Editors must respect the author’s “voice”

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.
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Bad editing is not “handcrafting”

I happened to see this statement attached to a bit of promo from a self-published author this week. The quote was included in an announcement that the author’s newest book was now available on Smashwords and it was so absolutely bizarre to see, I had to reread it several times to see if the author had, indeed, said what I thought I read.

The statement was:

Oh sure, there’s bound to be something we missed in the editing process but flaws are what sets handmade art apart from the manufactured items, right? Perfection is so overrated.



First, I disagree with the implication that well-edited works are “manufactured items”. That’s a borderline offensive statement to authors who work very hard to make their work as error-free as possible. If an author hires me as an editor to help perfect their work, is their work somehow diminished by this? They are not artists any longer? The work they toiled over, sweated over and invested in is somehow lessened by careful editing?

Second, this sort of statement, to me, says the author is taking such a casual attitude toward the work that I shouldn’t bother to buy it. It’s not taken professionally. The author is making excuses instead of trying to ensure the work is as error-free as possible. Excuses are being made, in advance, for why there are errors and trying to make it somehow cute. Maybe the author is saying that we, as readers, shouldn’t expect work to be well-edited because it should be “art”.

My issues with this are independent of whether the author is self-published or not, but most publishers do make at least a cursory attempt at editing a manuscript before they publish it. This kind of statement can be part of what gives self-published works a bad rap, though.

In this case, the author’s own words and excuses have caused this author to be on my personal Never Buy list and I don’t consider this statement one that would be made by someone who wants to be taken at all seriously.

Thanks for the warning.

Style Guides

In many aspects of life, but especially in the written word, it’s important to have a common set of rules or guidelines. These provide continuity, uniformity and clues that remove some of the burden of guesswork as something is being read.

There are layers of these rules that stack on top of each other, from rules inherent in the alphabet in use, to those that are inherent in the language in use, to those inherent in the work’s intended audience or publication. For example:

  • The alphabet in use will tend to have rules about letter formation and order.
  • The language in use will tend to have rules like the directional flow of text, punctuation usage and spelling.
  • The intended audience will tend to have rules like how terms are used, which specific terms are appropriate, and even how long a work should be.

Most of these rules are built around standardization. If everyone at least tries to do things the same way, then it will be far easier for everyone to make sense of what others do. Imagine the chaos of one person randomly deciding that they would write their newspaper with a diagonal text alignment and alternating left-to-right and right-to-left text flow. Maybe it would work for a brief time as a publicity stunt, but everyone who tried to read it would give up because it would be just too hard to make sense of it.

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A Primer on Types of Editing

When I get a request to “edit” a story, the first thing I do is clarify just what type of editing a client is looking to have performed because the range of possibilities is actually quite broad. To make things even more interesting, there’s not a true 100% standardization on the names or even tasks of particular types of editing within the publishing industry. The definitions and tasks can vary across different publishing houses, different publishing niches and even with different freelance editors.

It’s all a bit of a mess and it can be confusing for authors who are either looking for editing services or trying to figure out what the status they’ve just been sent by their editor means.

Instead of attempting some sort of World Dominance of Editing Terminology, I’ve listed below the three major editing types with a few of their alternate names and the most common tasks associated with those types of editing. This is the list I work off of and will give you a decent, if imperfect, idea of what you’re looking at when you are contracting for editing services or getting a status on editing in progress.

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