On 11 December 2021, PEG held an online workshop, attended by 30 wordsmiths, on the subject of editing the genre of fiction. It was also the pretext for officially launching PEG’s latest guide, Editing fiction, authored by Máire Fisher and Nella Freund, with the assistance of PEG’s Isabelle Delvare.

At least 60% of those present were attending to learn more about the genre and its particular demands, not having dipped their toes into such waters before and wondering if it’s for them. A small number of the participants identified themselves as seasoned fiction editors hoping to pick up some useful hints and tips.

Role of the fiction editor

The event began with a presentation by seasoned fiction author, editor, reviewer and trainer of editors, Izak de Vries. He gave an overview of the editor’s engagement with fiction texts, using the metaphor of a pair of sunglasses to illustrate the appropriate type of involvement: sunglasses remove the glare and enhance the text by bringing the author’s words and images into their correct focus. Says Izak, ‘The editor enhances and gently takes away.’ But that then raises the questions: What should be enhanced? and What should be taken away? The answer is: What is best for the story and the reader’s enjoyment.

How does one go about doing so? Well, as Izak says, first by remembering that it is the author’s work, not yours, so query aspects of the text that you believe can be improved carefully and tactfully. In a nutshell, remember that ‘Kid gloves are the most important part of your uniform.’ An apt image that!

Traits of a fiction editor

Echoing Izak’s sentiments, fiction and memoir author Brent Meersman spoke of the traits or qualities of a sound fiction editor. These are: capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, full of goodwill, and able to propose solutions for an author to consider implementing. He added, from his personal experience of working with editors (and sometimes as an editor himself), being frank and honest, having a keen ear for tone, and being a reputation-saver! And, of course, being thoroughly conversant with the genre: if you want to edit crime thrillers, romance or sci-fi texts, for instance, you must understand those genres thoroughly and have read widely in them. Specialisation is therefore important if one is to do justice to an author’s text.

A fiction editor’s personal experience

In addition to these two presenters, PEG member and specialist fiction editor Lexi Lawson shared with us her personal experience of working with several authors of fiction (many of them happy repeat clients). Goodwill certainly features prominently in her practice, as do sensitivity and sensibleness. In her interventions, Lexi focuses on developing good, respectful relationships with her authors, while at the same time, to quote one happy author, she has a ‘unique ability to both encourage the good bits and come down hard simultaneously on the sentences that deserve a good shaking’. Ultimately, she puts herself in the shoes of her readers in order to polish the text to a level that will sound authentic to them.

Lexi’s process is first to read through the entire manuscript fairly quickly to gain that all-important overview of setting, plot and characterisation. Then she prints out the text, which enables her to read it in the most comfortable and conducive of places possible. Pencil in hand, she annotates the manuscript liberally, also making notes in a dedicated notebook as she proceeds. Notes about names, spellings, descriptions, word usage, and other ‘Things to check’, as she titles them, are made to enable her to detect inconsistencies of setting, characterisation, etc.

Lexi also draws up a style sheet to ensure consistency of the ‘mechanics’ such as spelling, punctuation, word usage and so on. Her notes and questions are then transferred to the Word document in the form of comments and tracked changes – which she illustrated during her presentation. After one final read through her edited version (with track changes off) and correcting where necessary, she feels ready to hand the completely edited text back to her author, having had numerous exchanges with them during her reading and editing, as a way of getting inside the author’s head, or their imaginary world.

In her role as editor, engager with the author and improver of their words with the reader’s expectations in mind, Lexi performs what Izak described as the role of mediator between many players – author, readers, even publisher, reviewer and, ultimately, bookseller! That’s quite some onus, yes, but if you know your genre, you clearly can make all the difference, reputation-saver!

The morning’s presentations included many useful references to PEG’s Editing fiction guide, which is available in both digital and print editions. To order your copy, visit https://www.editors.org.za/peg-guides/.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About John Linnegar

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.