How to Edit Fiction – 5 – Dot Yer Eyes, Cross Yer Teas

Posted on August 12, 2011 by



Joyous relief, dear friends! Today’s post is the very soul of brevity — and no exercises, to boot.


~The Most Essential Thing In Copy Editing~

For heaven’s sake, turn on the editing marks when you’re editing. It makes things approximately eleventy trillion times easier.


~Italics, Bold and CAPSLOCK~

Did you know that typing in all caps has never been the formally accepted formatting for emphasis?

It’s true. All caps text is a modern phenomenon. It’s becoming more and more prevalent, but most publishers are still wary of it. I find that caps make me feel like I, the reader, am being yelled at.

Bold is never used for emphasis in prose, except in cases of convention-breaking literature. If you don’t want to go postmodern, bold is not for you. Bold is used for titles and boundaries; personal essays might use it and it’s fine for chapter headings or page headers.

What you need for emphasis is italics. No more than a single paragraph at a time, at that. I use italics to transcribe thoughts — which might sound like overkill, but it’s not. We’ll cover this in dialogue,but if you’re directly transcribing thoughts you should think of them as a kind of speech — and edit them as such. So even though I use italics for thoughts I don’t have many problems because I don’t end up with what you want to avoid: huge, unreadable chunks of italics. My favourite terrible book begins with pages upon pages of italics. Why? Because it’s a dream, and so of course it must all be italicised, every word. A challenging read — and not in the way the author intended. It’s impossible to read more than a few sentences without taking a break.

The last thing you want to do when trying to get someone to buy your manuscript is cause them physical pain, am I right? So avoid italicising great swathes of text, please — for everyone’s sake.



When presenting a manuscript to an agent, keep in mind that they have an enormous volume of work to get through. Use Times New Roman — no exceptions. It’s easy to read and best of all, it’s bland. Boring. Dull. It won’t detract from your story. Your story should not need a special font to bring it to life, and if you think it does, then you need to roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

If you absolutely must have a section of your work in a different script — and in all honesty, I’ve never seen a case where this is a necessary step rather than discretionary — make an editorial note next to the text. (Editorial notes are marked out using square brackets: [ and ]. You should also make it clear by beginning the note with a declaration: “Editorial Note”, or something similar.)

Do not change the text yourself. It’s in TNR, and in TNR it will stay until the book is typeset. If you’re in traditional publishing, someone other than you will make that decision. Your agent may decide to get rid of it. Right now my manuscript is in Garamond, because my OpenOffice is acting like a bratty jerk, but I’d prefer it to be in TNR.



I don’t believe in random-ass text breaks. You know: the “I was too lazy to write a good transition” text break. These days there are usually story-relevant dingbats involved, like bleeding hearts or flowers or something.

Your book designer will decide what those little images look like. It’s not your job to scour Wing- or Webdings for the “perfect” bit of monochrome twig or bunch of leaves. Just mark it with an ellipsis (…) or a single tilde (~). You can also choose to be really nice to your editor and mark it with square brackets and the words “intentional break” in there somewhere. Whatever you use, keep it consistent. This is so your copyeditor or typesetter or whoever can find and replace all of them to oblivion in less than a minute.

Agents like text to be 1.5 or double spaced. It’s much easier to read, and easier to make notes on if they want to print it out. So if you’re preparing a manuscript for an agent and you want to include a “too lazy to write a transition” text break it’s wise to use a separator just to make it clear you’re not spazzing out and leaving random spaces everywhere. If you’re not preparing it for an agent or editor, you don’t have to bother with double-spacing or separators. Just leave a single line blank and that will suffice.

I think it’s okay to use returns to create white space in these cases. One or two extra returns won’t send anyone into a frantic rage. You’re also probably using returns to space out your chapter headings, and that’s okay.

But don’t you dare use returns at the end of your chapters. They look so pretty — all your little ducks, lined up in a row…well, column — but they’re incredibly annoying. Whenever your editor changes a line or deletes something or puts notes or comments anywhere, she’ll have to deal with a manuscript that is now randomly spaced.

What about tabs? They’re outdated — a relic from typewriting. Why? Because they’re so damned hard to change. You have to go through and delete every single tab, and then apply formatting to the document. Some editors might be handy with scripts and could zip through a manuscript using a little php script in Linux, but I bet that’s rare.

Just use the native formatting options in your word processor. Most of them have similar functionality: look for the little hourglass on the top ruler, and drag the top half of it to the right. When you’re centring text, make sure the indent is set to zero again.


~Special Characters~

There’s a quick-and-dirty rule when it comes to things you’re unsure about including: if it can be represented by a single character, it’s likely better. I don’t mean that you should go around using pretty scrolly bits from dingbat fonts instead of punctuation; what I mean is, it’s preferable to use the ellipsis character rather than three full stops in a row, and better to use the long em-dash rather than two or three hyphens together.

Similarly, let your word processor tell you what it knows: let it correct your quote marks and capitalisations. You might have an overzealous autocorrect (I do) that corrects apostrophes into single quotes; in that case it’s better to do a find and replace to make sure your apostrophes are apostrophes. I’ve seen manuscripts with primes where apostrophes should be. (It was an eyesore.) Wikipedia has a good article that clears up differences in typography well.


That’s it, kids! A few simple rules. I was originally going to write about how you can basically toss all the rules out the window if you’re trying to break them and have a good sense of style, but…if you’re the kind of artist who can get away with coloured fonts and capslockrage and still write a good book, I have nothing to teach you.