A Review of Fiction Editing Courses

Over the past four years or so, I’ve taken three fiction editing courses online. Here are my thoughts and recommendations.

Trade Books: Fiction (CDPB 306)
Ryerson University

'We liked your novel about the magician until the plot disappeared.'

From this seven-week course I learned how to read and think like an editor, not like an English major (which I was). The course provided an overview of the elements of fiction and practice in writing two 750-word manuscript evaluations. I found these assignments perplexing. Students are asked to edit short stories by the likes of Alistair McLeod, Jack Hodgins, Phyllis Gotlieb, and Ethel Wilson – well-known Canadian authors from an older generation. The stories have been published and, presumably, edited. I had something to say in the first assignment, but in the second I tried to find something wrong with the story when I thought there was nothing wrong with it.

The course texts were the Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich, which I found to be too formulaic in its approach, and Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French, which I highly recommend.

I would like to see this course expanded to twelve weeks and re-envisioned for distance learning. The online course when I took it was an apologetic version of the in-class course. I think there is a huge need for a comprehensive fiction editing course, and Ryerson could do better. After completing Trade Books, I didn’t feel that I had the skills to edit fiction, so I enrolled in . . .

Editing Fiction, Parts II and III
The Christian Pen

I was allowed to skip Part I because I had taken the course at Ryerson. Part II is a six-week course that covers a number of random topics such as dialogue, interior monologue, chronology, sensory detail, sentence length, metaphor, malapropisms, and plot. Part III runs for seven weeks and focuses on substantive editing and how to set up an editorial business. The instructor is Jeanne Marie Leach, an author of Christian historical romance novels and a freelance editor.

This course alerted me to aspects of stylistic editing to watch for in fiction, such as too much step-by-step description of mundane action, repetitive sentence structure, the hazards of the little words “before” and “after,” and the difference between interior monologue and direct thoughts. I was baffled by the debate about FBPs – floating body parts – which apparently is an issue in Christian fiction.

An example of FBPs from the course notes: “She threw up her hands.” Jeanne’s response: “She shouldn’t have swallowed her hands in the first place.” Aargh.

Naturally, given that these courses are offered by The Christian Pen, the content has a Christian slant. In the assignments, we were asked to edit Christian historical romance – the genre that the instructor herself writes – and the lessons referred to the Bible. I’m not interested in editing Christian fiction, but it would be unfair to criticize a Christian organization for having that teaching focus.

That said, the course notes could benefit from stylistic and copy editing, and from a more attractive layout.

The instructor provided generous feedback on the weekly assignments. I also learned a great deal from the other students, many of whom had previous editing experience in other contexts. I was beginning to feel more confident about editing fiction, but something was still missing, and so I enrolled in . . .

Introduction to Developmental Editing: Book-Length Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
Author-Editor Clinic, Seattle

This eight-week course is excellent. The instructor, Barbara Sjoholm, taught me an approach to structural editing that I’ve used ever since, such as how to take notes, write an editorial letter or manuscript evaluation, and use tables to analyze elements of fiction. In addition to practical tools, she shared her philosophy of “cultivating an attitude of positive neutrality.”

In the weekly assignments, we practiced how to write sections of an editorial letter. The assignments were time-consuming but worth the effort. In her feedback, Barbara demonstrated how I could temper my bluntness (still working on that) and communicate with authors with respect and kindness.

Note that the course is not about developmental editing in the sense of working with a concept, outline, or unfinished draft. In the parlance of Editors Canada, this is a course on structural editing.

The format of this course is somewhat outdated. Students join a Yahoo Group and access lectures (files) and discussion threads on the group site. I received an email whenever someone posted anything, which cluttered up my in-box.

Another minor complaint is that Barbara wouldn’t address questions about the business aspects of editing, such as how to estimate time and fees, and how to convince an author that their manuscript needs structural editing and not just copy editing. Instead, she referred students to another course offered by the Author-Editor Clinic on business practices.

I highly recommend the course and the text, An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors (reviewed earlier on my blog).

Invitation to Talk Shop

I’d love to hear from fiction editors. How did you acquire the skills you need?


9 thoughts on “A Review of Fiction Editing Courses

  1. Thanks for the rundown, Ellie. I have taken the Substantive and Stylistic editing course at Ryerson, which gave some insights into editing fiction – but I didn’t feel there was enough there, particularly since the focus was mostly on literary fiction. It was interesting to hear your take on the Trade Books: Fiction course – I have considered enrolling in it, but I am on the fence, so your post is really helpful for me. I found when I took Proofreading at Ryerson (also a half-course) that it really should have been a full course, and it sounds like this one is the same.

    So far I have learned the most by reading various books aimed at writers, such as Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder (both focused on genre fiction).

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    • I took the Substantive and Stylistic Editing course as well. It covered both fiction and nonfiction, so there wasn’t enough concentration on fiction to really learn the art, but it was a good start. Thanks for recommending those books. One that I like is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

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      • That one is on my shelf now – I’ve been trying to get to it, but there’s never enough time to read. 🙂 Glad to hear it was useful for you. I write reviews of writing resources on my blog – I have more details on Story Engineering in my “Resources” tab if you’re looking for more details.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’ve been wanting to take a class on structural or developmental editing to better meet the needs of fiction authors (I do mostly academic nonfiction now), and it is tough to know where to invest your money. I’ve also considered courses through Copyediting Newsletter and the EFA. I’ll add your book suggestions to my to-read list for sure!

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    • I’m like you – I work mainly in scholarly editing. I took these courses because I wanted to branch out into fiction. It was a steep learning curve. I also read a number of books about writing fiction. I highly recommend the developmental editing course at the Author-Editor Clinic and Barbara Sjoholm’s book, An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors. Best wishes and keep in touch!

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  3. I am a very new freelancer, no actual paying clients for fiction yet, but as a writer of fiction, and a reader of fiction, I feel pretty qualified to edit it. Learning the art and craft of writing fiction provides a solid foundation in how to edit fiction.

    I have been in a fantastic writer’s workshop group since 2004, and learned a ton from that. Last year (2014) I took SFU’s year-long creative writing program, The Writer’s Studio, which combines peer-and-mentor workshopping, courses in writing theory, craft, and the business of writing, public readings, and community involvement. I learned a ton about writing and publishing, and was encouraged to pursue a natural bent for editing.

    In January, I started taking course in SFU’s Certificate in Editing program, which is also excellent. I like a bit of variety in my editing work and although editing fiction seems to be the Holy Grail for many of the editors I met at the EAC conference in June, I’d like to mix it up a little with other types of work, to keep things fresh. (I’m a dab hand at restaurant menus, for instance.)

    This is an interesting discussion. I hope more people weigh in!

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    • Congratulations on completing the SFU creative writing program! As a writer yourself, I think you’ll have something special to offer as an editor. I worked as a communications officer for many years, and I wrote two nonfiction books and many articles and reviews. I can relate to your comment that this experience has given you a “natural bent” for editing. It’s also interesting that you met many editors at the EAC conference who edit fiction or want to do so. Maybe EAC (Editors Canada now!) could capitalize on this interest by offering more fiction editing seminars. Ryerson and Simon Fraser could do more in this field as well. Do you plan to complete the editing certificate at SFU? I never did finish my certificate at Ryerson. I’ve taken 6.5 courses and need only 1.5 courses to finish it, but I’m too busy working — at least that’s what I tell myself!

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  4. What have you taken so far? I was considering the course on legal and ethical issues for editors, to help prepare for Editors Canada certification exams, but it’s full. The courses seem to fill up fast.

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