I tried to find points of reference for this topic (the author’s voice) and there were not any in my usual go-to sources. This suggests that the author’s voice is something that cannot be easily quantified or taught in a few easy steps. Maintaining the author’s voice is also not always easily achieved. This post looks at what the author’s voice is, why it is important and how we, as editors, can be more aware of it in every text that we edit.
What is the author’s voice?
The author’s voice tells us who the author is. It gives us clues about their personality. An author’s voice is recognisable through their choice of words, style of writing, structuring of sentences, and the tone they use, among other factors.
Authors usually invest a great deal of time and effort in their writing. They take pride in their product, which they may view as an extension of themselves and as a representation of who they are. Rightly so, as the writing is their craft, while polishing it off is ours.
Why is it important?
Authors know what they want to say but may struggle to communicate that in the clearest way possible. The role of the editor is to ensure that the author’s intended message reaches the targeted readers correctly. As editors, we work in the background to respect what the author wants conveyed in the foreground.
Authors may have different editing needs, and it is important that this is clear from the outset. If an editor is needed for developmental or structural editing of textbooks, the author’s voice might not be as important a consideration as it is in a fictional work or an opinion piece. Personal style may be another aspect to consider when taking cognisance of the author’s voice (style could answer the question of whether the author’s voice is formal, educational, humorous, conversational, colloquial, factual, etc.).
You can maintain the author’s voice by confirming the purpose of the text. A higher level of intervention may be needed if the author has not correctly understood the writing requirement (legal and forensic writing may have specific requirements in terms of style, register and tone that would be quite different to a social media post, for instance).
Our role as editors is to protect and preserve the author’s voice. This means that, whether our intervention is excessive or seemingly minimal, it cannot be at the cost of the author’s style and personality.
How do I remain mindful of the author’s voice?
- Register: Make sure you understand whether the text is formal or informal, for what purpose it is intended and in which context it will be used, and who the target audience is.
- Style: Pay attention to the overall style and tone of the text. Establish whether the writing is conversational, educational, formal, friendly, professional or stern, and whether or not it is suited to the intended audience.
- Assumptions: Do not make assumptions about preferred word choices or sentence structure if the original text makes sense. Even when using plain language principles, you need to be careful of changing terms and phrases for the sake of change (remember the intended audience and the author’s personality).
- Motivation: Always be sure that you know why you are making changes to texts. If it is because you prefer the change (personal preference), such an edit might not be needed and could offend the author unnecessarily. Editing needs to be purposeful and selective. You should be very clear about the reason you are changing words, sentence structure and even paragraph formats or headings and sub-headings.
- Author queries: I believe any substantial changes and even some specific word changes should be suggested in a comment to the author, with your motivation. Also, you can assess your effectiveness as an editor by using author queries. If the client is happy with your suggestions, you are on track but if they decline more of your suggestions than they accept, you might need to reflect on your role and how to improve your editing service. Or you might need to discuss with the author their understanding of the message being conveyed and its impact on readers (it is the editor’s role to clarify this where necessary). Author queries maintain respect for the author’s voice and give them the authority to change their work, while also demonstrating the importance of your role. This builds strong client-editor relationships.
Preserving the author’s voice is an essential aspect of all copy-editing services. While there is not a lot of formal writing on the matter, editors need to learn through experience how to recognise the author’s voice and how to manage their level of editing intervention. You can assess the extent to which the author’s voice has been maintained based on your client’s feedback and you can use this to reflect on how to improve your level of editing intervention further. Personally, I err on the side of many author queries rather than on the side of extensive editing intervention. This seems to have worked for me and my clients.