Whose voice is it: the writer’s or the editor’s?

In all the posts I see from people recommending that you find yourself a good editor, there is a conception that an editor adds value to the work, and is worth the price paid for her/his services.

It is both horrible – and true.

I read an excellent example recently where a writer posted a paragraph as it had been sent to the editor, followed by the (much improved) paragraph that was returned by the editor.

And I couldn’t think of a single solitary good thing to say.

My thoughts?

The edited example is gorgeous, and literary, and flows. The original was pedestrian, barely containing the seed of the final version if you looked hard.

The work was vastly improved – by someone other than the writer.

The images sang, where the original images had barely been able to open their mouths.

And the voice was – whose? Not the editor’s – the story came from elsewhere.

And not the writer’s – because the writer couldn’t do that.

Editor – or collaborator?

Maybe in a collaboration this would be a good thing: both would share in the accolades and the financial rewards.

But it is rare in the publishing world for the editor to be given a co-writing credit. (It is de rigeur in TV and movies, verbotten in plays.)

All I could think of, when confronted by this gorgeous prose, was that it was a bastard child.

I’ve had that reaction before, when I’ve read Sol Stein’s books on writing: if the editor has that much say, and that much power – he told one author to throw away the first hundred pages or so of a novel, another to completely rewrite a significant section, others to change how they wrote  – then whose book is the final product?

How do you tell if the writer is any good without an editor?

I have seen marked up copies of work done by F. Scott Fitzgerald (this is memory, so I’m not sure I’m remembering the details exactly right) that were left when he died, and which were notably uninteresting – unless you made the corrections indicated by the gallon of red ink.

It is common for fans to complain when a writer dies, someone else finishes a work-in-progress, and the results are unappealing – and for the fans to assume it is the new writer’s fault, when it might be the fault of a new and different editor (or the complete lack of a new editor), exposing the original writer as flawed.

How much ‘help’ from an editor is allowed before the writer shouldn’t be able to claim authorship? Morally, if not legally?

Editors defend their services

I am aware that editors claim that they only point out flaws, and it is up to the writer to correct said ‘flaws’ – this is common in traditional publishing. But the reality – I contributed to a Kickstarter for a writer with a good idea, excellent intentions, and lousy execution, and didn’t realize until later that the money was mostly allocated to paying an editor – may be very different.

In the Kickstarter case, the edited work was STILL very hard to read. I read chapter 1 of both versions (I had offered to read the work-in-progress, and backed out in horror after I got the first draft), so I can make a direct comparison. The concept had some merit, and I toyed with the idea of seeing how I might write the first chapter myself – fortunately I decided I have enough work of my own that interests me more, and stayed out of the idiotic idea. Plus, who am I to attempt to ‘improve’ someone else’s work?

Ownership

What got me started on this diatribe was that the original writer was PROUD of the edited paragraph (the first paragraph now of the first chapter of the novel), PROUD of the improvement, PROUD that the material had been developed further and better.

PROUD for the work to go out under the writer’s name.

And all I could think of was that it was no longer the writer’s work – nor was it the editor’s.

And that if it didn’t result in the writer learning how to DO that kind of writing next time, it was a waste of money and time.

How does this affect readers – if at all?

Readers don’t care – but readers will be the first to criticize if a change in editor results in the next book being crappier.

The chill in the pit of my stomach tells me that I’m going to have a difficult time if I let anyone else’s hands near my work.

And I fully realize this is a shrug-of-the-shoulders topic – for most writers.

But a critical question for those who in the DIY world of writing will have to make the decision – and pay the price. Either way.

Reader or writer – what do you think – and do you care?

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22 thoughts on “Whose voice is it: the writer’s or the editor’s?

  1. Harliqueen

    You make a brilliant point, and I think the best thing is really to find an editor that works with you to maintain your voice as a writer. I am lucky to have 3 editors 😀 And each of them seem to point out different things in my work, but none of the suggestions they make I have to do, but also, the edits they make usually don’t detract from my writing and do help to improve it. If there were ever anything that no longer made it sound or feel like my own, I wouldn’t do it. As a writer, I want me to come through the work I write, the heart and soul I put into my story has to shine through as well as everything else 🙂

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I could see the difference between my work and what I would have considered good work from fairly early in the writing journey – I just had no idea how to get from mine to better back then.

      Developing the ability to see your own work as flawed is the first necessity: if you can’t even see you need help/craft/something, you won’t go looking for it.

      After that, the path could include books on writing, editors, critique partners, classes, even a mentor if you’re lucky. Most of these do not involve the expenditure of a lot of money – but editors MAY. I’m cheap – plus I wanted exactly what you want: ‘ to come through the work I write.’ I like that I can learn to handle pov, or plotting, or whatever. Use an editor – if that is a good way to learn, but be careful, INTERNALLY, not to claim work as your own if it isn’t something you could repeat, or you will always be dependent on the quality and availability of your editors.

      We shall see if anything I write hits a chord with readers. That’s on me.

      I’m not saying don’t get a paid editor. I’m saying ‘know thyself.’

