Written by Karin Beery

Freelance editing gigs often come in waves—you’re busy for months, then things slow down. It might be that you’re unable to take on projects or it could be that writers aren’t hiring professionals at the time (pandemics and inflation can do that). One way to deepen your pool of potential clients is to offer more editing services. Before you do, however, make sure you’re qualified.

Every few years, I’ll read a post or email from a nonfiction editor who agreed to edit a novel. The assumption is that experience in one field will translate into success in another.

Maybe, to a degree. If you’re a freelance nonfiction editor working on memoirs, switching to fiction isn’t a big leap. But if you primarily edit theological studies, you may want to hold off before you agree to that project, at least until you’ve had a chance to do a few of things.

  1. Read fiction. It seems unnecessary to say this, but you’d be surprised at how many people who’ve never read fiction want to either write or edit it. Neither is a good idea. If an author’s goal is to sell novels, then it’s necessary to understand what kinds of novels are selling. If you want to edit romance, read romance; if you want to edit fantasy, read fantasy. Each genre has its own guidelines—reading books in those genres will help you identify and understand those guidelines.
  2. Read fiction-writing books. Many nonfiction substantive editing skills will translate into fiction (flow, pace, active writing, etc.). However, there are a lot of fiction-specific techniques that fiction editors have to master in order to identify them in their clients’ books (the PEN Institute has five classes specifically for developing your fiction-editing skills). They include showing, point-of-view, plot structure, character arcs, character goals, etc. Make sure you’re comfortable with all of these before taking that fiction-editing assignment.
  3. Know when to break the rules. Grammar rules don’t apply to fiction the same way they do in nonfiction because novels are written from the point-of-view of characters, and not all characters speak or think in grammatically correct ways. As a fiction editor, you need to know the grammar rules first, then you need to know when and how they can (and should) be broken for the sake of the character and the story.

Similar rules apply when fiction editors want to edit nonfiction—make sure you know what you’re getting into before you take that assignment so you can provide the best possible edits for your clients. (If you’re ready to deepen your pool, check out the editing classes available through the PEN Institute!)

Karin Beery owns Write Now Editing, where she helps authors turn good manuscripts into great books. She is also a general editor for Iron Stream Media and Brookstone Publishing Group, a PEN Institute instructor, and a regular presenter at state and national writing conferences.  When she’s not editing or teaching, she writes hopeful fiction with a healthy dose of romance.