Girl Friday Copyeditor and Proofreader Handbook

PART 3: Copyediting Fiction vs. Copyediting Nonfiction


For a copyeditor or proofreader, fiction and nonfiction can be dramatically different beasts. Navigating the complexity of references and sources in nonfiction versus determining when to let a novelist employ nonstandard style choices for pacing, for example, can be tough. When is it OK or even expected to stet awkward dialogue? How much fact-checking is expected for a historical romance?

Here are some things to consider when editing fiction.

Characters and Physical Encumbrance / Continuity

  • Has Protagonist picked up the weapon of every bad guy she has conquered and continued on her journey?

  • Does Protagonist jump, kick, swim, etc., while carrying a suitcase of top-secret microfilm as well as seven pistols (see previous)?

Characters Interacting with Real-Life Landmarks*

  • Does Protagonist drive from Minneapolis to Madison in one hour? [an impossible feat]

  • Do street maps and landmarks match real life? [pay close attention to high-speed chases]

  • Does Protagonist take a right off Snelling Avenue onto Hamline Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota, even though the two streets run parallel in real life? [Readers from the city in question will find this error especially annoying.]

* The author might use a combination of real and fictional landmarks, streets, etc., which is fine. But query to make sure the name in question is fictional and not written in error.

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Dialogue Attribution and Separation

  • Is dialogue separated/paced correctly and in a clear manner?

  • Are dialogue attributions clear, grammatically correct, and not redundant?

Click here to review the examples of correct dialogue attribution and dialogue separation, Appendix F.

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Thoughts / Direct Internal Monologue

(OK to be contrary to Chicago, which calls for roman or quotes but does not mention italics)

  • Treatment of direct thoughts / internal dialogue

  • Treatment of indirect thoughts

  • Treatment of dialogue remembered from the past (different from direct thought?)

  • Treatment of “as if” dialogue: < It was as if she’d just told him, We know what you’re up to. >

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Identify the Point of View

  • First person?

  • Third-person omniscient?

  • Third-person limited? Limited usually to one character or a few characters, usually varying by section.

  • Violations of point of view? Example from a narrative told from character Joe’s POV:


The two men’s eyes locked, and Joe could see that Lenwood was realizing something about him: Joe was more than a little unbalanced. Joe smelled like craziness to Lenwood, like it oozed out his pores. Joe wanted to get his Magnum from the car and fill this son of a bro full of holes.


The highlighted perception is off because the narrative voice up until this point has followed closely over Joe’s shoulder, not allowing readers access to other characters’ thoughts. Yet the highlighted perception seems to come from Lenwood’s point of view—a violation of the POV that has been established.

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Narrative Voice / Narrative Tone

  • Does the narrative voice use proper grammar?

  • Or does the narrative voice speak in idiom and slang just like the main character does?

  • What if the narrative voice uses proper language throughout but suddenly lapses into idiom and slang (while not in dialogue)?


Inching up in his dinghy, Merle could now discern the larger ship’s details—its pine steering wheel, the canvas T-top console, the chrome rod holders, a gleaming bow rail. Not gone be easy gettin’ ’board a movin’ boat like dat from da watah. And not only that, but his body hurt all over—his right foot cramped in piercing pain, his face swollen and crusty with blood.


Verifying Real-Life Proper Terms

  • Verifying real-life proper terms is critical to copyediting and is thus worth repeating here. It is the copyeditor’s job; it is not a superfluous task.

Click here to review the example of verifying proper terms, Appendix I.

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Genre-Specific Considerations and Trouble Spots

  • Sci-fi/fantasy

Authors have spent lots of time world building, and you can bet that world has inconsistencies. Make sure your style sheet is comprehensive.

  • Thriller with a military component

Guns, rockets, acronyms—oh my! Whenever we have a military thriller, we spend lots of time inserting or deleting hyphens from gun names or making sure acronyms like “MARPATS” don’t become “MARPATs” later. Use gun manufacturers’ websites, and check those government agencies’ websites. A good precedent to keep in mind: M16 is in Webster’s with no hyphen.

  • Thrillers and mysteries

If Mr. Smith did it with the candlestick in the dining room, make sure Mr. Smith wasn’t holding the rope in the garage.

  • Romance

Always double-check a steamy scene. Make sure it’s physically possible for someone to have his hand there while doing that. (Seriously: there are always errors in the steamy scenes.)

  • Historical fiction

    Consider how the author is interacting with the time period. Is it billed as a thoroughly researched book? Is the author allowing the characters to speak with a modern voice?

    • Check for blatant anachronisms. (There are some great resources out there for historical romance.)

    • Make sure the basic details are correct. Known names, important dates and locations, and key timeline information should be correct. Example: If it’s a novel set in the Civil War, do make sure that any year and battle mentions line up with the basic timeline of the war.

    • But communicate with your production editor if you find your research is taking up too much time, and make a plan. Your first job is always copyediting the text; in-depth fact-checking comes second.

  • Literary fiction

    • Give the author lots of leeway. If something is done consistently throughout, then it might be done purposefully.

    • Focus on blatant errors, danglers, etc.

    • If you’re unsure of how much or how little to do, take the initiative to submit a sample chapter for discussion.