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  2. Leslie Miller

    Okay, I’m going to stick my editing toe into these somewhat choppy waters. I am a developmental and content editor, not a copy editor. Writers hire me to help improve their work–and their writing craft. I try to work in a way that ensures an author will learn to write better and need less editing on their next manuscript.

    I try to keep the writer’s voice as intact as possible (if they actually have any voice. Sometimes there really isn’t one). Much of what I do is given as suggestions for what doesn’t quite work, and how the author could improve it. I have no desire to rewrite anyone’s book. I have suggested that writers take writing classes, and in the case of one recent memoir, I suggested that the writer might look into having her story ghosted. Her writing was that lacking.

    In every case, it is the writer’s responsibility to decide which of my suggestions to implement, and, which ones will improve the work, and which to ignore.

    I will, however, sometimes rewrite a paragraph or even a scene as a teaching example. I always say, “I don’t expect you to use this, it’s just an example of what I’m trying to get across.” This could be in the area of POV, dialogue, how to show, not tell, how to insert backstory without an infodump, etc.

    I fully agree that it is the writer’s responsibility to learn their craft. I frequently rail against the fact that many of them do not on my blog.

    My clients are usually very happy with these rewrite examples because they want to learn.

    I occasionally have an author contact me after posting their book to Amazon and getting scathing reviews pointing out lack of editing and amateurish writing. They pull the book down, hoping to find out what’s wrong with it because they don’t have the knowledge, the self-awareness, or the objectivity to improve it on their own.

    If an author needs help, what’s wrong with having an editor provide that help? Is there really any difference between using an editor as writing teacher, or taking classes, buying craft books, working with a writing coach . . . ?

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Welcome, Leslie – and I’m so glad an editor is joining in (though I think several of the previous commenters also edit).

      You said, “I try to keep the writer’s voice as intact as possible (if they actually have any voice. Sometimes there really isn’t one).” I would think a good editor SHOULD do the first part. The second part disturbs me – that was my original point in writing the post: the writer had little voice, the ‘edited’ paragraph was infinitely better – but that’s what went out under the author’s name.

      I’m sure it happens ALL the time. I know about ghostwriters – and I’m sure WHO gets a ghostwriter is not just celebrities. But it bothered ME. So I dug into why – and discovered more about myself, now, as a writer.

      I’m actually glad I didn’t get an editor long ago before I discovered whatever voice I now have.

      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of this – each writer gets to do a personal version of accepting/learning from editing – or choosing not to, and then living with the consequences of that.

      But I was surprised at how vehement I am about my own choices. And there were other writers who commented, and came down solidly on the same side.

      It doesn’t ultimately matter – few readers care what the writer+editor+publisher go through. But it seems to matter to me.

      I am looking forward to reading your blog.

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      1. Leslie Miller (@lesliemillernow)

        Here’s the other side of my story. I’m an aspiring novelist myself, not published yet, but also fiercely protective of my voice and my style. Woe unto any editor who would override it 🙂 but kudos to any editor who could improve or enhance it–or better yet, show me the hows and whys so that I can improve or enhance it myself. I want to be open to improvement, always.

        I guess it all depends on the editor.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          It does indeed depend on the editor, but even that – finding an editor – is fraught with potential problems for newbies.

          It shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg, and the writer should be focused on self-improvement the whole time – if getting better as a writer is the goal.

          For some, getting ‘the book’ out there, earning (assuming that happens), is the important part – learning to write is not. If the return on the financial investment is good, why not?

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  3. Kathlena Contreras

    Alicia, after many years in this business, I’ve come to the conclusion that writing is art, and as art, is vastly subjective. We can point to any number of runaway bestsellers full of flaws major and minor that readers nevertheless enjoyed. Frankly, most of those runaway bestsellers I’ve had to *force* myself to continue reading. But that’s me.

    Like Julia, I’ve worked as an editor and do my own editing. I also have a couple of awesome critique partners who tell me what’s working and what isn’t, and who I use to make sure the story I’m trying to tell is the one that’s coming across.

    I simply don’t believe the mantra that “You Must Have an Editor to Produce Work of Any Quality.” BS. Read a lot, learn the craft and write the stories that are in you. Readers will decide if the book is for them. If it isn’t, that’s okay. That person wasn’t part of your target market. There’s someone out there for whom the book will resonate and who will love it.

    If you want to feel comfortable trusting your art, read some of Dean Wesley Smith’s posts on his blog. Here’s one that touches on what you’re addressing: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=10799

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Kathlena, ‘Read a lot’ is a good touchstone. You will end up writing what you like to read, learning unconsciously from some of those writers.

      Then, when you’re ready to do it yourself, at least you recognize when you don’t hit somewhere in the range of what you like to read.

      It is definitely Art. Even the greatest artists had to learn first – if nothing more than because materials were expensive, and only good quality stuff sells.

      I don’t know whether an editor should mess substantially with a writer’s voice – except in the process of helping the writer develop or discover that voice. I AM uncomfortable as a writer when someone’s work is not a quality they can achieve by themselves. And everyone should proof, and format, and get their work copyedited, and all those things that keep the actual reading experience from being jumpy. But voice? That’s as distinctive as super-model-ness: we have some real ones – and a lot of wannabees.

