by Ronnie Morris
Published at 2021-04-14
For our blog just a few weeks ago I was asked about the best piece of editing advice I ever received. I had actually only recently had an epiphany about this, so I replied without hesitation: “Remember, it’s not your book.” The same might be said about any writing format, but it was this phrase in particular that rang in my head when the penny finally dropped. This week, I thought I would expand on my realization a little.
I probably came across the idea of empathy a dozen times in the past, but the words had never really sunk in. In spite of being properly forewarned, I often found myself employing too heavy a hand, rewriting passages that were grammatically correct but not written in what I thought was the best possible way. I was trying to be thorough, but in doing so I made changes that reflected my own prejudices and preferences. Although it certainly wasn’t intentional, these changes were fundamentally altering the writer’s voice.
It was really only when I read Lesley-Anne’s blog post on editing with empathy that I came to understand what it meant to work in the service of the writer. I suddenly appreciated how frustrated the writer might feel seeing words come back that weren’t what they had intended.
An author’s voice is unique: the choices they make combine to form a distinct style attributable specifically to them. Authors work hard to create it, and it should be an editor’s job to help preserve it. This doesn’t mean errors or problems should be ignored, of course. But how can we help make a piece of writing the best it can be without damaging what the writer has created?
To begin with, we need to recognize what it is that makes the author’s writing unique. This might be affected by the overall tone of a piece: an academic research paper obviously feels different than an informal blog post. But an author’s use of large words or slang, their use of long sentences vs. short sentences, their use of punctuation, all coalesce to create their own unique style.
Beginning to edit before we have become familiar with their voice risks weakening or even eliminating it altogether: so we might want to read enough of the manuscript to catch the tone.
Although an author will have made definite choices in crafting their writing, most have attempted to get the thoughts in their heads down on paper as quickly as possible. Mistakes are bound to happen.
Obvious grammatical errors or conflicts with the relevant style guide should be corrected. The overuse of a particular word or sentence structure should be changed. Writing that is overly complex or awkward should be revised. Unintentional ambiguity or inconsistencies that weaken the author’s voice might be replaced so that the author can say what they mean to say the way they intended.
Their voice, however, should never get lost in the editing. Sometimes that might mean simply rearranging the author’s words to give the writing a different cadence or consolidating multiple sentences into a stronger one rather than actually substituting words or phrases.
If there is ever a question about the appropriateness of any amendment, it might be best to query the author so they can make that call. This doesn’t mean editors should ask authors about every minor style or grammar issue they encounter; doing so would be hugely time consuming, if not irritating. Most corrections can probably be safely made to the text, but a more invasive change might include a comment to explain your reasoning.
As editors, we should only alter what needs to be altered, and we should not do anything to the text unless we have a good reason for it. Just because we don’t like the way something is written is not really a good enough reason: the author should have the final say. After all, it’s their book.
Changes of word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph structure can inadvertently alter an author’s voice; a good working relationship between a writer and an editor depends on that voice not being lost during the editing process. I try to keep that foremost in my mind when I do edits now, and my work is better—and faster—for it.
For more on best practices when working with authors, check out our blog "Back to Basics" Editing Rules. And, for more information on demystifying how editors work, check out Ask the Editor: Some Common Myths About What We Do.