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Joint presentation outlines fiction editing

by Paul Anderson

Catherine Hill and Nicola O’Shea delivered a joint presentation on editing fiction at the Editors NSW monthly meeting on 3 November 2020. 

Big picture

Nicola begins working on the manuscript before it is submitted to a publisher. Early-stage editing focuses on big-picture elements and she uses a checklist. Structural feedback is provided to the author in a well-organised report and/or notes in the manuscript file. Some editors offer suggestions to resolve problems whereas others prefer to outline the issues and leave it up to the author. The key thing is to communicate clearly what your particular editorial process involves — what the author will get for their money. Editors require knowledge of the publishing market and need to be widely read (including books about fiction craft). Good communication skills, tact and sensitivity are necessary when suggesting changes. Authors may be drawing on personal experiences and can be protective of their writing.

Catherine complemented this approach with an overview of editing in a publishing house, starting with acquisition and allocations. In-house editors at Penguin Random House (PRH) work on fiction and non-fiction, usually about seven books a year. Normally, the publisher does the structural edit; the editor is then responsible for the manuscript from its second draft until it goes to print.

Structural and copyediting

Nicola suggested ways to approach a structural edit for fiction:
  • Read the manuscript in one sitting if possible.
  • Note anything that jumps out as an obvious problem, such as missing scenes.
  • Note things that work well, such as beautiful imagery.
  • Leave the manuscript — allow time for cogitation (communicate initial thoughts to your client where applicable).
  • Read the manuscript in much more detail.
  • Identify the main points you want to focus on in your report — the key themes.
  • Build on what is already in the manuscript and offer a range of solutions when suggesting revisions.
  • Be specific in your feedback and link to examples in the manuscript.
  • Structurally edit your report for clarity and tone. Include positive feedback for balance. Remember the author still has ownership of the manuscript.
  • Copyedit and proofread to finalise your report.

When copyediting, Catherine also makes notes on a first read-through before line editing: issues can be caused in the rewrites after the structural edit. She précises each chapter and maps timelines. A rigorous style sheet and awareness of the presiding style guide are vital. 

Catherine presented extracts from two copyedits, side by side, which indicated non-fiction editing may be more hands-on (more author queries) than fiction. Editors must be mindful and not impose changes as fiction is more complex, creatively. When the work on the page is done, check your comments. Correct if too tentative, high-handed or mean. Re-read, imagining you are the recipient.

What authors, publishers are looking for

The big thing authors want to know, according to Nicola, is will the manuscript be published? Editors cannot guarantee this and must make that clear up-front. Authors are looking for insight into what is working and what is not. The editor’s job is to get the manuscript to a level ready for submission to a publisher or agent. Provide honest feedback, professionally, rather than talk around problems. Explain the editing process: how it adds value to a manuscript. Have a website, provide sample edits. PRH do most of their work in-house and look for editors who are good project managers, communicators and team players — people keen to hone their editing skills over those whose real interest is commissioning.

Training, how to find author clients

Nicola listed several sources of professional development opportunities (IPEd branches, Writing NSW, Australian Publishers Association) and some creative suggestions on how to find author clients:
  • your local writers’ centre
  • websites like Reedsy, IPEd’s directory and local library
  • editing groups on social media
  • offer a free manuscript assessment in exchange for a testimonial
  • offer feedback on a short extract (3000 words) for a set fee as a primer towards a full commission.

Catherine concluded with some publishing highlights from the year to date — 2020 has been surprisingly strong, especially for Australian fiction. Year-on-year sales have generally been steady and online sales have increased, so covers must work better than ever on-screen and metadata has to be first rate. This performance reflects the resilience of novels and the brilliance of our authors helped by their editors.

Catherine Hill has been an editor of fiction and non-fiction for more than 20 years. She started her editorial career in London, at Orion and then Little, Brown. She has worked in Australia since 2004 and is now Managing Editor of Penguin Random House.

Catherine Hill

Nicola O’Shea started editing fiction in-house at HarperCollins Publishers Australia. In her freelance career, she edits for a range of mainstream publishers, and works directly with authors to help them prepare their manuscripts for submission to agents or publishers, or to self-publish. She has taught editing at UTS and Sydney University and since 2017 has run an online structural editing course for fiction.

  Nicola O’Shea

Nicola O’Shea’s list of ‘fiction craft’ books

Bell, James Scott, Revision and self-editing for publication: techniques for transforming your first draft into a novel that sells (2012)

Browne, Renni and King, Dave, Self-editing for fiction writers: how to edit yourself into print (2004) (covers topics such as point-of-view, show – don’t tell, dialogue mechanics, characterisation, interior monologue)

Grenville, Kate, Searching for the Secret River (2006) (a ‘writing memoir’ about the creation of her novel The Secret River)

Lamott, Anne, Bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life (1994)

Lyon, Elizabeth, Manuscript makeover: revision techniques no fiction writer can afford to ignore (2008)

Maass, Donald, Writing the breakout novel (2001)

Weiland, K M, Structuring your novel: essential keys for writing an outstanding story (2013) and Outlining your novel: map your way to success (2011)

Wood, Charlotte, The Writer’s Room: conversations about writing (2016) (interviews with Australian and New Zealand writers about their craft)


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