In honor of the six month anniversary (birthday?) of Therefore I Geek, I would like to present some “how to” tips for editors. I especially want to stress correcting grammar and syntax without losing the original writer’s voice.
The first time I was presented with a request for editing (it was a friend’s high school paper), I ripped into it. With a red pen I circled phrases that I felt belonged in a different spot and drew arrows to where I thought they should go. I struck through whole paragraphs and drew question marks over the original writing. Ordinary punctuation and spelling errors were the fewest of my corrections. My friend rewrote his entire paper in my image, and I thought it was good. It was good. He got an A. However, the paper wasn’t actually his by that point: it was mine.
I’ve learned, through trial and error, that there is a way to edit that doesn’t involve inserting my voice into a piece by someone else. After all, if I had wanted to write it, I would have. There have been moments when a writer and I have pounded our fists on the table and glared at each other in a disagreement over the best turn of phrase. This is somewhat ridiculous, and can be easily avoided.
So how does one edit a piece to be the best it can be, without losing the author’s style? It is always a good idea to keep in mind the overall tone of the piece of writing. A research paper will have a very different quality from a blog post. Blog posts are informal, and a writer can get away with a lot of casual and dialectic grammar that would otherwise meet with disapproval.
The editing process starts with a basic edit for simple grammar changes. Then, a thorough read-through will make the areas which need work clear. Sometimes, sentences sound too similar, and need to be re-worded. Rather than changing the sound of the sentence, it is better to simply rearrange the author’s words to give the sentence a different cadence. For instance, if there have been several sentences in a row that begin with a counter-factual clause and end with a factual one, switch the two.
Example: It is easy to believe that an editor should insert their own style into a sentence, but it is preferable to leave the author’s choice of words intact.
Corrected: It is preferable to leave the author’s choice of words intact, even though editors may find it easier to insert their own style into the sentence.
This does not mean that it is wrong to cut out redundant sentences, or to consolidate multiple weak sentences into one strong, cohesive sentence. It is merely important that the author not get lost in the editing.
Next, it is a good idea to check for weak wording. Many writers are trying get the thoughts in their heads down on paper as quickly as possible. If they cannot think of the correct noun or verb, it is easier to just use banal phrases as place holders, so they can move on to the next thought before it is lost. A good editor will point these out to the author for replacement. Over the course of their relationship, the editor may know the correct word, and simply replace it in the sentence and move on. If the entire phrase or sentence is trite, however, it may be in the best interests of having a singly voiced piece to just mark the phrase as awkward, or needing to be re-written. The author can then make the choice of wording.
Sometimes the best advice that an editor can give to the writer is to erase what he’s written and start again. If the editor is confused, the audience will also be confused. I’ve often found, under these circumstances, that I can work with the writer to improve whole pages. When we work together, it is more likely that the writer’s work will sound like it belongs to him, and not to me.
A good working relationship between a writer and an editor means that the writer’s voice is not lost during the editing process. As the great poet Anonymous once said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.”