Over the last year and a half, I’ve written several articles about finding editors. We’ve talked about knowing what kind of editor we need, how we can identify a good editor, how we can evaluate sample edits, and how we each need different things from editors.
One important issue that Carradee (our guest today) brought up in the comments of some of those posts was the difference between non-fiction and fiction. Many writers write both fiction and non-fiction (even if the latter is just blog posts), but the two types of writing require different skills—from authors and from editors.
The better we understand the differences, the better we can follow the right rules at the right time, and the better we can judge whether an editor is skilled in the right areas to be a good editor for us. While some of the skills that make an editor “good” will overlap between fiction and non-fiction, not all of them do.
To help us be a better judge of “good,” I asked editor Misti Wolanski (also known as Carradee) to share with us some of these differences. This is a long post, but she brings up more issues than I ever could have imagined, so I didn’t want to cut a bit of it.
Even if the only non-fiction we write is blog posts, it’s still good to be aware of these differences so we’re not accidentally following blog-writing rules when writing our fiction or vice versa. So please welcome Misti Wolanski! *smile*
What Is “Good” Editing?
Most folks—and even most editors—will give you some answer along the lines of “grammatically perfect” or some longwinded spiel that may or may not make sense. The trouble is that editors are limited to the skill levels of the writers they’re working with, plus there are so many different types of editing.
A high-quality editor of one type might do a horrific job if required to do another type—or an editor who usually works with writers who already know grammar might not be as adept at working with writers who need to be educated about grammar.
This malleability of the definition of “good” applies across all types of writing, for various genres, audiences, and mediums. Thus why “good” editing can be so hard to define.
Even fiction and nonfiction have a multitude of differences from within themselves and between each other.
But despite those facts, there actually is a simple way to define “good” editing, a way that covers all possible permutations:
“Good” editing improves a piece of writing’s ability
to do what the author intended it to.
Sometimes that means dropping the adverbs. Sometimes that means stripping the voice out. Sometimes that means leaving a few intentional typos because that brings greater customer satisfaction overall.
(That last one has been verified as true by big-ticket marketers, by the way.)
But various types of writing have their own specific tactics that work for those types of writing and not others, so how’s a writer or editor to know what to look for?
There are three parts to what an editor looks at:
- Nonfiction vs. Fiction STRUCTURE
- Nonfiction vs. Fiction CONTENT
- Nonfiction vs. Fiction GRAMMAR (& SPELLING)
All three have their differences, and then the grammar in particular has its own nuances based on if you’re using US style or non-US style, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Nonfiction vs. Fiction STRUCTURE
Structure matters no matter what you’re writing. Structure is your cause-and-effect. Cause-and-effect is needed for reader comprehension and must generally be in order. (You can hop around some, but if you do, it has to be with purpose and with sufficient signals to the reader that you’re hopping out of order.)
No matter what you write (or say), the progression of what you convey must be logical.
But the intent of that logic—the entire foundation that determines which cause-and-effect you need to focus on—will vary depending on what you’re writing.
Have you ever read an easy-to-follow recipe? Then you’ve experienced good nonfiction. Have you ever heard a good joke that made you laugh out loud? Then you’ve experienced good fiction.
Nonfiction arranges the purpose in logical order, with consideration for story.
Each data point—each thesis, supporting argument, and supporting piece of data—has to connect to the ones surrounding it and to the overarching purpose of the work. Nonfiction authors who get distracted into focusing on the “story” aspects of their writing produce writing that is far too broad in purpose to be ideal for any audience, and such nebulous focus can even make it fall apart.
The overarching purpose of a recipe is to enable you to make the item described, so everything in a recipe is designed with that in mind. The “story” of a recipe is the process of how to make the item described, getting you to picture yourself making it. The most effective recipes accomplish both tasks, but only the first is necessary for the recipe to work and work well.
Fiction arranges the story in logical order, with consideration for the purpose.
Each part of the story—plot, characters, description, dialogue—has to connect to the parts surrounding it and to the overarching intention the author has for the story. Some (though not all) authors also consider their intended purpose, message, or themes for the story, but that does not influence the structure nearly as much as the story does.
The overarching intention of a joke is to tell an amusing sequence of events, so everything in a joke is designed with that in mind. The secondary purpose is to make the hearer or reader feel amusement, so details might be rearranged or skipped in order to promote that response. The most effective jokes accomplish both tasks, but only the first is necessary for the joke to work and work well.
The purpose behind your structure need not be clear at a glance, but that’ll affect your target audience. If your goal is to entertain or educate readers who just want to escape reality for a while, a convoluted logic trail is not what you want to write; whereas if you want to encourage people to think, some variation in the logical order can be useful.
