An author’s voice is unique, like a fingerprint. The author’s choice of words, punctuation usage, sentence structure, and more add up to a style that readers can recognize as belonging to a specific person. (A publication may also have a voice, with regular authors contributing to that publication’s style.)
Authors work hard to create their voices, and copyeditors are called on to protect them, even help crystalize them.
It’s one of the most difficult things we copyeditors do.
Identify the Voice
When we first work with an author, we have to get to know their style. If we start editing before becoming familiar with an author’s style, we unknowingly risk ruining that style. This is one reason that reading the manuscript before editing it is so valuable.
Once we begin editing, we have to consider how our decisions affect the author’s voice. Not every change will hurt the voice, but many changes together can. The manuscript is like a bucket of clear water and edits that change voice are food coloring. One drop of blue won’t change the color of the water, but drop after drop adds up until, all of a sudden, your water is undoubtedly blue and you can no longer see the bottom of the bucket.
Changes to word choices, sentence structure, and paragraph structure can affect an author’s voice. For example, the final exam I give my students in Copyediting II (meant to teach a medium copyedit) is a chapter from a self-help book I worked on. The author’s voice is friendly and approachable. Readers are meant to feel like they are talking with a good friend who has some advice they can put to use right now. The author walks readers through complex topics in small steps, laying out the material in a way readers can easily follow.
Part of the exam is whether students can make edits without changing the author’s voice. Here’s an example from the test, with a student’s correction:
Orig: As far as I’m concerned, there are no true human couch potatoes.
Edit: One could say that there are no true human couch potatoes.
While the edit is grammatical and the meaning is the same, the voice has changed. The author is no longer your best girlfriend sharing her thoughts on nutrition. She’s now a professional—distant instead of friendly. In isolation, the edit is harmless. Added to many other edits that change voice and you have a problem.
Review Your Work
While we must consider every edit as we make it, we should also review our work afterward to ensure that the voice is the same as when we began. Perhaps it’s clearer, purer, so readers hear and engage with it better, but it’s still unmistakably the author’s voice.
How do you help your authors shape their voice? Share your tips in the comments section!
This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website June 25, 2013.