Is there such a thing as authorial voice?
Last updated 15 November 2022
‘Don’t intrude on the author’s voice’ is one of the first things every new proofreader or copy-editor is told. This is both a very helpful and an utterly useless piece of advice. It is helpful because it is absolutely true, but it is useless because it rarely seems to be defined just what on earth authorial voice is.
Is it just one of those conveniently nebulous concepts that can be thrown down as a trump card to back up a quavering argument? Or can it be pinned down as a real ‘thing’, distinct from all the other aspects of written language that editors have to worry about?
Things authorial voice probably isn’t
1. Grammar, or the disregard thereof (see also below)
The conventions according to which other human beings understand punctuation marks and sentence syntax must be adhered to if your author wishes to be understood (though less so in fiction than non-fiction). For example, omitting commas after very long introductory clauses is probably going to make readers struggle. And injudiciously muddling the order of adjectives and nouns is likely going to make them abandon the endeavour entirely. For an author to have a voice at all, their text must be intelligible.
What may be a deliberate usage choice by an experienced author may be an unconscious tic by an inexperienced one. Instead of wringing your hands over a recurring issue, ask questions. Many inexperienced authors (and often experienced ones) will be grateful to have such oddities made more reader friendly.
3. Ambiguity – unless intended
Sometimes ambiguity, contradiction or inconsistency can be a deliberate authorial choice in a novel or in a non-fiction argument. But usually they are undesired. When fixing them, try to do so in a way that is compatible with how the author has written elsewhere. Editors should be sensitive to picking up the tone and vocabulary of the manuscript so that any suggested fixes are harmonious. (Or, if it’s a particularly tricky passage that requires a major rewrite, if you can, ask the author how they want to rewrite it. No-one’s better at mimicking how the author writes than the author!)
4. Generally poor or offensive writing
Preserving an author’s voice requires that the author’s voice is worth preserving. Rambling, offensive or otherwise off-putting writing may need considerable work before it is even possible to conduct a level of edit in which preserving the author’s voice is a concern.
Things authorial voice might be
1. Grammar, or the disregard thereof (see also above)
However much you might like certain grammar rules, as a professional editor you have to accept that others might not be so precious about them. Few grammar ‘rules’ beyond the basics are defensible if an author prefers a consistent and intelligible alternative that is suitable for the intended readership and function of the text and that does not contravene any brief you have been given.
2. Personality (or tone)
An author’s text will often reflect their individuality. Signs of that individuality may range from colloquialism, informality, jokes or emotion on the one hand to meticulous use of displayed lists, frequent parenthetical asides or a general sense of gravitas on the other. If none of these aspects are contrary to the intended function and readership of the text, they’re probably fine. And bear in mind that your author’s personality may be a key selling point for a text. You may do serious financial damage to a project if you remove an author’s personality from their work.
Sometimes it is inappropriate to allow authors’ voices to be evident, and in such cases the ‘voice’ of the text will be impersonal (not necessarily inhuman – just not specific to any particular human author). Certain non-fiction genres (such as textbooks and reports) are usually presented as if ex nihilo: the author is just a conduit for the facts and is rarely important in their own right.
4. Evolution of language
Depending on the genre, it may be appropriate for the author to push the boundaries of accepted ‘correct’ language.
Certain genres and fields of study have particular conventions. We might think of these as their distinctive ‘voice’. These can pertain to vocabulary, syntax, spelling and any number of other things. Some of these conventions can seem odd to outsiders, but they must be respected lest you risk making the author seem ignorant to their peers. Editors who sometimes work in areas in which they are not specialists (of which I am one) must be sensitive to signs of these esoteric formulations.
6. A bogeyman
The above ideas notwithstanding, it is difficult to define exactly what authorial voice is. Is it really a ‘thing’ for which we must stand up in defence? There will always be the occasional editor who tramples over a manuscript in a pair of concrete wellingtons, ripping up everything that doesn’t take their fancy. But is this not just general bad editing? I find it hard to conceive of a good editing job that somehow ruins the author’s voice. Such an edit would automatically be bad, because the editor would have been imposing their preferences rather than judiciously employing rules and experience to make the text fit for purpose.
