There’s a very real concern among writers that an editor will damage their writing voice and replace their style. This fear is not unfounded. But any editor worth their salt certainly won’t do this. In fact, they’ll be able to help you enhance and refine your voice. Here’s how.
There are no grammar rules – only guidelines
Even though it would probably make life easier, there are no grammar gods sitting on clouds providing commandments about comma placement to editor-prophets in dreams. Style guides are just that: guides. They aren’t rulebooks.
Thou shalt not split an infinitive has never been chiselled into holy stone (as far as I’m aware).
Style guides should be used in two ways:
- To help answer a stylistic question that is ambiguous, inconsistent, illogical or not present in the author’s text (and that, upon discussion, the author is not sure about themselves).
Example: If the word ‘duke’ is written both with and without a capital letter throughout the manuscript regardless of context, a quick consult with New Hart’s Rules lets me know that ‘titles and ranks are generally lower case unless they are used before a name’ and so I’ll use this guideline to create logic and consistency.
- To help create an overall style that’s familiar and therefore easy to read. If every author reinvented the grammar wheel, reading would be much harder. If there’s no significant reason a stylist rule should be different from the industry standard, it’s often best to change it so it follows convention.
Example: If a comma is often used to separate two sentences, a quick look at the Penguin Guide to Punctuation tells me that a full stop is ‘chiefly used to mark the end of a sentence’ and to use a comma is ‘not possible’. Of course, it is possible – but it’s not considered correct. A comma used in this way might be placed for effect, but if it’s used too liberally it will become distracting and will make the text harder to read.
In the UK, New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide is considered the default style guide for fiction. In the US, it’s The Chicago Manual of Style. But there are plenty more. Most publishing houses will have their own, but these are the ones I recommend to self-publishing authors.
As an editor, I also use a style sheet. This is my own template document that I fill in with any manuscript-specific stylistic decisions. I fill it out using the following information:
- Stylistic choices the author has told me about (such as whether to use UK or US spelling, how they feel about the serial comma, etc.) – I send a questionnaire to new editing clients that asks them about their preferences.
- Stylistic choices that are present in the manuscript. If the author has made stylistic choices that are consistent and not confusing or ambiguous, I’ll follow their lead unless there’s a good reason not to.
- Stylistic choices that are suggested by the chosen style guide. If I can’t find a solution using the first two methods, I’ll turn to our chosen style guide.
When an editor makes grammatical changes to your manuscript, it’s not usually because what you’ve written is wrong. Instead, the editor is attempting to make your style consistent and readable. And that, in turn, only makes your voice stronger.
Listening to language is key
Okay, I’ve talked about writing style but not much about writing voice. Style is more about how you put your writing together. Voice is more about who is behind the words.
Every writer has a voice. It reflects their personality, their worldview, their emotions and their opinions. Skilful writers will adapt their authorial voice to reflect a narrative voice of their choosing.
You see, novels are narrated. In the same way we know we’re not reading a true account of events, we also know we’re not reading a true representation of the author.
When Bret Easton Ellis writes in American Psycho that ‘I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls’ we know that’s not Ellis speaking – it’s Patrick Bateman. It’s Bateman’s voice.
When I edit a manuscript, I listen to what the author has chosen to say and the language they’ve used to say it. I also listen to how different characters sound, both in the narrative and in dialogue. This allows me to flag up when something seems off-key and make an alternative suggestion. In other words, I’m able to help the author strengthen their voice.
Example: If a street urchin character, who normally uses slang and broken grammar, says something has an ‘abhorrent odour’ I’d question whether or not this was consistent with their voice and might instead suggest they say that something ‘stinks’.
Talk it through
I like to think of my edits as suggestions. All of them. I may very strongly suggest a change, but in the end the author should have the final say. It’s their book, after all.
If I make a more invasive change (such as suggesting a different word or reordering the sentences of a paragraph), I’ll include a comment in the manuscript explaining my reasoning.
If I think something more dramatic needs addressing throughout the whole manuscript, I’ll email the author and open up a discussion about it before I make any changes.
When I send the edited manuscript back to the author, I always say that they can email me with any questions they have about the changes I’ve made so there’s no confusion. And, of course, they’re always free to reject my edits. (That’s the beauty of using Tracked Changes!)
Only change what needs to be changed
The key to strengthening a writer’s voice is not changing so much that the original voice is lost or replaced. Of course, the stronger and more confident the writer’s voice is in the first place, the less an editor will need to do to lend a helping hand.
There’s no formula that will tell us how much an editor can change before a writer feels their voice is at risk. Every writer has a different sense of where that line is, which is why it’s so important to find an editor you connect with – and ask for a sample edit.
* * *
In the end, if your writing style is free from traditional errors and made consistent and clear; your language is accurate and reflective of your intended purpose; and you’re open to discussing these issues with your editor so you’re both on the same page … your voice will be much stronger for it.
Editing is more about removing things that weaken a voice – unintentional ambiguity, distractions, inconsistencies – so that the author can say exactly what they mean to say and be heard just the way they intended.
When you read a book that’s been well edited, you won’t hear the editor. The best editors are silent. But you will hear the author, loud and clear.