(This difference in structure and effect is one reason it’s difficult to be an “all of the above” type of writer. Being fantastic at one type of writing doesn’t mean you can shift mindsets to be able to organize another type.)
What if a recipe didn’t tell you to separate the egg white and yolk until after it had told you to add “half the egg” to the recipe?
What if the “Eats, shoots and leaves” panda joke quoted the “badly punctuated wildlife manual” before the panda eats, shoots up the restaurant, and leaves? That would break the order of the story and destroy the humor.
Nonfiction vs. Fiction CONTENT
The difference between fiction and nonfiction content is easier to explain than you might think.
- Nonfiction explains (tells) something.
- Fiction illustrates (shows) something.
You can have explanations in fiction and illustrations in nonfiction, but those are secondary in the overall piece of writing.
So when editing nonfiction or fiction, what you focus on isn’t exactly the “nonfiction vs. fiction” aspect. What you focus on is explanation vs. illustration.
Rule #1: Learn to Define Your Terms
- Nonfiction Is Explanation:
Define your terms explicitly.
Many an argument happens because both parties define words differently and don’t realize they’re saying the same thing (but with different words) or saying different things (but with the same words).
Whenever there is a reasonable likelihood that some of your audience will not define the word the way you want—such as when one word has multiple meanings that could be applied to your context—then it’s best to give your definitions. It doesn’t matter if you “obviously” couldn’t possibly be meaning an uncomplimentary interpretation—unless your context precludes that other interpretation, you are saying that uncomplimentary interpretation, along with the one you intended.
For example, “He cleaved the couple” could mean “He separated the two of them,” “He spliced the two of them,” or “He cut the two of them up with a meat cleaver.” You have no way of knowing which I meant from the line itself, and the context doesn’t clarify things.
I don’t have to define “explanation” or “example” in this blog post because I’m using standard words and standard definitions, with a context that limits what I could be intending them to mean; but including definitions would not have been remiss of me.
- Fiction Is Illustration:
Define your terms implicitly.
Particular words mean specific things to you, especially for the context in which you use them, and you have to include enough on the page for the reader to be able to follow what meaning you’re intending to use. If you define everything outright, then you’re explaining in the middle of your illustration, and it breaks your illustration; but if you set up your illustration so the definitions and such all fit together, you’ll show your reader what the terms mean in context.
For example, you know the person who loves telling jokes but stumbles over the parts and explains them to death? That person is getting too caught up in the explicit aspects of the joke and missing what can be conveyed implicitly, by word choice and timing, and therefore has turned an illustration (the joke) into an explanation.
Word choice and timing apply in all illustrations, stories included.
Consider “He cleaved the log in two” (one log gets split in two) vs. “He cleaved the two logs into one” (two logs get spliced to produce one) vs. “He went at the log with a meat cleaver” (…don’t think I need to clarify this one). The phrasing in each of those sentences indicate what you mean with “cleave”.
Rule #2: Learn When to Focus on Consistency or Creativity
- Nonfiction Is Explanation:
Keep things consistent.
Any changes in word choice actually affect the meaning of something. If you use “wide” and “broad” to refer to the same thing, you’re changing the terms and therefore indicating there’s a nuanced difference. Definitions are huge.
Changing your terms in the middle of an explanation is the equivalent of taking a recipe and deciding to “vary it up” by sometimes referring to the cup measurements as their equivalent in tablespoons. How confusing (and frustrating) that would be!
The same confusion would apply if I every so often replaced “explanation rules” in this post with “rules of exposition”. Even though I would mean the same thing, the very change in terminology would indicate I was referring to something else.
Therefore, for the sake of clarity, terms need to be consistent within paragraphs, within sections, and within entire works. Make use of pronouns and sentence structure to avoid excessive repetition—but where explanation is concerned, repetition isn’t quite the villain folks tend to assume it is, because as stated in Rule #3…
- Fiction Is Illustration:
Keep things creative.
Too much consistency gets stale—and that applies to words, sentence structures, paragraph styles, and all sorts of features beyond mere word choice.
Even in illustrations, changes in word choice still affect your meaning, so you have to consider the logic when describing something, but you can’t stick to the same ol’ normal, else nobody’s going to respond how you want. You need enough consistency to be comprehensible, but enough variety to catch others’ attention.
This balance is why some people can’t tell a joke for the life of them—they have too much consistency, and things progress how you expect them to. Much of humor derives from the unexpected.
Therefore in illustrations, things need to vary—but not too much—within paragraphs, within sections, and within entire works.