      Time will tell for each of us.

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  4. kyrahalland

    Very good post. I’m fiercely protective of my voice, my story, my artistic vision. I use beta readers (I call them test readers because I want feedback from the reader’s point of view, not other writers telling me how they’d write the story) and their feedback is invaluable, but I’m not afraid to throw out comments that just don’t feel right to me.

    My philosophy on editors is, a writer should not rely on an editor to do their job for them – which is clearly what was happening in the examples you give. A writer’s job is is to be able to write competently. All that stuff about grammar and word usage and punctuation and structure and scene and conflict and character development – that’s the writer’s job to know all that. Yes, it takes a lot of learning, and yes, an editor can help the writer learn that – if the writer is actively involved in the process and ultimately making the decisions for herself. An editor can be useful as an extra set of eyes to catch things the writer missed, or as a time-saver, but it isn’t the editor’s job to produce a well-written story. That’s the writer’s job.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You put it perfectly: “fiercely protective of my voice, my story, my artistic vision.”

      There are writers/authors/? who want to get their product out there and earn money/get validation/’be published.’ More power to them.

      That’s not me, for better or for worse. But it is my responsibility to get appropriate feedback, to learn what needs to be learned/done. Because that’s MY job.

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  5. TXRed

    I need a copy editor, because I don’t see some errors and miss most of the typos (familiarity breeding contempt and all that). I like an occasional style edit, from someone I’m comfortable with, to catch some distracting “ticks” that creep in (word repetitions for the most part) and to say “Hmmm, is this left over from an earlier version?” But nothing else. That’s what alpha and beta readers are for – to ask “Where did this come from” or “This seems to drag. It’s neat info but what does it have to do with the story?”

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      The problem is the term ‘editor,’ which covers such a broad range, from acquisitions at a publishing house, to a content or developmental editor, to some people’s term for ‘proofreader.’ They are so different.

      When people write an article or a post on how much indies need editors, they ALSO mean different things. I’m having trouble with the idea of an editor affecting, deliberately and significantly, the VOICE of the finished piece. Someone to catch typos and little mistakes – no problem. Someone to change the beginning of a novel to a completely different voice, not on my life.

      I was careful to keep the source, the book, the paragraph, and the gender of author and editor out of my post – that was deliberate. The specific post sparked my post, but the problem is endemic.

      Nice to see you here, TX.

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  6. polsygol

    I think the key is whether or not the writer is willing to regard being edited as an education. If they’re happy to be ghostwritten, well jolly good for them (and they’re certainly paying for it!), but I agree that it’s a strange choice of hobby.

    As for trying to figure out if a writer is “really” good–the output of a lot of writers varies as to quality, especially if they’re raging alcoholics like F. Scott Fitzgerald was. But the truth is, you don’t know if a writer was great, you just know that the resulting work was great. (And sometimes a writer really only has one great book in them.)

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Editing as an education is necessary for all writers somewhere along the line. The education of the writer has to be in seeing whether the story in their head is on the page. No more, no less.

      The implied other part is the quality of the stories a particular writer can come up with. I’m not sure how you would even try to edit for that.

      Thanks for joining in the conversation.

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    2. J.M. Ney-Grimm

      If they’re happy to be ghostwritten, well jolly good for them…But the truth is, you don’t know if a writer was great, you just know that the resulting work was great.

      Ah, yes. That’s it. Alicia, you certainly painted a picture I found troubling and ambiguous. What on earth does one make of the collaborative work? I think polsygol stated the answer quite nicely for me.

      As far as my own working process goes, I’m with Kyra Halland:

      I use beta readers (I call them test readers because I want feedback from the reader’s point of view, not other writers telling me how they’d write the story)…

      Yes.

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      1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

        A good beta reader is worth her weight in gold because she is willing to let you know what confuses, delights, or dismays – but it’s your problem to find the answer. It isn’t all that easy to find good beta readers – it’s work, and they do it for love.

        Readers don’t care about process – and they shouldn’t. That’s the writer’s problem. But the writer can produce more good work if the learning is going on than if an editor is ‘fixing’ things.

        All this is part of the process – and each writer is different. Along the scale of voice, I want to be all at my end.

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  7. serendipitydoit

    You’ve made a good point,Alicia. When I publish, I want to know that I have a book I can be proud of; I also want to know it is my work, my writing and my voice. Yes, it would be great to have a fantastic and supportive editor, but I fear I couldn’t afford her. That’s a dilemma.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’m wondering whether I could afford her – in the psychic sense: an established editor who is good enough may be more than I can handle – and someone who is not, ditto, but for the opposite reasons.

      I realize this sound horribly arrogant. You put it better: “want to know it is my work, my writing and my voice.”

      Possibly there’s a middle ground.

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  8. juliabarrett

    Readers don’t care. I care. I want the work to be mine and mine alone. I do my own editing. Of course I have experience as an editor, but still… I guess I think if you absolutely cannot put together a paragraph without assistance– as in a total re-write, a little assistance is okay, you maybe want to find another hobby.

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