Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ask the Editor: Do Edits Change Style?

This question comes from Chris Stevenson, who is a member of Morgan Mandel’s Book Place on ning. Book Place

Chris’s latest book is Gate Walker and it can be purchased here on If you'd like to know more about Chris and her latest book, visit her on her Web site

Question: I’ve just spent months going over tedious track-change editing from my publisher. We were allowed little or no adverb/ly words in our manuscript. My question is: Just how much of my unique voice/style did I lose with this very thorough edit? I’m known for being a pretty good stylist, so it concerned me a little.

Answer: Ah, the old “ly” debate. My initial response to your comment is that I am leery of editors who issue absolutes: You must remove all adverbs. You must remove all uses of “was.”

There are legitimate uses of both, and to strip a manuscript of them entirely is a mistake. The problem is that many new writers use adverbs and passive writing to an extreme and that is what can cause an editor to screech and throw down an edict.

That said, it is going to be hard for me to answer your question without knowing how extensive the edits were. If it was a matter of just getting rid of a few pesky adverbs, that should not alter the style significantly. A good editor will not mess with style, even if it goes against his or her preferences. For instance, I am not a huge fan of some common romance phraseology, but if I am editing a romance for a client, I do not ask her to change wordage I don’t like, unless it is a matter of craft.

It would also be helpful to know who the publisher is and the genre of the book. Some small publishers have some guidelines that are not industry or genre standards.

My suggestion is to talk to your editor about this, if it is something you really are concerned about. But before you do that, read through a section of the book now that it has been edited and see if you still feel the same way about it now as you did when you first wrote it. If so, the edits probably did not alter your style significantly.

Hope this helps and good luck with the book.

Posted by Maryann Miller, who believes that an editor's job is to edit, not rewrite the book. Visit Maryann's Web site for information about her editing services and her books. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play farmer on her little ranch in East Texas.

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  1. I'm expecting my 1st professional edits and this helped greatly to calm my nerves. Thank you.

  2. I think it would be tough to remove ALL of those things! I used to overuse 'was' and began a quest to remove/reword from everything I wrote. But there were some places it fit better than anything else. In fact, it began to read odd without a 'was' here or there!

  3. Rules have exceptions, and occasional adverbs are okay. As an editor, I have to point out that the title, Do Edits Change Style?, needs a question mark at the end.

  4. I made a decision to keep Timekeeper in my voice. It was written as a memoir. One editor was so thorough I didn't know who wrote the chapter. In the long run it was not just the story by my voice the readers wanted to hear.

  5. Thanks for the comments. Glad the post has been helpful. And thanks for pointing out the editing error on my part, L.J. I fixed that along with a couple of other mistakes I had made. The post went up sooner than I had expected and I forgot to check it one last time for typos.

  6. I'm the queen of typos and I often rush things out without thorough proofing—my biggest weakness. It's so much easier to spot mistakes in other people's writing.

    As an editor, I work with the author's voice and try not to change the style. But then, I'm not the publisher and don't have my money invested in the book.

  7. I don't think a manuscript (and the writer's voice/style) is ever damaged by limiting adverbs and passive verbs. Eliminating is a different matter -- as L.J. said, rules have exceptions...

  8. Hi, Chris here. I'm a guy btw. The pub house was Lyr...ical, and they flagged every adverb in the manuscript. They used what they called NYC editing style(I've seen this before) and sent a instructional form on how their house edits worked. They did edit by taking a tote of all words that were verbose, passive, repetitive, so on. All "ly" word were flagged, and I believe that a certain number were allowed in the manuscript. Not many, I can tell you that.

    I didn't mind that so much, since it did move the pace faster and the prose ended up being smoother. But in some ways I felt I was writing like Hemmingway, instead of say, King.

    I also noticed that when they wanted to chop my sentences in half, they inserted a whole gaggle of personal pronouns--(MC's name), "her", "she", and that required editing in itself.

    No huge complaints here at all, it just gave me that "wow" moment.


    And you're right, this is very subjective from editor to editor!

  9. The trick is to find an action verb you can use which will eliminate the necessity of an ly word.

    Morgan Mandel

  10. I just came here from Book Place. Found myself checking for "ly" in your response, and concluding that eliminating all might create somewhat stilted language. Interesting though.

  11. The basic rule for using ly words is to use it when you can't find a strong verb to describe the action. EX: she nodded woodenly - there's absolutely no verb to describe that action. LY words often repeat the action of the verb EX: she yelled loudly - yelled says loud so why repeat it. Also, LY words seldom show, the tell. EX: Jan cried loudly. How much better would Jan sank to the floor and sobbed. Loud, body wracking sobs. - Not sure about any of you. But I sure get more of a sense of Jan's sadness in the second version.
    As a former editor, I often saw manuscripts loaded with LY words. The same with the "to be" verbs - was is etc. Use STRONG verbs. Often "was" was combined with ING words - was walking - was crying. Was could easily be eliminated with walked, cried. Past tense verbs.
    Hope this helps.

