggested options to self-edit (including some rewriting) to improve the manuscript to a level where it can be copy edited.

Some editors are more collaborative and communicative than others. Some editors stay in touch with the writer during the writer’s self-editing process, giving them advice or motivating them to continue their writing work. For example, when I complete a manuscript assessment or structural edit for a writer, I always ask them to contact me if they have any further questions, or come across any sticky issues while rewriting or self-editing – that I am there to help, if they need my editorial advice or someone to brainstorm with. Some writers find that post-editing work support helpful.

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

Editing poetry

When editing poetry, the usual rules about spelling, grammar and punctuation absolutely do not apply. The main goal is to assist the poet to ensure their intended meaning (including feeling, emotion, story, epiphany) is conveyed to their audience. This requires close collaboration and some coaching in self-editing.

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

Image: Copyright S W Kane.



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