It’s a tough line to walk, and it tends to work far better when writers they “play it by ear” (trusting the subconscious or muse) rather than try to use this tactic intentionally.
Rule #3: Learn When Repetition Helps or Hurts
- Nonfiction Is Explanation:
Well-timed repetition helps a person learn. Repetition can also convey emphasis or act as a reminder.
This is why consistency of terms, even when it results in repetition, is not in itself a bad thing. Nonfiction isn’t a trail of hints leading up to a main point. Nonfiction is a path leading the reader to the main point, so it should have more memory aids than fiction does.
Repetition can certainly be overused, but so can any other aspect of writing. You may notice I’m not starting every single sentence and paragraph the same way, but my overall structure for each of these points displays intentional parallelism—which is a form of repetition—and I also have kept each “rule” about the same length as its counterpart, which is a form of consistency.
- Fiction Is Illustration:
When repetition appears in an illustration, the listener or reader starts filling in what they already know from before, and the illustration loses its poignancy and interest for the audience.
Repetition of the selfsame illustration fast gets boring. Variants on that illustration can work, but that still can’t be repeated too much. What’s far more effective are independent illustrations that each give a different view of the same thing, or modifications of illustrations to emphasize and show different things.
You know that person who keeps repeating the same joke and getting upset or disappointed when it isn’t as funny when retold?
When you repeat the same illustrations, you’re being that person.
Rule #4: Learn When Summaries Help or Hurt
- Nonfiction Is Explanation:
Core of most effective nonfiction are the introduction and conclusion, which are summaries of the main point that you want the reader to pull away from your writing. This gives the reader a broad idea of what’s coming, so they can have the framework in which to put what you’re about to tell them. (“Topic sentences” for paragraphs do the same thing, on a narrower level.)
In recipes, the “summaries” are the ingredient list + the end result. Chefs can look at those two things and judge if that item is what they’re looking for, and then read the rest of the recipe as needed. (This is one reason good multi-part recipes have subheaders for the individual sections—a baker might want to follow a cupcake recipe but use her own recipe for the frosting, and a well-designed recipe will make clear which ingredients and instructions are specifically for the cupcake and which are for the frosting.)
- Fiction Is Illustration:
Summaries are innately explanations. (“I’m about to tell you…” etc.) That means they tell the reader what’s going on, rather than showing it—which can be useful, but it isn’t how you illustrate anything.
Illustrations show things.
Illustrations innately progress in time as the words, sentences, and paragraphs continue onwards. (This why reports of events fast get incoherent when the person telling the story can’t tell the story in a linear or nearly-linear fashion.)
Therefore, in an illustration, if you say, “She apologized,” you have completed that action. She apologized—that’s done! If you say that and show her apology—ex. “She apologized. She shrugged sheepishly and said, ‘Sorry.'”—then she’s apologizing twice.
(This is a more common issue than you might think.)
So, now that I’ve given the “big picture” differences between nonfiction and fiction, it’s time to move to the “little picture”:
Nonfiction vs. Fiction GRAMMAR (& SPELLING)
Before I delve into this, I should first mention that US and non-US grammar differ, too. Some punctuation can be utterly different (mainly for dialogue, dashes, and “complex” sentences) and some spellings differ (mainly for compound words, certain suffixes, and some technical terms.) As an added complication, some prepositions and other words aren’t used quite the same way nor mean the same thing between US and non-US English.
(So that thing you read that had the wrong quote marks on all the dialogue and the wrong size dash and spelled “focused” as “focussed”? It wasn’t wrong.)
Some words can even be spelled properly more than one way in a single form of English. (“Judgement” and “judgment”, anyone?)
Despite all that, there are a few items that are more generally distinctions between nonfiction and fiction, insofar as US English is concerned. Can you use fiction grammar in nonfiction and nonfiction grammar in fiction? Some, yes.
See, it’s normal for publishers to have “house styles”—lists of what they prefer on specific items of grammar and spelling that have more than one “correct” answer. The house style helps them be consistent.
Feel free to make your own house style, but make sure you write it down. That’ll help you stay consistent throughout your work, both for your own editing and for your editor’s editing.
A good editor, though, should know which items are variable. If they don’t, then make sure they at least know the defaults for what you’re writing—and if they don’t even know that much, you’ll probably be best served by another editor.
It isn’t exactly a fiction/nonfiction distinction, either. See, US English has developed two main sets of grammar rules: the ones for journalists (designed for the limitations of newspaper columns), and the ones for everyone else. (Some fields, like lawyers and academics, also have their own rules, but those are generally an expansion of the “everyone else” rules rather than an outright contradiction.)
