Editing Fiction (For The Anxious Poet, The Lazy Editor, & People Who Happen To Be Both)

By Lara Katz

For some editors, opening submission manager and seeing the genre listed as “fiction” strikes fear deep into their hearts. Maybe it’s because fiction pieces rarely plunge beneath 500 words, while 50 is near the max for a poetry submission (the upper limit is 80 lines, but have you ever seen an 80 line poetry submission?). Or maybe it’s not about the time commitment—some poets, which many of our editors are, have been known to claim complete and utter ignorance of that beast they call “plot.”


For those of you who approach fiction with any kind of trepidation, there’s both good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad:


Fiction submissions make up less than 20% of Polyphony’s submissions. What does this mean for the average Polyphony editor? Quite simply, unfamiliarity. Although not quite up to the level of creative nonfiction submissions, which seem to come across my docket every once in a blue moon, a fiction submission does seem a bit of a rare bird. The reason for their sparseness is simple—more high schoolers are writing poetry than fiction. So, unsurprisingly, most of the Polyphony editors who happen to be writers (which seems to be the majority of editors) find themselves more comfortable editing poetry than fiction.


So, for the benefit of Polyphony editors who possess a terror of *plot,* *structure,* *character development,* and *sentence composition,* here’s the good news: you can banish this dread… and you might not even need to love writing prose to do it. Here are my top three secrets for Editing Fiction (targeted at poets, those who experience anxiety at the sight of prose, those who feel like 1800 words is too much effort, and those snazzy experienced fiction writers who can correct me along the way):

  1. The Words Are (Almost Always) Easier and Faster To Read Than Poetry! (So read them faster)

This should be reassuring to the fearful poets of the bunch: you don’t actually need to have an appreciation of prose to get through a fiction piece. You don’t need to linger over every line with the same amount of time and dedication; if a bit of language sounds funky, communicate that politely in the commentary but don’t beat yourself up about perfecting a singular sentence—a singular sentence in a fiction piece is not as determining of the piece’s overall quality as a single line is in a poetry piece. Furthermore, because you’ve probably got a lot more words to get through, you can focus on the parts that stand out to you the most in each paragraph or even every other paragraph as opposed to commenting on every little thing.


For example, say you’re reading a fiction submission about an extravagant meal. The author’s going down a hyperbolic route, maybe even injecting a bit of annoyingly present anaphora, and listing every single little thing on that table. There are plates of every kind of noodles and meat cooked every which way and names of vegetables you’ve never even heard of. There are fruit salads of every possible combination and the list of types of puddings is an entire paragraph. Except—the list doesn’t say “every,” it lists everything by name and sometimes with a little description. In other words, it’s a very long description.


This submission might be a pain to get through for anyone, but for a poet trying to extract meaning from each item on this table, it can be nothing short of exhausting. As a result, it’s important to maintain perspective. Pick out a few items to comment on. Discuss the effect of the list in its entirety. I’m not telling you to skim, but I am telling you not to dwell. Read the words, and make sure you understand them, but you don’t necessarily have to assume there’s a deeper meaning to the inclusion of both hot cocoa with marshmallows and hot cocoa without marshmallows.


And lastly, one of the best perks for a fiction editor is that it’s (usually) intended to make sense from sentence to sentence. Authors are generally not singularly focused on pretty turns of phrase in every bit of language, nor are they likely to obscure their meaning by accident. Rather, they likely hope to make their meanings as clear as possible. Occasionally, when editing poetry, you’ll find some uncertainty as to whether a line is unclear or you’re just simply not “getting it.” In fiction, as a general rule, if you don’t feel you’re “getting it,” then the author is actually just being unclear and you can point that out as such in your commentary.


2. Remember: The Rules Are Simple


To fire off a few things that you really don’t need to worry about in fiction—

The rules of grammar apply, if more loosely than in an essay for English class. Maybe you’ll find a sentence fragment here or there or some comma splices for effect, but unless you’re certain a submitting author is intentionally breaking the rules of grammar, you can assume the rules of grammar apply. In terms of sussing out meaning or just reading through the thing in a timely manner, you’re in a comfortable place.


There will usually be plot (terrifying, I know), but the plot will also usually be linear enough that you’ll only need to re-read a piece a few times to understand the intended import. As a result, you can get the gist of the story without too much time or effort, and be able to take on the language itself without having to worry about understanding the general import of the story.


Cliches will usually be borne on their faces, unable to hide behind manipulated language, and a metaphor or other piece of figurative language will stand out as exactly what it is. As a result, you’ll be questioning what you’ve read a lot less, and your uncertainty as to the piece’s “intentionality” will be much smaller. If an author writes a strangely worded sentence, you can easily point it out, and if they use a couple cliches, you can, with conviction, let them know as well.


Visually, fiction is generally simpler than poetry. The words will almost always be spread across the page in a predictable fashion—i.e., paragraphs, sentences, etc., and no disjointed phrases or mixed-up words like you might find in an experimental poem. A fiction piece will also rarely force an editor to read two differing narratives side-by-side or upside down, focus on irregular line breaks, or influence the “shape” of the work on the page. The words just stand on their own. That can definitely be a relief! It’s a lot less for you, as the editor, to think about and take into account.


3. Focus On Feelings, Not Flubs


I can’t stress this enough—just because prose requires an author to at least vaguely follow the rules of grammar, it doesn’t mean you need to pick over every little word choice. You’ve probably got a lot of words to get through, and considering that our submissions are written by high schoolers of many differing writing abilities, you’ll often find pieces riddled with grammatical mistakes or awkward, if technically correct, wordings. Writing prose in a style that comes across as both effortless and artful is very difficult, and so as a result the majority of fiction pieces you’ll read will not be written in such a way that feels effortless or strikes you as truly artful. What does this mean? You’ll probably have a lot to pick on with the language, even in pieces you think would be good fits for the magazine.


Therefore, your main focus when editing fiction should not be every cumbersome piece of language, but rather the emotional import of the piece, the feelings the author is communicating, the interior lives of the characters, and the structure of the plot. When reading a fiction piece, you should look for the places where the emotion hits you the hardest or most weakly, or where the characters seem most real. And, of course, look for the places where the language is absolutely gorgeous or distinctly monstrous—but for most submissions, you won’t be able to find as much to comment on in that regard in a way that will be genuinely helpful to the author. Commenting on narrative structure and the effect the piece has on you as the reader, however, can be incredibly helpful to author: almost every writer wants to know that their piece affected its readers. And if it didn’t, or there were places it fell short, then that’s incredibly valuable to the author as well.

Lara Katz is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.

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