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Say What?: Maintaining the author’s voice in an edit

There is a lot of talk in the writing and editing fields about an author’s voice and how to maintain it in an edit. This is a vital part of an editor’s job because we are here to help you say what you want to say the way you want to say it—not to rewrite your book the way we would say it. But what exactly is the author’s voice? Basically, an author’s voice is their individual writing style, the thing that makes their writing unique. It includes whether an author uses big words or slang, writes formally or conversationally, whether they typically use long sentences or short, and how they use punctuation. It can also include the general “feel” of an author’s writing: Is it lyrical? Clipped? Upbeat? Dark? All of these components, and many more I haven’t mentioned, go into making up an author’s voice.

So how does an editor go about maintaining an author’s voice? How do you suggest changes and rewrites while making sure the author’s style isn’t compromised? The first step is just to pay attention. While reading through a manuscript, I will make note of the unique way an author puts words together, of the decisions they make about punctuation and diction. You can’t help maintain an author’s voice if you don’t know what makes their voice distinctive. If an author has hired me for a deep edit, where I will be providing rewrite suggestions (as opposed to just pointing out areas that could use rewriting and leaving it for the author to accomplish), I will try to phrase these rewrites in a way that matches the author’s style. I may not get it exactly right (I am not the author, after all), but the suggestions should be close enough to the author’s style to allow easy modification.

If the author intentionally uses improper grammar or punctuation for effect, I will maintain that as much as possible while also pointing out areas where it might not be working well or may be overused. For instance, sometimes authors use comma splices (separating independent clauses with a comma, when a period or semicolon would be correct) to show breathless speech or to imitate natural speech patterns (e.g., “He needed her, he had to make her understand.”). This can be effective, but it can also make sentences difficult to read. If overused, it can lose its intended effect and become annoying to readers. In this case, I would point out to an author the places where this element of their style might not be serving them well and offer suggestions for rephrasing. In places where it was working well, I would leave it alone, even though it is technically an error.

There are a couple of things authors should understand about this process. First of all, it will not always be clear to an editor when something is a style choice rather than an error. To go back to the comma splice example, if the author frequently uses comma splices in dialogue when someone is supposed to be speaking quickly but they don’t use them elsewhere in the manuscript, it will be fairly obvious that this is intentional. But if comma splices show up more haphazardly, especially if they aren’t in dialogue, it could be intentional, or it could be that the author isn’t aware it’s a mistake. I would rather point it out to an author and have them say, “I want to leave this sort of thing” than to assume it is intentional and leave an error they didn’t intend. Editing is a dialogue and an editor will learn more about an author’s style as the edit progresses.

Second, even though maintaining the author’s voice is important, there are times when they may need to deviate from it a little. Try not to take it personally if an editor changes something that you consider an important element of your voice or if she suggests a certain technique is overused. The editors I know really want to maintain author voice but part of our job is to help writers keep the reader in mind. Sometimes an author is too close to the writing to realize that they are making things hard for their audience. Of course it makes sense to them—they know exactly what they are trying to convey! Readers aren’t so lucky, and authors may sometimes have to choose between maintaining a certain element of their style in a particular instance and making sure they are understood. If an editor and author work together as a team, they can make sure that the writer’s individuality shines through while still bringing the reader along.

A successful edit that maintains an author’s voice is a team effort. As the author, the final say is always yours, but try to keep an open mind if an editor suggests minor changes to your writing style. If the editor is respectful of the author’s unique way of writing and the author is willing to consider that sometimes their style may need fine-tuning, the end product will be a distinctive book that tells your story the best way possible.

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