How Much Training Does a Fiction Editor Need?

Sophie Playle

The purpose of training is twofold: to make sure your skills are up to scratch and to demonstrate to potential clients that you know your stuff.

Updated June 2022

This is a controversial statement, but I believe the amount of training a fiction editor needs depends very much on what service the editor wants to offer, what kind of client they want to target, and how much they already know.

Different editorial services require different skills and knowledge

Let’s take a quick look at the different types of editorial services a fiction editor might offer, what training is available, and what skills and knowledge an editor might need.

Developmental editing and manuscript critique

First, you have your macro editing. This type of editing looks at the manuscript as a whole and addresses big-picture issues relating to plot, theme, tension, characterisation, genre, narrative style and so on. There are lots of names for this kind of editing, and what’s specifically offered will vary, but generally this kind of editing is called developmental editing or manuscript critiquing.

I have a feeling it’s this kind of editing that strikes the most fear into the hearts of wannabe fiction editors. And I can understand why. This can be tricky stuff.

To conduct this type of editing, you need:

  • Extensive knowledge of novel-writing craft
  • The skills to turn your observations into useful feedback

You might also need an awareness of the market, depending on the kind of feedback you’re being asked to give.

There are more courses covering this type of editing than there were five years ago, when I first wrote this blog post!

I offer two well-established online courses (both self-study and tutored) teaching people all about developmental editing here at Liminal Pages:

(Read a review of Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory here!)

Other courses include:

  • The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) occasionally offers a series of online courses in developmental editing.
  • Jennifer Lawler offers a wide variety of self-paced and tutor-led courses on her website Club Ed.
  • UCLA Extension offers a quarterly tutored online course in developmental editing.
  • The Editorial Arts Academy offers live onlin developmental editing training.

The Editor-Author Clinic, run by Barbara Sjoholm, used to offer training in developmental editing but shut down in 2021. You can, however, read Barbara’s brilliant book on developmental editing: An Editor’s Guide to Working With Authors.

You may already have an excellent knowledge of novel-writing craft. Perhaps you’ve studied creative writing extensively and have read many books on the craft of novel writing. (Hello MA in creative writing – I knew you’d come in handy.)

If you’re an avid and observational reader, you’ll find you probably intuitively know what makes a good novel.

Still, you may have to research and learn how best to write up your observations. But as long as your feedback is presented analytically (rather than as opinion) and is written with tact, you may not need a whole lot of training … as long as you can convince your prospective clients of your skills.

Substantive editing and line editing

Next up we have substantive editing and line editing: sentence-level editing that aims to improve the writing. Again, specific definitions will vary, but generally this kind of editing looks at the flow and style of the writing; continuity problems and consistency of detail; and minor issues of characterisation, dialogue, timing and point of view.

The worst thing an editor can do when conducting this service is change the author’s text to suit their own preferences, even though they might think they’re improving what the author has written. The biggest challenge for an editor offering this type of service is knowing what to change and what to leave alone. Generally, if you can’t back up your edit with logic or solid writing theory, don’t make the edit.

What kind of training is available for this kind of fiction editing? My observation is … not much.

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) offers an ‘Introduction to Fiction Editing’ course, which provides basic guidance on a few of these issues (as well as, slightly frustratingly, some much more developmental issues). Working with a mentor is also a good way to learn.

You might also want to check out my course Tea and Commas: The Foundations of Line and Copy-Editing Fiction.

If you’ve extensively studied novel-writing craft and are an avid and analytical reader, you’ll probably already have a decent understanding of the principles behind this type of editing. The next hurdle becomes how to actually apply the theory to an unpolished manuscript.

From a technical standpoint, you’re also going to need to learn to use Microsoft Word and its Track Changes and Comments feature. Learning what edits to make is a combination of applying knowledge and judgement. And it’s certainly the kind of skill that gets better with practice.

Copy-editing and proofreading

Whereas substantive and line editing aim to improve the writing, copy-editing and proofreading aim to correct the writing – and this difference is crucial.

Both copy-editors and proofreaders correct errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling and apply stylistic consistency. The copy-editor will likely also do some very basic fact checking and raise potential legal issues, such as libel or plagiarism. When working with publishing houses (but usually not so much when working directly with authors), the copy-editor will also mark up the text for the typesetter or book designer.

Proofreaders are employed to carry out the very final check, after the manuscript has been edited and after it’s been typeset. If they’re asked to proofread a manuscript that hasn’t been edited or typeset, technically they’re conducting a copy-edit. Often, self-publishing authors ask for a proofread when they really want a copy-edit.

