Sunday, May 04, 2008


Editing: When is Too Much Too Much?

Have you ever written something so passionate, full of voice, fury, and fire, only to have it edited to shreds? Or to complete boredom?

I read a post on Seth Godin's blog, Sucking Out All the Juice, where that very thing happened to him---and I've heard it before.

Here's the beginning of Seth's post:

"Just got some work back from a new copyeditor hired by my publisher. She did a flawless job. She also wrecked my work. Totally wrecked it.

By sanding off every edge, removing every idiom, making each and every fact literally correct, she made it boring and dry and mechanical.

If they have licenses for copyeditors, she should have hers revoked."

Ouch! Seth sure speaks his mind. But he's a bestselling author and an idea genius. His out-of-the-box thinking is what people love about him, and the reason why they buy his books and read his blog.

So, when is too much too much?

Well, the first thing is to understand what a copyeditor does. In a nutshell, the copyeditor's job is to hit the Five C's: to make the copy clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent. Typically, copyediting involves correct spelling, terminology, punctuation, and grammatical and semantic errors; ensuring that the typescript adheres to the publisher's house style; and adding standardized headers, footers, headlines, etc.

That is a specific description that can be unspecific, depending on the copyeditor's taste and style guide. Most book and magazine editors use the Chicago Manual of Style--an industry (and a WOW!) standard. But what if your voice is so distinct that a standard guide can't do it justice? That's where the gray area starts, and your doubts about your writing style begin...

Seth Godin continues, "I need to be really clear. She's not at fault. She did exactly what she was supposed to do. The fault lies in the job description, not the job. If the job description of your lawyer or boss or editor or client is to make sure everything is pure and perfect and proven and beyond reproach, they are making things worse, not better. (Unless you're in the vaccine business)."

Pure, perfect, proven, and beyond reproach isn't what makes for an epic novel, but it surely makes for comprehensive reading. But who's the judge? Many of the classic masterpieces that have molded our literary language today have been less than perfect. Some "fictional" classics were beautifully flawed and ahead of their time, containing innovative language or ideas---ideas that shaped our society, influenced change, and revolutionized generations.

But what if you're writing a nonfiction book?
Well, the boundaries are going to be a lot more strict, no matter how you look at it. Even if it is "creative" nonfiction. You could call this a case of uncreative editors, or you could break it down to an editorial standard, but how do we draw the line? Honestly, I don't know.

Seth's post continues:

"Almost everything you do has some sort of copyediting filter. It might be the legal eagle or the graphic supervisor or the customer service police. They're excellent at making round things fit perfectly through round holes.

Boring and ignored is fine with them, because no one complains.

Fortunately, copy editors have a remedy. It's a word called STET. Which means, "leave it alone, it was fine." Time to teach that to your editors, wherever they may be. Maybe there should be a t-shirt.

If all you want is safe, have baby food for dinner. Just leave me out of it."

So, what I want to know is:

* Have you ever been edited too much?

(To the point you think it squashes all the Oomph out of your voice?)

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Ask the Book Doctor: About Avoiding Fraud and Finding Your Voice

Ask the Book Doctor
By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Avoiding Fraud and Finding Your Voice

Q: I just read a news report that Laura Alpert, who writes under the name of JT LeRoy, has been found guilty of fraud. She called her book a novel, and she’s guilty of fraud? What do you think about that? Isn’t a novel fiction? Why must the author even be known?

A: An author’s real name doesn’t have to be known, but in this case Alpert was found to be a fraud, not because of her novel, but because of her attempts to pass it off as truth. She was not indicted for writing a book she sold as an autobiographical novel based on the life of male prostitute JT LeRoy, even though the implication was that it was true, but slightly fictionalized, and that fact turned out to be untrue.

Instead, she royally messed up when she sold the rights to a production company that planned to make a movie based on LeRoy's life (not necessarily based on her novel). The movie, then, was not planned as fiction, but as a documentary of a true life. In addition, she definitely committed fraud when she had friends dress up and pose as LeRoy at book signings and had them lie to journalists about having had sex at truck stops. The author herself even posed as a troubled teen when she called a psychiatrist, possibly another publicity stunt. All those efforts to legitimize something that was not true were, I’m sure, what convinced a jury that Alpert wasn’t simply the author of a novel; she was defrauding the public by implying that the novel was based on a true story, and she didn’t sell the novel to the production company; she sold them the rights to make a movie on LeRoy’s life, with the implication that it was real.

The moral of the story is that the truth may set you free, but a lie can get you thrown in jail, fined, or both.

Q: I have often heard people speak about the writer's voice. What exactly is it, and how can I find my own?

A: Voice applies to two potential ways of writing. You can use your own voice when you write a book or article, or you can narrate through a character’s voice, and the two voices often are quite different.

As far as finding your own voice, a quick answer came from a client of mine recently. When he talks, he has a quick sense of humor and uplifting spirit. He said to me, “I spent ten years looking for a voice, and then I discovered it was mine.”

Entire books have been written on voice, but in truth my client summed up the subject of author’s voice nicely. If you have a naturally pleasant way of conversing and you use correct grammar, all you have to do is let that style of speaking pour into your writing, and you’ll find your voice has been there all along. To hear voice at work in the writing of others, read anything by William Price Fox, Bill Bryson, or Pat Conroy.

To get an idea of how voice is used when a story is told through the voice of a character rather than in the voice of the author, read Catcher in the Rye or Sophie’s Choice.

Narrative voice is vital in contemporary literature. I often hear agents say they are looking for a fresh voice, which is another way of saying they are tired of reading manuscripts that are derivative of whatever is selling at the time. Don’t try to be another John Grisham, Stephen King, or Dean Koontz. Be yourself, and you’ll have a fresh voice.

The best way to find your own voice is to relax and write as if you were writing to your best friend. On the second or third draft you’ll want to address what we call “schoolgirl writing” by substituting dashes, exclamation marks, and parentheses with correct punctuation, but otherwise, you’ll find that you’re writing in your authentic voice. In your authentic voice you won’t stretch for words you wouldn’t say in conversation, and you won’t push to write long metaphors and similes that detract from your message. Relax; your voice is already with you!

Do you have a question for Bobbie Christmas, book doctor? For a personal response, E-mail Bobbie Christmas at

Bobbie Christmas is the owner of Zebra Communications, a literary services firm providing manuscript editing services to individuals and publishing houses since 1992. Contact her at 770-924-0528, visit her Web site at, or e-mail her at the address above. Be sure to sign up for the free Writers Network News by visiting her Web site and clicking on “Free Newsletter.”

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