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Bringing Order to Disorder

On the difference between copyediting fiction vs. academic writing.

By Christian Stenico, UNO Press / Center Austria Publishing Fellow

My first forays into the world of publishing were in a scholarly setting, first as a graduate assistant at the University of Innsbruck, now as an associate editor for Center Austria’s annual journal, Contemporary Austrian Studies. With CAS, I’m mainly responsible for managing submissions, keeping endnotes in order, and ensuring that authors adhere to the journal’s style guide. In short, my publishing background is academic. But in the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to take on editorial responsibilities completely outside that realm at UNO Press. In addition to my continued work on CAS, I’ve started to copy edit fiction, which brings with it a new set of unique joys and woes.

The first fiction manuscript I got to work on was playwright Amy Crider’s debut novel Disorder. The book offers a gripping plot that intertwines mental illness with crime and intrigue. The challenging thing about the narrative—from an editing/copy editing perspective—is that it features a lot of internal dialogue, quoted emails and notes, poetry, singing, etc. Consequently, it was important to format these different types of discourse clearly and consistently within the book to make sure readers would understand passages in the way they were meant to be understood.

A copy editor’s role is to makes sure the text follows a style guide that maximizes readability, whether the manuscript is a work of scholarship or a work of fiction. In this sense, copy editing a novel is similar to copy editing an academic journal—but you must pay attention to different details.

For me, copy editing academic prose is more straightforward. Even though personality can still shine through in academic writing, a scholarly article is almost always less personal than a piece of creative writing. Academic texts are, at their core, often more concerned with content than with form—they seek to put forth (new) ideas in a way that is persuasive and logical for readers.

Fiction is also about ideas, but the prose itself can be one of the work’s main allures. That is not to say that scholarly writing universally disregards individual style, but depending on the academic field, the author’s distinct voice is often not very important—in fact, it may even be undesirable. Generally, the goal with academic writing is to match the discipline’s or individual journal’s style—not just its critical apparatus, but also its prose conventions.1 This makes copy editing academic texts, in some ways, an easier task. You can mostly rely on established rules—general ones like correct spelling, as well as discipline-specific ones like citation format.

When it comes to copy editing fiction, the rules are often less clear. Some things remain easy to decide—you want to make sure that words are spelled consistently across a text and that spelling, punctuation, and grammar hold up. But other things are open to more interpretation. For example, the author might have tweaked syntax slightly to make a phrase their own. Faced with this clause’s unconventional word order, the copy editor must weigh strict adherence to the rules against preservation of the author’s voice. In such cases it is often helpful to get in touch with the author to make sure that you’re improving the text and not overcorrecting it.2

Copy editing fiction presents another problem—a problem I faced a lot while working on Disorder—and that’s the pull of the narrative. I often had to slow myself down to focus on the formal requirements and the writing itself, instead of getting caught up in what was happening in the novel. What made the book thrilling to read also made it harder to copy edit. So, while one challenge of working on academic publications is staying on track when the writing is dry, a big challenge of working on fiction is keeping focused when the writing is too enticing.

In the end, whether they’re working on an academic journal or a novel, the main goals for a copy editor remain the same: to help make the text the best version it can be and to make the writing as consistent as possible in order to help readers understand it. And while the way that leads to those ends might be very different depending on the kind of text you’re editing, the satisfaction you derive from being part of that process is the same. As the finalized version of Disorder hits the printer and ships out into the world, I hope audiences will enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed working on it.

1: I feel that there is a spectrum from the hard sciences to the humanities. For example, compared to physics or biology, philosophy and literary theory might be more open to some linguistic flourishes due to their vicinity to literature.

2: As the Chicago Manual of Style’s advice columnist Carol Fisher Saller puts it in her book The Subversive Copy Editor: “First do no harm.”

By Christian Stenico

Changed the Austrian Alps for the Louisiana Swamp and love it so far. I like reading books and working on them and I'm happy to be part of the UNO Press team where I get to do both.

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