So what are the items that, in US English, specifically flag what someone’s background is?
Item #1: Spacing around Dashes
Journalism puts spaces around dashes — as I have done in this sentence. Everyone else doesn’t, unless it’s part of their specific house style.
Note: Some folks use the spaces around the em dash specifically for e-book formatting, because you can make the first space what’s called a “non-breaking” space, which keeps the dash from being able to hang out by its lonesome on a line when the text is resizing for the reader.
Outside of the US, the shorter en dash (–), not a hyphen, can be used instead of the usual em dash (—). En dashes generally get spaces around them. Note that hyphens (-) are a completely different punctuation mark and are never a dash.
Item #2: Serial Comma (a.k.a. Oxford Comma)
This is the comma before an “and” on a list of three or more items. Journalism doesn’t use it. Other types of publishers generally do use it, with exceptions again being due to their specific house style.
Note: The key factors are consistency and clarity. Either method might be clearer, depending on how you write. People argue that the comma should not be before the “and” because commas mean “and”—but that’s actually untrue. Commas in lists are for listing parallelism, which is lost if you omit the serial comma. Consider your writing and decide which option suits you better, then note it on your style sheet.
Outside of the US, this comma is commonly omitted in informal writing but still used in some formal circles.
Item #3: Capitalization Rules
Beyond the main rules for what gets capitalized when, there’s one noticeable difference between the usual handbook for US English (The Chicago Manual of Style) and the one for journalism (The AP Stylebook): Do you include the “the” as part of a title when it’s in a sentence? General rule is that you don’t. (As you may have noticed, my personal house style is to be consistent with whatever the actual title is.)
Note: The easy way to do this:
- If quoting someone else’s title, is it capitalized in the original reference? Capitalize (or not) accordingly.
- If you are trying to figure how to capitalize your own title, lower case any articles (“a”, “an”, “the”), conjunctions, and prepositions unless one is the first word of your title.
Item #4: Spelling
Some words—especially compound words—have different spellings depending on the context and what reference you consider most important, even within US English.
For example, both Merriam-Webster and The Chicago Manual of Style lists indicating how some words are spelled and capitalized. Sometimes they contradict each other (example: “copy editor” [M-W] vs. “copyeditor” [CMS]). Even in normal, run-of-the-mill publishing, you have to decide which reference you want to trump or which specific spellings you want to use each time.
Specific fields also have their own preferred dictionaries. For example, psychology tends to prefer the American Heritage dictionary. The aforementioned journalism reference, The AP Stylebook, also has its own spelling preferences.
Note: Consistency is key. And for compound words, usage can trump the dictionary spellings. (This is why I chose to use the spelling “bookbag” in my novel Destiny’s Kiss, even though there’s technically supposed to be a space in there. Common usage indicates that it will, eventually, be one official word.)
So ultimately, the question is less “Am I writing nonfiction or fiction?” and more “What am I writing and why?”—and then the types of writing inside that determine how it’s edited.
Either way, “good editing” is editing that helps the writing be what you want it to be.
What do you want your writing to be?
About Misti Wolanski, her editing services, and her writing craft book:
I learned to read at an early age and devoured every piece of writing I could get my hands on—cereal boxes, dictionaries, Ernest Hemingway, the entire Bible, Moby Dick, my mother’s psychology textbooks…
Mom stopped encouraging me to read, after that last one.
But at that point, the damage had already been done: I’d developed a fondness for identifying gaps between what people say and what they intended to say.
Bridging this gap (between what is intended and what’s actually on the page) is what I do, even when proofreading.
If you just want someone who will assume you haven’t made any typos and that you of course know the different meanings indicated by “a” and “the”, I’m not the editor for you.
If you’re just looking for the cheapest possible editor who actually knows grammar, I’m not the editor for you. (I’m far from the most expensive editor out there, but I do charge more than a lot of editors who make the assumptions I refuse to.)
But if you know how to write and punctuate things and just need a polish (by someone who’ll flag potential oopsies and typos), or if you want to learn more of what you need to know to become that kind of person, then I might be what you’re looking for.
Thank you, Misti! I knew there were differences between the two styles of writing and editing, but I had no idea those differences went so deep into the actual structure of writing.
Of course, now that you mention them, it all makes sense in hindsight. But sometimes we need information placed in front of us to trip our awareness, and that’s exactly why this post is so helpful. *smile*
Do you write non-fiction (including blog posts) and fiction? Were you aware of these differences? Did you know to be aware of the different non-fiction vs. fiction skills when evaluating editors? Do you have any questions for Misti?
Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”