Writing is personal.
Sometimes it’s personal in content, like a journal or memoir?and sometimes there are personal aspects, like a character who goes through a painful experience similar to your own. Then there’s the catharsis that can come from getting your frustration out onto paper (or screen!), and the vindication you feel when you turn your real-life nemesis into your story’s villain. And who can ignore the hours of proverbial blood, sweat, and tears that go into a writing project that comes from your very soul?
But I’m talking about a different kind of personal.
It’s not just what you put on that paper or screen, it’s how you put it. And that how, that personal style, is a part of you, a reflection of you, an aspect of you that you’re sharing with the world. That’s your own personal writing voice, and it’s as unique to you as your fingerprints.
Unlike fingerprints, though, your style grows with you, and it may change as you develop as a writer. Young writers may try to mimic a favourite author’s style, and even experienced writers often use this technique as a tool to improve their craft or try new genres. The books you read, the sensory experiences you have, and the people you encounter all affect the way you translate your imagination into sound and story.
That’s what makes the job of an editor so unique?and so challenging. It’s vital to understand the norms and standards of grammar and usage (and when and how to apply them) and to have the proverbial eagle eye, but editors also need to be able to look past that and make judgment calls as to when too much is too much or too little is not enough. They need to ask themselves not only what rule might apply, but why?and when it’s better to leave well enough alone.
I call it ESE: extra-sensory editing.
We’ve all seen the horror stories floating around on the Internet?stories of editors who favored rules over style where style should have trumped, and even editors who ran roughshod over an author’s personality as voiced through their story. Like one of my clients, whose (former) editor added graphic descriptions she feared might trigger her readers (she cut them before handing the manuscript to me). Or another writer I know, whose editor changed the informal writing style to make it a lot more formal?even though the breezy, chatty style fit the nature and mood of the story.
But those horror stories aren’t as common as you’d think. In fact, most professional editors I know would be dismayed at the idea of overriding your style. They want to help you improve your writing, characterization, and pace, and whether they’re editing for content and flow or looking for grammar and usage irregularities and inconsistencies, they’ll make suggestions and recommendations within the context of your style. Writing a formal essay? Complete sentences mean you’re putting your best foot forward. But in first-person YA fiction, sentence fragments may be a natural fit.
An editor can also tell you how your style, or the way you’re applying certain aspects of your style, may affect readers. Sentence fragments may not be wrong for your genre, but in some cases having too many of them back to back may create a choppy flow. Similarly, an author may appreciate using a higher vocabulary, but overdoing the big words at an already tense point in the story may come off as melodramatic, minimizing the believability of the scene.
Editing is teamwork, not a top-down relationship like the traditional red pen seems to suggest. Whether you’re looking to transition into a career as an editor or submit your life’s masterpiece to another’s eye, consider developing your ESE when you edit your own or others’ work. In the end, style and substance interact to create something stronger?and a happier experience for your reader.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.