As a freelance editor and proofreader, many books in many different genres pass over my desk. This is great as I enjoy reading the whole spectrum of books: both fiction and non-fiction. Although I don’t have a subject or genre specialism, unlike some of my colleagues, I do specialize in books that deal with LGBTQ+ characters and situations.
These books need an especially sensitive edit. Books are important, particularly when they deal with emotional subjects such as identity and sexuality. The characters, the experiences, the language all need to be authentic, even in fiction, much like a crime procedural needs to be accurate to actual police techniques. In this blog post, I will look at what it means to edit LGBTQ+ books sensitively.
All books deserve a sensitive edit. As a developmental and copyeditor, it is most important to maintain the author’s voice. It is not my book and an editor shouldn’t impose their voice on the manuscript. When editing fiction, the editor is always looking for ways to strengthen the plot and the narration. That could be finding holes or inconsistencies within the story or times when the characters act out of character!
Of course, there’s also the usual spelling, punctuation, and grammar to deal with too. But, today, I want to talk about editing LGBTQ+ fiction.
No matter how you identify, language is always going to evolve. As a community, LGBTQ+ people have developed their own language. Sometimes, this is out of necessity and safety, such as the language of Polari, which developed in early 20th century Britain. Other times, LGBTQ+ people’s language evolves to take account of the wide spectrum of identities and sexualities. Not forgetting the shorthand of the hook-up apps and the other, darker, side of language.
One book I refer to constantly is The ABC’s of LGBT+ by Ashley Mardell (ISBN 9781633534094). It’s an invaluable source for ensuring that the language used in the books I am editing matches the real-world use of terms.
The authentic use of this language matters. It matters to make the story real, believable, right. If it’s the language that the character should know, the author (and therefore the editor too) should be getting it right. Language matters too be because language can hurt.
Mislabelling or misidentifying someone is not hurtful. Getting it right counts.
As language and vocabulary have developed, so too have pronouns and their use. Whether that’s gender neutral use of they/them or other neo pronouns, it’s equally important to get these right. And it’s an editor’s job to ensure that these are consistently used.
Dealing with the manuscript sensitively is important. Stories featuring LGBTQ+ characters can have profound impacts on people, especially if they are coming to terms with their own identities. As authors and editors, we have a joint responsibility to ensure that people are represented accurately. As an editor of LGBTQ+ books, I know accurate representation is important to readers and to the community as a whole.
As editors, it is also right that we point out examples of times when characters are not as diverse as they could be. LGBTQ+ people are found across the world, doing every job, practicing every religion and none. As editors, we are in the unique position to help guide authors to create a more diverse cast of characters that truly represents the diversity of our community.
And, when it comes to character, it is so crucial that we edit the character well. Being LGBTQ+ is not the only character trait! And, if I spot that, we get editing! No two people are the same. And the idea that being LGBTQ+ is enough of a character description isn’t going to do the community, your book, or your readers, justice. Characters need to develop throughout the story: coming to terms with a sexuality or gender is one way, but we grow and develop in so many other ways too. Editing LGBTQ+ books is about ensuring that character development is balanced and fair.
Along with getting the characters authentic and truly representative, it's important to get the plot right too. Whether the story is set in the real world or in a fantasy land, the experiences of LGBTQ+ people should be accurately portrayed. An editor should work with authors to ensure that situations are presented fairly, accurately and don’t demonize or harm the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
Likewise, an editor needs to ensure the story steers clear of stereotypes. We probably all know them: the gay best friend, the overly camp young man, the short-haired lesbian. Of course, stereotypes are based on real experiences but their use in modern books is damaging. It does not reflect the diversity we find within the LGBTQ+ community. Editors need to be on the lookout for these.
But there are more subtle stereotypes that need to be pointed out by the editor of LGBTQ+ fiction. For instance, the idea that all LGBTQ+ have been hated or illegal throughout history is a common misconception. As an editor, you need to be on the lookout for anything that may continue a negative narrative.
Editing LGBTQ+ books is a privilege. Being allowed to work with authors and publishers to carefully sculpt words and stories is a responsibility to the whole community. Books give underrepresented people a voice. They give validation to feelings and emotions that, for some, cannot be talked about openly. Reflecting this is key in editing and doing so sensitively is a challenge but one that must be tackled to ensure that the future of LGBTQ+ publishing is representative, fair, and engaging for everyone.
Nick Taylor is an editor, proofreader, and writer from Colchester, England. He works with fiction and non-fiction authors and specializes in supporting LGBTQ+ writing. To find out more, please visit his website: www.JustWriteRight.co.uk.