Copy editing is a profession full of rules and guidelines. The first rule of editing? The rules don’t always apply.
That no rules rule especially affects editors working with fiction. Colleen Barry in her “Ask Copy Curmudgeon” blog addresses this dilemma in her Friday post: http://askcopycurmudgeon.com/2012/11/09/the-irrelephants-of-style/#comments.
Because the Copy Curmudgeon doesn’t edit much fiction, she invited some fiction editors to help her address a question about when to allow a fiction editor to break all the rules. I was happy to pass along my two cents and grateful to be included in the blog.
Although I’ve worked with far more nonfiction than fiction, just this week I completed copy editing a novel from Phil Ward’s Raiding Forces series. Roman Candle (coming soon!) is the second of Ward’s WWII historical fiction, military adventure novels that I have edited this year. So I had some ideas fresh in my mind when Barry asked for responses to a question about fiction editing for her Copy Curmudgeon site.
My advice to Curmudgeon readers—and anyone else who might be wondering about editing fiction—is “ask, don’t tell.” Trying to impose a rigid set of style rules or even standard grammar and spelling can get an editor in trouble with an author who has carefully chosen when to step outside of normal standards to make a particular point. Of course, the tricky part is trying to decide if the author intended to break a particular rule or if the misspelled word or inappropriate vocabulary choice is a typo or simple error.
Asking instead of changing in such cases provides an opportunity for an editor to gain an author’s trust. A well-written query will let authors know that you respect their work and appreciate why they might have chosen to deviate from the norm. Setting up such a query allows an author to say, “Please let it stand; that’s the meaning I was looking for” or “That’s not what I meant to do. Please correct.”
Either way, authors are likely to be grateful for your attention to their work and appreciate that you willingly put their choices above any dictionary or style guide rules. And once you’ve built up some trust, you may have more leverage to explain when you think a rule should not be ignored.
My advice was just one small piece of the Copy Curmudgeon blog. Check out the post to get great insight from several editors about the art of editing fiction.