We can see people’s uniqueness in their clothes, their hairstyle, their accent, their hobbies or pets. And that individuality extends to their writing.
I currently have an editing job involving lots of technical documents, destined to be part of a larger handbook. This was the client’s brief: “As the documents were written by different people, they each have their own characteristic. We would like this removed before publishing.”
This sounds slightly sinister, but it’s a perfectly reasonable instruction to make sure the overall project is coherent. But it got me thinking – when it comes to personal writing style (or writing ‘voice’), how much should an editor intervene?
For individual writers, an editor should take the trouble to maintain the author’s voice if possible, rather than making it conform to someone else’s ideas. However, the important words are ‘if possible’. Your editor may well have valid points about suitability for the intended audience.
But what kind of things make up a writer’s ‘voice’?
What’s your writing quirk?
Is there something you know you do a lot when writing? Certain phrases, favoured punctuation, a particular word you can’t resist? It’s when you spot others’ idiosyncrasies that you start to realise how your writing is different.
I’ll start by confessing to my own…
Those three little dots trailing away at the end of a phrase… Ooh, there I go again!
I like those dots. They’re my flexible friend, conveying informality, or uncertainty, or a sense of ‘more to come…’ Some people wouldn’t use them like that at all; I need to make sure I don’t use them too much.
It’s the same with brackets, which can also litter my writing if I’m not careful. But recently, some memoirs that I had the pleasure of proofreading didn’t use brackets once, in 30,000 words. The author used dashes instead – like this – to show any asides in a sentence. I didn’t alter any of them; they were part of his style. A good proofreader or editor shouldn’t change such things without very good reason.
Your voice, your choice
A friend of mine has a liking – a penchant, shall we say – for long words and convoluted (but always grammatically accurate) musings, with many asides or parentheses, such as this one, together with lexical flourishes, curlicues and circumlocutions; such are the verbal meanderings that I am always impressed – nay, astounded – that he manages to navigate his way to the end of the sentence accurately, if at all.
And that’s just the way he wants it.
At the other end of the spectrum is a friend who tends to split his writing into short clauses or phrases. He uses full stops where many others would carry straight on.
Which makes people stop.
And pause for thought.
That’s entirely intentional too.
If these friends are reading this, I do hope that they take these observations in good part. I know that their writerly voice is deliberate; the style is chosen for a particular purpose and effect, and the distinctions are what make their writing memorable.
But what about ‘tics’ that may not even be noticed by their authors?
To change, or not to change?
Back to that multi-author editing task. One of the writers likes the phrase ‘as an example’. She uses it where most people would write ‘for example’ or ‘eg’. It’s not wrong (although it does seem a little clumsy sometimes), but it’s different from all the other documents. So I change it.
Sorry, madam. Your character is being removed, word by word.
Spotting these quirks of personal usage is at the heart of forensic linguistics and literary analysis. Experts can tell whether two or more texts were written by the same person by analysing word order, vocabulary choice, spelling and sentence structure.
The chances are that your written ‘voice’ is as unique as your DNA.
So if you’re thinking of asking a professional to check your writing, they should consider your chosen voice. A good editor may suggest changes of style, but it should be to suit the audience and the genre, not to conform to their own preferences.
Please excuse me. I have to go and surgically remove all the personality from a document about computerised safety equipment. Because in this case, that’s exactly what’s needed.
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