  12. Publishing houses do, especially with the larger publishers, have a style, too. If you look on your shelves, you will probably notice that you have more books from one publishing house than another.

    There is one major publisher that I can't read anything by them. (No, not going to say who! LOL!) I've bought books from them and end up giving them away, so I just don't buy, no matter how tantalizing the blurb.Reading them, for me, is like scraping a nail down a blackboard. Or I just have bad chemistry with their editorial style.

    What does that have to do with ly words? Well, when I'm talking to authors about how to decide where to send a book, my first question is, "Have you read books published by that publisher?"

    If you can't find a book you like from them, why would you want your book there? If you haven't read any of their books, then how can you know what they will do to your book?

    It's called market research. :-)

    Now, if you did do your research, then you must not have missed the ly words in the other books. (grin)

    And, if the press is small, there will probably be some give room on the edits. They didn't just change your book. You have a chance to accept or not and I use that button both ways when going through an edit.

    Sometimes I agree (because I've had time to get some distance from the book) and sometimes I have a reason why I want it that way. (That section might be in my character's voice, for instance.)

    If you reject ALL the changes, then you are probably with the wrong publisher. If you can accept most or at least half, then you're good IMHO. Just be able to defend your choices in a calm and professional manner.

    I've gone toe to toe with an editor, but I pick my battles. :-) You are building credibility with your publisher--or losing it--based on your professionalism in the process. Again, IMHO.

    Pauline Baird Jones

  13. You make some really good points here. It's possible to remove style when you over edit. Great post.


  14. One of my publishers demanded the same sort of changes in a young adult novel I wrote: remove most "ly" adverbs and replace "was" with active verbs.
    I made the requested changes. I trusted the judgment of the editor.

    Jacqueline Seewald

  15. I with you about adverbs and using state of being verbs: Sometimes they are needed, when used seldom and correctly.

    I have edited work, though, that the writer's voice or style needed to be changed because the writing was so poor. *laugh* Thankfully, not many of those.

  16. Very nice answer to "ly" conundrum. We wouldn't have adverbs if they didn't serve a purpose. And, certainly, an author can (and should) reject edits that he/she thinks aren't appropriate or change a voice.

    Having said that, these kinds of edits rarely change a voice. Certainly voice isn't achieved by using adverbs or most other edits. It is achieved by much subtler elements of writing. Point of view. Use of colloquialism or slang. Choice of detail.

    For the most part, I think most writers worry way too much on having their voice changed and not enough about improving their writing skills.

    I do hope some of you will read The Frugal Editor It includes lots on how to partner with an editor, how to save money hiring one, how to HIRE one that is compatible with you and a whole lot more.

    Editing is a two-way street. There's gotta be some trust and also some confidence. The more an author knows about editing, the better equipped she is to discard or keep edits.

    So, yep. Examine every "ly." And then use each one to your advantage. Either discard or use one of the methods in The Frugal Editor to turn them into more visual writing.

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

  17. P.S. Not even all questions require question marks. The one noted by L.J. Sellers does but sometimes a question is really a statement--one that requires no answer. Then, no question mark. (-:

  18. I think you handled that one quite well, Maryanne.

    The Old Silly

  19. Thank you all for your participation. I learned some things that will surely help the next big round.


  20. Opps, sorry about the gender mix-up Chris. Guess I should have visited your Web site before writing the post. That'll show me. LOL

  21. Wow, just read though all the comments. Good points made throughout. What a helpful forum this is as we all have something of value to add.

    I really liked your examples, Roseanne. Really brought the point home of when an adverb is needed and when it isn't.

  22. I'm glad to hear that reinforcement;. In fact, I was
    going to write a book with one of the characters using all the ly adverbs she could. LOL that would be a character trait.

    Love your horse.

    Patricia Guthrie
    Waterlilies Over My Grave
    In the Arms of the Enemy

  23. I believe edits can rob one of their particular style. In my first book I obeyed and removed all the "ly" and "ing" words, leaving my normally animated style dry and dull. I decided to put many, but not all back, and the edit went fine. I use "ly" because I hate the constant, monotonous paragraphs of "he , she, he, she, ad nauseum. My pet peeve which I don't see so much fuss about is the overuse of "had" and worse yet,"had had". Was, as a passive, can be replaced with many active verbs if one just looks for them. I seem to do best by writing by ear and ignoring all but the most logical changes to my prose. Thanks for a great, informative answer.

    Micki Pelusso

  24. Great discussion, and I got a chuckle out of the subject line being incorrect. I'm supposed to edit the posts. Haha. As we say in the office, "nobody's perfick, but we try." Thanks to all of you.



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