Author’s voice or editor’s choice?

Why do we get so defensive about what we do? Writers write and editors edit. I do both and this doesn’t cause much of an internal conflict for me. When I write, I ask someone to edit and when I edit, it’s someone else’s writing. And yet, there remains the ongoing debate about how much the editor can do and how much the author should permit.

Here are my thoughts on the dilemma (if it is indeed a dilemma at all):

The author’s voice is critical but so too is the editor’s keen eye. Two different roles and yet it continues to be a point of contention for many. I think it’s like this:

The author

  • gives much time and thought to the content of their writing,
  • has a specific audience in mind,
  • usually wants to convey a particular message,
  • may even know the tone in which they’d like to send the message,
  • feels possessive and protective, maybe even exposed or vulnerable about what they have dared to put in writing.

The editor

  • spends many an hour fine-tuning text,
  • is committed to making sure that the information is clear and makes sense to the reader,
  • is invested in ensuring that communication is appropriate and relevant, specifically within the context in which it is distributed,
  • clarifies its relevance to the audience for whom it was intended,
  • feels they are the essential spit-and-polish required for any written piece to truly shine.

Clash of the egos

Possibly, the dilemma boils down to fragile egos. The reality is writing cannot exist without human beings, who are complex (and proud). So begins the battle:

  • who is the better authority,
  • who ultimately takes the prize for top-class writing,
  • where would one be if not for the other?

It may take one writer and one editor, but it always takes two to tango

Writing and communication of any kind is like a dance, if ever you’ve seen Latin or ballroom. It looks like this:

  • one extends the invitation or offers their availability,
  • the other graciously accepts,
  • they lead one another onto the floor, hand on arm in a steady, respectful and composed manner,
  • together they form an embrace in which intention and direction are comfortably communicated,
  • then the dance begins – back and forth, side to side, maybe a dip, possibly a flare, but always with the other in mind,
  • and it’s beautiful – composed and courteous from start to finish.

Why can’t writers and editors just dance?

Usually, it’s quite clear what needs doing and who does what. In formal writing, for example, colloquialisms and contractions would be removed without thought, or archaisms and referenced text might be omitted from a personal blog.

However, the problem arises when the editor and author have not clarified boundaries and terms of service. They haven’t established the rules of engagement or the type of dance they’re about to take. Here’s what it should involve:

  • define the relationship with clear expectations for each party,
  • this includes the extent of editing, especially where it concerns detailed changes to word use, sentence structure and the intended overall style of the piece,
  • negotiate how to communicate (yes, be clear about email, phone calls, in person, frequency of contact),
  • be clear on the type of editing and tools used (track changes, comment boxes, PDFs, hard copy, which edit belongs to which tool),
  • allow time for at least one round of back and forth.

The dance is about collaboration rather than confrontation

To dance well in work, one needs will and mutual regard:

  • the will to hear the other,
  • the mutual regard or respect to offer sincere input – kindly and honestly.

Will and mutual regard form the foundation of any healthy interaction. If used consciously, I suspect the level of skill or authority about who wrote what and what needs changing will remain secondary. The commitment to cooperation will lead to an end-product that will leave readers wanting or, at the very least, satisfied. So it’s not the author’s voice or the editor’s choice – indeed it is rather the author’s voice and the editor’s choice.

Care to tango?