I recently received a comment from a client who wrote an epic fantasy novel. She said she appreciated that I preserved her voice during my heavy copyedit of her work and that it showed a lot of respect and craft. She went on to say that she couldn’t imagine trying to preserve someone else’s voice.
Of course, comments like this one delight me (I love making my clients happy), but what especially gives me joy about this comment is that she recognized that it takes effort to preserve author voice and appreciated the thought that goes into doing it. Her comments gave me the idea for this blog post because I thought people might be interested in some thoughts on how to preserve author voice and style.
You May Have a Knack for It
I admit that preserving someone else’s writing comes more easily to me than writing my own material. I feel the opposite of the way my client feels. It sounds so much harder to write my own stuff (especially fiction) than to edit someone else’s writing. In other words, I feel like I’m naturally a better copyeditor versus a writer because I don’t usually feel the urge to change something to my style if there’s nothing otherwise wrong with it. Others do feel that urge and sometimes can’t help themselves. They truly believe that their way is better and think others will too, so they tend to change things to match their style.
You can do a self-assessment to see what camp you fall in. Do you feel the need to change something in every sentence? Instead of small changes, do you rewrite the entire paragraph? The self-assessment will give you some insight, but the only way to tell if you’ve got a knack for preserving author voice or not is to do a sample edit, then ask the author. If the author bristles at the changes and doesn’t feel like it sounds like something she would have written, then you may have some work to do. Experience and feedback from authors will help, as will the tips below. Over time, you’ll develop a feel for when to change something versus querying the author and asking them to change it versus leaving it as is. If you do query the author, you could even provide your version as an option—the author may appreciate you giving her an alternate point of view to think about when rewriting something in her own voice.
Justify your Changes
Don’t make a change unless you can justify a reason for it. If you’re making a change just because you don’t like the way it’s written and you like it better your way instead, don’t make it. That’s not a good reason. Remember you’re there to edit the book, not ghostwrite it. If there’s a grammatical or style-guide reason to change it, then make the change. If there’s overuse of a word or repetitive use of the same sentence structure (like I’m doing here intentionally!), then make the change. If the writing is overly complex or sounds like a thesaurus was used for each word, then make the change. You should have a reason for each change you make as a copyeditor other than that you simply don’t like it.
Just to make sure we’re on the same page, I want to clarify that I do not mean that you need to add a comment explaining why you make each change. (That would take forever!) But you should have a good reason in your mind when you do make each change. Maybe add a comment if you make a more radical change than normal so that the author understands why you felt the change was necessary; otherwise, they’re likely to just think you butchered their sentence or paragraph. If you’re often making changes for the same reason, you can also add an overall note to the author in the style guide to indicate why you’ve made those changes (such as overuse of a word). Authors may appreciate you taking the effort to point these things out because a) it helps them better understand why you made the choices you made and b) it might help them to grow as authors or to better self-edit in the future so that they can maybe reduce their editing fees from a heavy copyedit to a light copyedit.
Read more of what the author has written rather than starting to make changes in the very first sentence. Sure, you may see something that needs to be changed in that first sentence, but try to turn off that part of your brain and read a little more before you start making changes. Read a chapter or several pages, and you’ll start getting a feel for the author’s voice and style. Over time, you should be able to immerse yourself in the author’s voice enough to make changes that feel like something the author would have written.
There’s no set amount for how much you need to read to get that feel; it’s something you must figure out for yourself. You may be able to quickly adapt after a page or two, or you may need a little more time to really feel that immersion. I find that with a fantasy novel, I can generally drop into that immersion within a page or two; however, with my English-as-a-second-language (ESL) clients, it often takes me more time to feel the immersion, mostly because it starts out being sort of difficult to read from a native English speaker’s perspective—it takes more effort to separate the broken English from the style and really focus on the author’s voice.
In the final product, it should be invisible whether the author wrote it or you changed it. In other words, it should sound like the same person throughout the piece. The tips above should help. If you still struggle with preserving author voice, perhaps you have such a strong voice of your own that you should be a writer!