Editing: When is Too Much Too Much?

Sunday, May 04, 2008
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?)


Shelli said...

This is such a good question and one that I struggle with. I think the bottom line is, is it readable? Can someone quickly scan the text without having to pause and reread it? Proper grammar is important, but when it comes to that thin line, I use that as my guideline.

Usually if I let my work sit for a while without looking at it, then I can go back and see what's confusing and what isn't.

Anonymous said...

I've not reached the point of dealing with copyeditors, but I'd be curious about how one does deal with editing one doesn't like. If they take the oomph out, how do you get them to put it back in?

Or is there a way to talk to them before they get their hands on the pages?

Glad to have found this blog. The insights and info on writing, the better.

Cher'ley said...

This is interesting. I do it to myself.

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top