Chip MacGregor

June 2, 2015

Is it possible to over-edit?


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, rsz_9780060545697while 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.

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  • says:

    Hey I’m really enjoying your posts. Glad I found you again.
    I was just pondering about a similar topic to this. My thoughts really wondered about all the levels of gate keepers there are to publishing that may eliminate or censor the world from great work or even bad work, for that matter in today’s publishing process. For example, did Mark Twain, Alice Walker, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Zora Neale Hurston have a critique group, Beta readers, an agent, an editor. All reviewing, critiquing, suggesting, and omitting their works? And if so was it to the level it is done today. To be quite frank it is daunting all the gatekeepers needed for someone trying to break into traditional publishing.

    Also I’m wondering if these layers destroy or enhance the spirit and intent of the voice, style and rhythm of the writing? Also when thinking of a writer of an underrepresented population or an African American like myself, how do you trust (for lack of a better word) the editor in protecting that experience, tone, and style when it may not be representative or reflective in their cache of experiences?

    Believe me, I understand, lots of people are willing to put out junk and no one wants to waste their time and some of these layers help that. But are some of these gatekeepers just creating more obstacles, barriers or simply more jobs to support the economy? If it wasn’t so much crap out there from stars and famous people or even the average joe, declaring that junk can get through the publishing system, I would better understand the gatekeepers. Unfortunately, their is alot out junk, crap, out there even on the Best Seller’s Listings; which creates a contradiction in what’s quality and acceptable.
    I know lots of questions here for you, but I also want to know the answer to Cathy S.’s questions too. Thank you so much for the discussion.

  • CathyS says:

    Despite the challenges, I think having an editor involved is worth it. A good one can understand what we are trying to say and helps us say it better. It’s magical. Over-editing can happen at any stage. As a journalist, I have sometimes taken the advice to “write tight” to the extreme in my fiction until it reads like a news story. Sometimes critique partners can over-edit as well. Do you have any thoughts for writers on knowing when to stop editing on their own and turn the manuscript to a paid editor? Cathy Shouse

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    My editor is a true professional who desires my books to be the best they can be. With that said, he can be pushy at times and even extremely critical. I have to remind him to provide solutions and not just list problems. We have worked together on four projects and my writing and storytelling has improved thanks to him. But every once in a while I have to stop him and say “Enough! This is my story and I know my character.” We’ve gone round and round, but in the end, my books are all that much better because of my editor’s many questions, comments, and suggestions.

  • Pat W says:

    I know of one author published traditionally whose work was so precise and perfect that it was boring. She went with a different house and her writing became a joy to read. I reviewed both books. The first publisher took the life out of her books.No offense, Chip. I don’t want to offend an editor.

  • Susan M. Baganz says:

    As an editor I always try to tell my authors that they can push back. It’s THEIR story and I’m trying to help. I’ve had to push back on my own editor too at times. Respectfuly disagree but let them know why you’re making those choices. Listen and decide what to keep and what to refuse. There are few things I’ll be adament about but if it involves core content and voice I will always lean in favor of the author.

  • Chip, thanks (and darn you) for making me think. Yes, it’s possible to over-edit, just as it’s possible to under-edit.
    I reviewed numerous professional articles and textbook chapters in my years in medicine, and had to remind myself, “I’m not writing this, he/she is writing it. And I have to respect their style.” That’s even more true in non-professional writing. In fiction, there’s a difference in cleaning up mistakes and rewriting that removes the author’s voice.
    As always, thanks for sharing.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    As a freelance editor, I don’t want my clients to accept all my suggestions without thinking them through. I may have misunderstood something, and I may just not like a particular style or idea that’s dear to the author. At the end of the day, it’s not my book.

    I also cringe at the thought of my clients ignoring certain edits and hope, if they do, they’ll not mention me in the acknowledgements.

  • Anne Christian Buchanan says:

    Let me be the first to say, as an experienced editor of both fiction and nonfiction, that of course itc’s possible to over-edit a book. I’ve done it. I think most editors have at one time or another. I call it editor’s disease, that thing that can come over us when we change things just for the sake of changing. That said, most editors I know fight the urge and strive to be helpful without changing the author’s voice. But a good editor works intuitively, which means sometimes we veer over the line without meaning to. It helps if both authors and editors communicate and try not to be defensive. I know–easier said than done. But few if any authors set out to produce an error-ridden manuscript, and few if any editors set out to remake a book in their own issue. (Well, maybe a few–but very, very few.) I always tell my authors that I can’t do my job unless I can trust my authors to (1) consider carefully the issues I raise, but (2) be strong enough to push back when appropriate. If author and editor can negotiate without assigning evil motives, they can usually come to a happy consensus. If not–and if it’s not a matter of house style or an issue the publisher has weighed in on–then I believe the author has the last say.

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