A Novel Approach to Editing


In general, editing a work of fiction involves allowing more flexibility and variation in wording than the standard type of editing that is used for non-fiction documents. As works of fiction, short stories and novels often contain idiosyncratic language and usages which would, in an essay, newspaper article, research paper, letter, or other type of non-fiction writing appear to be incorrect.

For starters, since short stories and novels almost always include dialogue, both exterior and interior, and since conversational language does not always adhere to the rules of written usage, the editor must ignore what appear to be errors. Here is an example of dialogue which includes non-Standard English from Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty:

“Lord, it ain’t been dry yet,” Pea said. “It’s rained aplenty.”

Notice that, despite the fact that the dialogue contains variations from Standard English in terms of the use of “ain’t” and “aplenty,” the punctuation and the tag (Pea said) are correctly written. Punctuation and proper designation of tags are essential in all works of fiction. (However, all bets are off when it comes to poetry. Language in poetry can range from Standard English to the bizarre. It can be edited only for style and appeal, not for adherence to Standard English.) Proper spelling should also be used, even in dialogue. However, there are times when an author wants a character to mispronounce words or to use inappropriate words or speak in a dialect. In those cases, those altered words should be written in italics and/or spelled out phonetically so that the reader understands that they are variations from the usual spelling. In the following example of the use of dialect from Hard Times by Charles Dickens, the author does not use italics, but he does use phonetic spelling:

“I ha’ thowt on ‘t, above a bit, sir. I simply canna coom in. I mun go th’ way as lays afore me. I mun tak’ my leave o’ aw heer.”

In most cases, portions of narration conform to the rules of English usage. Therefore, those portions of works of fiction should be edited in the same way as essays, research papers, letters, etc. In some cases, however, the author wants the narrator’s use of language to vary from the standard. Look at this example, which is the first sentence of Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Of course, if Mark Twain had wanted the narrator to speak in standard English, the sentence would have been written as follows:

You will not know of me unless you had read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that does not matter.

Authors of works of fiction often use, along with full sentences, short phrases for emphasis. In the following example from The Color of Water by James McBride, the first sentence is full and complete, but it is followed by two declarative phrases, which are not full sentences:

Helen didn’t come home that night. Nor the next day. Nor the next.

Notice the use of the contraction didn’t. In serious non-fiction pieces, the use of contractions is frowned upon. In fiction, contractions are acceptable at all times.

If that portion of narration had been part of a non-fiction document, it would be written as follows:

Helen did not come home night, nor for the next two nights.

In general, when editing works of fiction, the rule is that portions of narration should conform to all of the rules of English usage unless the author wants the narrator’s voice to vary from the standard. Short phrases which are not complete sentences should not be altered. Contractions should be allowed. Portions of dialogue should be left as they are written, regardless of how far removed from proper English usage they appear to be. However, all rules of punctuation should always be adhered to throughout the manuscript. Correct punctuation is necessary in order for the reader to be able to understand what the narrator or character is saying.

Remember, the goal of writing is to communicate. If the reader is unable to understand what is written, then the piece of writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, is not fulfilling its goal.