This question came my way via an email: I’m midway through an edit on a novel manuscript, and find myself wondering if it is possible for an editor to clean up a story to the point that it becomes too clinical and loses the author’s unique voice or writing style. I can appreciate the way the text is getting more fluid and easier to read, but wonder if I am losing something in the process.
Sure, that’s possible. For all the crud being released via indie publishing these days (and trust me, while there are plenty of good books getting self-pubbed, there is a LOT of crud), there is an argument to be made that books with traditional publishers may in fact be over-edited. I had a discussion with a publisher about this recently. He argued that nobody edited Charles Dickens much at all; that Mark Twain had very little editing; and that more recent novelists like James Michener had only a bit of editing done to their work. He said he believes our desire to edit manuscripts to make them stronger is the result of three things: the big egos involved in publishing that require too much control and therefore demand manuscripts be edited; the rise of an educated populace that wants to believe all errors have been removed from a manuscript; and the inherent need editors have to be editing, and therefore keep their jobs.
I’m not sure I totally agree, but it’s an interesting thought. Basically he’s arguing that self-published books are under-edited, and traditionally published books tend to be over-edited. To get back to your question, I’ve certainly seen editors take over a manuscript, forgetting that their role is to help the author polish and produce the best book they can. When that happens, the author (and the author’s agent) have to stand up and reject some of the changes.
I’ve had this happen numerous times. Once an editor wants to remove every contraction from a novel, apparently because his English prof had told him contractions are only for the uneducated. Another time an editor wanted to change the story completely, since she felt the author’s take on history was incorrect (forgetting the fact that this is a novel, and the author can change history as much as she wants to). And sure, I’ve had editors who wanted to over-edit to the point that we lost the author’s voice.
Look, I respect editors, and tend to remind authors that they need to shut up and listen to most editorial comments. Why? Because there are a bunch of good editors in today’s publishing world, and the bulk of what they say is probably correct and will help improve the manuscript. But not EVERYTHING they say will be correct. So you, as the author, need to be strong enough to say, “No, I don’t think that works.” There’s a balance between listening and ignoring advice. Sure, newbie authors tend to ignore too much, and produce a lot of bad manuscripts. But the opposite can sometimes be true as well – that an experienced author needs to reject some silly editorial comments and be brave enough to put out the book they wrote.
If you’re one of those who appreciate the history of publishing, by the way, you need to learn the name Talcott Parsons. In days of yore, Talcott Parsons was the head of the sociology department at Harvard, and an influential American educator. We largely know about the works of Vilfredo Pareto, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber because of writings Parsons did about his sociology predecessors in other countries. However, Parsons is also the guy who wrote with such a flat tone, using confusing educational jargon (he brought us “structural functionism”), and making “educational” writing sound so bland, that nobody wanted to read textbooks anymore. When I began working in the business, people would make jokes about a boring manuscript by saying things like, “All the charm of a Talcott Parsons essay.” That’s what over-editing can do.
My two cents.