Accuracy in fiction editing

January 22, 2008

I’ve never edited fiction—and have no intention of doing so—but I am a member of the Society of Editors (WA) Inc. As such, I receive their monthly newsletter, have attended and spoken at several workshops and meetings, as well as attended a couple of end-of-year functions, though it is much harder for me to do so now we’re living in regional Western Australia.

The SOEWA group is a really nice bunch and not at all stuffy. One of the stalwarts of the group is Amanda Curtin. In May 2007, she presented a paper at the Institute of Professional Editors National Conference, titled: ‘But it’s fiction!’: Getting it right when you’re editing fiction. This paper is worth reading, especially for anyone who writes or edits fiction.

One passage particularly resonated with me as the same principles apply to the ‘editing’ work I do with software interfaces:

Whenever a reader’s attention is distracted, even minutely, by a name that doesn’t seem quite right, a date that doesn’t fit with another, an expression that seems wrong for a character, an obvious (or maybe not so obvious) error of fact, a discordance in detail like the construction material of a house—that’s a fracture in the bond between the reader and the text, a moment when they’re disengaging from the fictional world. A member of the original CASE Standards Working Group coined a lovely expression for this: ‘garden-pathing the reader’, allowing their attention to wander up the garden path and away from the words on the page and the author’s intention. The aims of ‘getting it right’ must be cast in the negative—not getting it wrong, not distracting, not fracturing the bond, not garden-pathing the reader—and there’s nothing trivial or nitpicking about that. Rather, it cuts to the heart of the reading experience.

One of my favorite books—Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think! A Commonsense Approach to Web Usability—preaches the same message.

Whether it’s a website, a software interface, or a work of fiction, if the user or reader has to pause or hesitate because something’s not quite right, you’ve potentially lost them, and may have lost your credibility (or your product’s credibility) too. The last thing you want is a user or reader muttering “If they can’t get that right, then what guarantee is there that they can get everything else right?”

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