“NEVER DO THIS advice about writing style is rarely helpful. Writing is not an exact science. Authorial voice matters.”
I tweeted the above as part of a conversation on Twitter last week, and it got retweeted around a bit. I thought it deserved a little bit of expansion, so I wrote this post as a follow-up. 🙂
One thing that the internet has made easy is the dissemination of advice. Not just in the publishing world, of course, but the internet makes it simple for any random person (like, say, me) to set up a blog and start handing out suggestions, rules, guidelines, or manifestos about anything they want.
The proliferation of free advice is great for lots of things, including, in many cases, the publishing world. It’s easy to get help when you need it on anything from grammar to word use to location research. The problem comes when personal preferences or opinions are presented as facts. The end result is that there’s a lot of writing advice floating around that’s just not all that good.
When it comes to grammar and usage, most things are pretty clear-cut. There are widely agreed-upon rules regarding how to use the language, and even if not every source agrees, you’ll generally find consensus among different guides on things like word meanings, punctuation, and spelling. Where there isn’t a clear “winner,” a preference may emerge—or your publisher will have a house style that will take care of it.
Other issues aren’t so clear-cut. Idiomatic expressions, metaphors and similes, meter and flow… these are questions related to the author’s writing style, and they don’t have easy answers. They are likely to come down to clarity and authorial voice. To go back to that tweet, generally speaking, advice related to writing style that says to “NEVER DO THIS” is not helpful, no matter what “THIS” is.
Considering the collaborative nature of so much in publishing, it can be easy to forget that editing and writing are far different skills. Writing is a creative art, whereas editing is far more of a science. It’s all too easy for editors to get caught up in the science and lose sight of the art.
I think one of the most difficult things for a fiction editor to learn is how to fix problems without damaging the inherent voice of the author. Even when editors have good reasons for their suggested changes, that doesn’t mean they’re right, or what’s best for the story. I’m not advocating starting editorial fights by any means, but authors who feel strongly about the way they’ve written something shouldn’t hesitate to argue in favor of keeping it.
With every set of edits I receive, I go through basically the same process. I make one pass through to accept or fix everything that I immediately agree with: typos, missing words, incorrect words, and so on. Anything that needs more consideration or that I disagree with gets skipped. Most of the time, that first review clears most of the editor’s comments.
On the second trip through, I look at things more closely. If I agree with the editor’s comment, then I figure out a way to fix it. If I don’t, I mark the passage and explain my reasoning in a comment. Most of the second category contains instances where I think the editor has misread something or has corrected something that wasn’t actually wrong. Often, the choice comes down to “I think it reads better this way.” And pretty much every time, my version is what makes it through to the final copy. Not because I’m “right” and the editor is “wrong,” but because there is no right or wrong, only a preference. And my name is the one that’s on the story.
So the lesson? As with anything on the internet, don’t take every piece of writing advice you read at face value. Figure out what works for your story. And most of all, never say “NEVER.”
Image courtesy of thaikrit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net