She said, “As a new writer, I was paranoid that no one would like my stories. Would my editor be able to keep my ‘voice’ and not make too many additions of her own? I believed a good editor would instill confidence in a writer’s skills and ideas and yet be honest when something didn’t work or needed a change. A good editor would also convey this in a way that would dignify a new writer and encourage her to improve, not to give up.”
These may sound like simple comments, but this writer expresses major concerns in these few sentences.
First, she worried that nobody would like what she wrote. This is a common fear among writers, particularly first-timers. Even established authors can pen a book that misses the mark with readers—rather like a famous actor can star in a box-office dud. It goes with the territory. We learn to live with it, and it keeps us on our toes to put out the best stories we can—which is still no guarantee that our books will be loved.
Second, her comments about voice have been reiterated many times here on BRP, as well as elsewhere. However, a surprising number of writers, experienced as well as newbie, don’t have a clear concept of what voice is. Wikipedia defines it as “a combination of a writer’s use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).” In other words, “voice” encompasses all the unique ways in which an author creates, processes, and presents material. It may take some time and a number of books before an author develops a distinctive and recognizable voice, but it eventually happens. Case in point: my brother, a devoted Robert Ludlum fan, noted that the books featuring Ludlum characters but written by other authors after his death had a very different voice. And none of those writers, he said, had mastered Ludlum’s extraordinary ability to hook a reader right from the beginning.
No good editor will tamper with a writer’s voice. New writers, as mentioned above, most likely have no voice yet. Furthermore, they tend to be all over the place stylistically and grammatically. That same good editor, however, will help a writer find his/her voice and remain true to it.
Third—and this can be a bone of contention, especially for first-time authors—editors do note where changes/additions need to be made and do, now and then, write some material to show the author the kind of change or addition that is needed. The good editor, however, will never insist on the use of his or her own words by any author, but will explain why such a change is in the best interest of both author and story.
Fourth, the job of the editor is never to discourage a writer, but rather to be a mentor. Teaching a writer to write well, to make the next book better than the present one, should be an editor’s goal. This can often be accomplished by a simple explanation.
Most writers who complete a book display some degree of skill or some area in which they can be commended. Focusing and building on that positive area creates a working platform and a springboard from which to address other areas that need work.
Finally, dignifying the writer goes a long way toward building a powerful working relationship between editor and writer, and it encourages writer improvement. We all respond to deserved commendation. Writers pour heart and soul into a work that may have rough edges and a rocky interior. But like a bit of carbon that is, over time, heated and pressed into a diamond, that work may be heated and pressed into great novel or even a bestseller. A strong, positive relation between a potentially great writer and a powerful editor demonstrates synergy at its best. The two together can produce an extraordinary story with the writer as the student and the editor as the teacher and nurturer.
As a writer, what have been your concerns about voice when working with an editor? Have you had a good experience—or a bad one?
As an editor, how have you dealt with writer concerns about voice? How do you put a writer at ease?
Linda Lane and her editing team mentor serious writers who want to hone their skills. Learn about their work at www.denvereditor.com.