Have you ever read a story and known, without looking at the attributions, who wrote it? That’s because most authors have a distinctive “voice” that is part of what sets them apart from other authors. It’s a large part of what makes an author unique.

Even though “voice” is a well-known literary term, it can be difficult to quantify exactly because it’s a rather complex mix of punctuation, sentence style, storytelling style, syntax, character description and development, diction and even story length or pacing. Some readers may be able to correctly identify the author of story but not be able to clearly explain why they were able to do so. Other readers can identify aspects of the author’s voice that are particularly obvious to them.

An author’s voice is something readers rely on. They expect Famous Author A to sound like Famous Author A. They buy books based on this expectation and will not hesitate to communicate their disappointment if their expectations are not met.

In the land of fiction, in particular, there may really be no new plots if you distill stories down to their most basic themes. So what allows authors to sell what is basically the same story over and over again? It’s the unique way that author tells that particular story, that author’s voice.

Voice poses a particular challenge when it comes to editing, especially when editing fiction. Works of fiction, much more so than non-fiction, are inherently more subject to “rule breaking” and grey areas that require judgement calls. Editing fiction requires the editor to be ever-mindful of the voice of the author.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly things that can be either black or white. Historical facts, science, incorrect words, obviously bad punctuation or grammar, etc. These are things that can typically be fixed without much, if any, impact on the author’s voice. But some of the grey areas can include story aspects like pacing, character development, phrasing, dialogue, etc. and these are all things that run a risk of altering the author’s voice.

Because we all have preferences, conscious or not, there can be a natural inclination for editors to want to change work they are editing to be more in line with the editor’s own preferences. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing a word choice or a dialogue style, sometimes it’s as complex as reworking a story arc or a character’s development.

I’ve seen examples from sent to me by authors where an editor has seriously trampled over an author’s voice and started rewriting at will, often with little or no regard to how their edits fit into the greater manuscript or body of work of the author. In some cases this was done with Word’s Track Changes on, so the author could see the changes but in some cases it was not. While the lack of Track Changes may be an innocent oversight, I would consider it sloppy on the part of the editor at the very least. Editing should not be a secret.

One thing these examples had in common, though, was that the rewritten parts of the work no longer sounded like the author. They no longer conveyed that author’s voice but instead were now in the editor’s voice, sometimes with a very jarring effect on the reader.

In my personal opinion, this is not the way to make any author’s work the best it can be. Instead, this is making the author’s work into the editor’s work. I know not all editors agree with me and that’s okay, but I work extremely hard to make sure that I always respect the voices of my authors. I’m more than a little passionate about this, I’ll warn you.

Does this mean I don’t carefully examine manuscripts for these grey-area issues? Of course it doesn’t. Part of the job of content editing is to look beyond just the mechanics of language and any sterile facts. When I’m editing, I constantly question not just the words on the page but also my own reaction to them. I look up data and facts. I page back and forth within the manuscript to check story changes or review previous statements. I often read prior works in a series so I have the body of knowledge needed to edit a follow-up book and can help the author with questions of continuity.

What my passion for preserving an author’s voice does mean is that while I may edit a word or punctuation directly in the manuscript, there are many times where I insert comments to the author into the manuscript instead to ask the questions, point out issues or inconsistencies, suggest different word choices or even explain how something makes me feel and why. I jokingly refer to these as “thought bubbles” and I use them liberally because, if a change needs to be made once an author sees my feedback, I want the author to make the change themselves. This helps make sure that the changes are in the author’s voice and not mine.

I don’t want work I have edited to sound like me. I don’t want readers to read something I edited and recognize the editor from it. The voice belongs to the author and it’s part of my job to respect and preserve that voice while still making the author’s work the best it can be.