Don’t Touch My Words: How to Tell if You Have a Good Editor

 by Corina Koch MacLeod

What amazes and delights me most about working with self-pubs is how no two voices are alike. Your writing voice, like a thumb print, is uniquely yours. And it is what will make your book like no other.

An experienced editor knows that it’s never a good a idea to mess with a author’s voice. How do you know if your editor is experienced?

Here’s a test:

Every change an editor suggests needs to be

  • just that — a suggestion — one that the author can accept or reject.
  • as minimal as possible (hat tip to science editor, Adrienne Montgomerie for capturing this point so succinctly).
  • defensible — an editor must have a good reason for suggesting the change if the author wants clarification.

So, experienced editors make suggestions that will have the least amount of impact on your writing. In fact, they want your writing to be showcased in the best possible way. They can also tell you why they’ve made a particular suggestion, so don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.

Note: Because editors are often writers, too, they need to constantly check themselves when they suggest changes to authors. It can be tempting for editors to rewrite something because that’s how they’d write it, but this approach doesn’t serve the author at all.

Don’t Touch My Words

You don’t have to agree with every change your editor suggests, but I’d like to point out that sometimes an editor will suggest a change that looks like it’s “messing with your words,” or manner of expression, when it really isn’t.

Allow me to explain. A self-publishing nonfiction author we’re working with at Beyond Paper has a goal to make his book — which is on a complex topic, with lots of technical terminology — accessible to his readers, who quite possibly have learning disabilities. That goal has required us to make editing suggestions that will make this book easier to read for his niche audience.

He has a soothing and assuring writing voice that will win the reader’s trust, so, together, we need to preserve this voice while meeting the needs of his readers. Here are some of the changes that we’ve suggested and demonstrated:

Suggested Changes

  • Trimming words that make sentences longer, but don’t add to the sentence’s meaning (Jim Taylor, of 8-Step Editing fame calls this “taking out the trash”) 
  • Inserting a word or phrase for clarity
  • Moving a word to a different place in a sentence to create a better reading flow or rhythm
  • Shuffling the parts of a sentence
  • Changing the order of sentences in a paragraph

    *Note: these changes are “paragraph-level” changes. We explain the different levels of editing a document typically goes through at the Book Designer blog.

    Track Changes or Scene of a Crime?

    The edited document arrived in the author’s email inbox with changes tracked, but you know Word. Even a minimal number of changes marked using Word’s Track Changes feature can make a manuscript look like a graphic crime scene in the first chapter of a whodunit.

    So we sent two documents: one with the changes accepted and one with the changes marked up. We asked the author to read the changes-accepted document first, with these questions in mind: Does it sound like you when you read it? Will your readers be able to better understand what they read?

    If the author answers yes, we’ve done our job. We have preserved the author’s voice. The author can then look at the tracked changes document so see how we’ve done that.

    Set a Goal for Your Book

    It’s possible to make changes (touch your words) without touching an author’s voice or manner of expression. In the example above, the author had to decide if we had preserved his voice, and if every change we suggested was in line with the goal of his book project, which was to make a book on a complex subject more readable for his intended audience.

    And that leads me to my final point: What is the goal for your book? Is it to created a fast-paced story for the kind of reader who will expect that? Even a fiction book should have a goal—a goal set with the reader in mind.

    Your editing goals also need to be in line with your book’s goal. And any editor who tries to help you accomplish your book’s goal, while leaving your voice in tact, is, in my opinion, a good editor.

    Image by Alan Cleaver

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