When it comes to editing fiction, the term ‘copy-editing’ can mean so many different things. What I describe as copy-editing, other editors might see as proofreading. And what I describe as line editing, others might see as copy-editing.

The lack of coherent definitions for these services is not only frustrating, but can cause differences in opinion on the amount of training fiction editors need – because we might be talking about completely different services.

What are the skills copy-editors and proofreaders of fiction need?

In a nutshell, the ability to …

  • Understand conventional grammar, spelling and punctuation
  • Make judgements on when these rules need not be applied
  • Understand and follow a style guide
  • Create stylistic consistency in the text
  • Create and use a stylesheet

On top of that, copy-editors and proofreaders of fiction will also need to know how to use Microsoft Word and its Track Changes and Comments feature. Proofreaders might need to know how to proofread PDFs or on hardcopy, too.

As far as I’m aware, there are almost no specific training courses that teach copy-editing and proofreading skills specifically for fiction. The Editorial Freelances Association (EFA) occasionally run a ‘Copyediting Fiction’ course – I’ve taken this, and I feel it teaches line editing more than copy-editing. There are plenty of decent general copy-editing and proofreading courses out there, though – for example, from the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and the Publishing Training Centre.

My course Tea and Commas aims to teach the foundations for both line and copy-editing, specifically for fiction.

If you have a solid grasp of grammar, punctuation and spelling, understand how not to over-correct a piece of creative writing, know what a style guide is and how to use one, know what a stylesheet is and how to create one, and know how to use the Track Changes and Comments feature of Word  … you might not need to take any further editorial training.

Depending on the type of clients you want to work with.

But that’s a lot of competence, and you need to be sure your skills are up to scratch.

Who are your clients?

As well as the service you want to offer, the type of clients you want to work with will directly impact how much training you might need. As a fiction editor, your two main client types will likely be either publishing houses or authors. You might also work with packagers – companies who supply publishing services to publishing houses.

If you want to work with publishing houses, it’s very likely you’ll need training credentials to prove you know your stuff – especially if you don’t have much experience, which is sometimes considered even more valuable than training. (For more detail, take a look at Louise Harnby’s excellent post ‘Does Training Matter? What Publishers Say about Proofreading & Editing Courses’.)

If you want to work directly with authors (and with the millions of self-publishing authors out there, you can certainly choose to work solely with authors), it’s highly unlikely you’ll need to know how to mark up a manuscript for the typesetter or designer. So if you want to be a copy-editor who specialises in editing fiction for authors, that’s one bit of training you might decide to skip. You also certainly wouldn’t need the depth of story-crafting knowledge required to conduct a developmental edit or manuscript critique.

Certification vs certificates

Many people want to know that the training they are undertaking is worthwhile and of a recognised standard, so they ask: ‘Will this make me a certified editor?’ And the answer is no, because a training certificate and certification are two very different things.

Most editorial training results in a certificate that states the user has completed the training. Sometimes, the editor is awarded a certificate with a grade; other times the certificate will indicate training has simply been undertaken and completed. The worth of these certificates is based on the credibility and reputation of the provider. My courses, for instance, have gained a reputation for quality and are recognised by the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading, carrying weight towards their membership upgrades.

Certification, on the other hand, is different. Certification is gained after a (usually rigorous) assessment process that ensures applicants meet the requirement of the recognised certifying body, and there are ongoing requirements in order for someone to maintain their certification. Typically certification is an indication of professional mastery – it’s not something awarded for completing training.

The ethics of working without training credentials

Let me quickly recap why training is important: firstly, to make sure your skills are up to scratch; and secondly, to demonstrate to potential clients that you know your stuff.

If you haven’t had any editorial training and your skills are not up to scratch and you don’t know your stuff, hanging out your shingle as a freelance fiction editor is not okay.

Publishers know how to recognise and assess your editorial skills. More often than not, though, authors won’t be able to. Through no fault of their own, they simply won’t have the industry knowledge. This means there are a lot of cowboy fiction editors out there, charging authors money for substandard editing.

This is not okay. In fact, it’s downright shitty behaviour.

The only time it’s okay to work without training credentials is if you already possess the knowledge and the skills you need to conduct your chosen service for your chosen client.

If you want to run your own fiction editing business, I encourage you to consider the following:

  • What kind of service do I want to offer?
  • Who do I want my clients to be?
  • What transferable skills and knowledge do I already possess?
  • Where do I need to fill the holes?
  • How best can I do this?

When it comes down to it, you have a responsibility to make sure your skills are up to scratch before you start charging for your work. That’s the only way to run a successful editing business with integrity.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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