Electric agreement surged through the room during a Penn Writers self-publishing workshop offered last weekend by acclaimed Pittsburgh author Kathleen Shoop. Heads nodded, and a ripple of “Mmm hmm” rose and fell.
I exchanged nods with friends sitting on both sides. Then a memory tempered my thought. Ten years ago a group fondly referred to as “angel editors” banded together to help a mutual friend – I’ll call him Will – hammer a complex memoir into publishable shape..
Aside from structural concerns, as editors we faced a delicate challenge: Transforming Will’s voice from a stilted style with big words and convoluted, page-long sentences into something that flowed smoothly into readers’ eyes, ears and brains. Will finally agreed that we needed to streamline the language without compromising the message or completely losing his voice. The resulting book went into a third printing.
Will’s purpose for his book was to inform a wide, general readership. Thus his voice had to be changed for reader appeal.
Conversely, when compiling a vast array of drafts and notes my mother left behind, I changed only documented factual mistakes, a few flagrant grammatical errors, and typos. Since she was no longer around to discuss style and voice, I left things like her strings of dots and signature clichés so it sounded like a letter from Marje.
Marje’s purpose for writing was to leave a legacy of personal and family history for posterity. Leaving it in her words and phrasing was an additional way of documenting the writing style of her generation of women.
Where is the balance? These are two extreme examples. In general, when I edit a story, I find ways to smooth rough edges and make words flow more smoothly. My edits are only suggestions. My fix for a phrase that sounds awkward to me may grate on the author’s ear.
The extent to which I change things depends in large part on the author’s purpose. If I’m helping a friend finish a family project, I’m less inclined to tinker. In my opinion, a bit of colloquialism and cliché lends authenticity. If an author hopes to sell truckloads of books to the public, buckets of red ink may flow.
So, you see, how much an editor (that includes friends and critique groups) should mess with your voice depends on your purpose. If you plan to appear on stage, appropriate makeup will emphasize your message. Stage makeup is out of place on a mountain trail.
Experience and practice are additional factors. A polished writing voice is not necessarily the sign of an expensive editor. Writers follow a learning curve much like musicians. Beginning piano students do well to tap out Chopsticks. Ten years later, they may perform Beethoven sonatas with ease. In between lie thousands of hours of practice with gradual improvement.
Your writing voice will likewise gain tone and force as you seek constant feedback and work to improve. That does not make your voice less authentic. It reflects the years of practice you put in and becomes natural and authentic for you.
As you continue down your writing path, you’ll discover that each story has a unique voice. Some are humorous, some sassy, some sad or mournful. Let your stories whisper their way, and your voice will grow in range.
Write now: if you have some, read a few unchanged stories you wrote several years ago and consider how you might change them today. Even if you’re a beginner, start a practice of keeping versions of stories to help keep track of how much your writing has developed. If you change a story after more than a year has elapsed, rename it to preserve the old version so you can compare. Think of this as your growth chart and celebrate your continuing improvement!