Perhaps it follows, then, that a good edit will automatically preserve authorial voice. If so, this is good news for new editors, who may experience the paralysis that comes of being afraid of the bogeyman – of being afraid of stepping over some elusive line that only the cognoscenti know. Perhaps preserving authorial voice is just about having a good basic grasp of editing technique and of the text’s genre. Perhaps it’s about being aware that there are multiple approaches to most editing questions and that you may not yet know all of those approaches. Perhaps it’s just being a good editor.
The dangers of fearing the bogeyman
It might seem from some the above that I’m arguing for editors to leave texts largely untouched, on the basis that almost anything is excusable if done with sensitivity to the context and readership. But I’m actually arguing for the opposite: I’m arguing for new (and established) editors having confidence in their training and instincts and giving themselves the psychological freedom to use their good judgement to remove infelicities and suggest improvements where they are warranted.
Why? Because, far from finding that editors routinely meddle with authors’ work to a degree that causes upset, I more often find editors under-editing – leaving basic errors and unclear passages untouched because they are not confident enough to intervene.
Kowtowing to the bogeyman of authorial voice without attempting to clearly conceptualise what is acceptably unconventional and what is unacceptably confusing can lead to an editor leaving a manuscript in poor shape. (A fiery or opinionated author can be particularly intimidating in this regard. A process of negotiation in which the editor is firm on the grammatical essentials – giving clear explanations of why they are essential – but allows the author some less harmful whims is usually the best approach in such cases, but the client should almost always be consulted in the case of a conflict.)
The concept of preserving authorial voice is useful as long as one recognises that it is just that: a concept and not a ‘thing’. It will automatically be preserved if an editor follows their (reputable) training and engages the author in dialogue about suggested changes. It is not a bogeyman that should be allowed to paralyse you out of properly engaging with the text you’re editing.
If in doubt…
Try following this train of thought:
Situation: the way this bit of text is written displeases me or makes me uncomfortable in some way.
Question to self: is it contrary to a truly basic rule of grammar or syntax; inconsistent; difficult to follow; misleading or ambiguous for the intended readership; unsuitable or inappropriate for the genre or intended purpose; or contrary to the brief I have been given?
- Possibility 1 – no, I just personally don’t really like it: leave it alone.
- Possibility 2 – I’m not sure: see what a few authorities (books or websites) have to say on the subject, or ask your client, the author or your editorial colleagues for their input or advice.
- Possibility 3 – yes: change it in the least intrusive way possible, querying the author if the change is substantial enough that they may have an opinion on how it should be fixed. Always either explain your rationale (if appropriate) or be ready and able to explain it if queried.
Do you agree? Is authorial voice a thing? Or is it at best a convenient shorthand for a nebulous concept and at worst a potentially paralysing invention? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
I think it’s a very useful term — but keep in mind, I’ve been editing for over 20 years and have worked with fiction, nonfiction, technical, and academic authors. For someone new to the field, I can certainly understand that it could just stop them in their tracks.
Never be afraid to query the author. I do so publicly in a collection at Google Plus, where I work “in the daylight” with my clients who give me permission to do so. And I never, ever query anything in that public arena that could be embarrassing; those questions go into the file proper as comments.
When I read something and it is as if I can hear the person speaking in my head, I assume that I am hearing the author’s “voice.” This happens mostly when I have read other things by the same author, although it can also happen if I know the author personally or have heard them speak. J.R.R. Tolkien sounds like J.R.R. Tolkien. Terry Pratchett sounds like Terry Pratchett. It is partly in what they chose to say, but also in how they say it. Word choice, sentence structure, attitude towards their subject – probably all of that plays a role, and other things as well.
As an editor of scientific manuscripts, I have become aware that part of what I do is to erase much of the author’s voice from the writing and move it all towards the universal voice of academic science: clear, objective, dispassionate, articulate, and educated-sounding. I work with many for whom English is a second language. If there is anything of their individual way of communicating that remains in the writing it is because it is able to survive the process of being converted to the academic voice.
Thank you for this thoughtful post, Hazel. I’d just like to add that I love Mary Karr’s discussion of voice in The Art of Memoir. She describes voice as an essential “youness” that must speak from the first sentence. She says that finding your voice can be painful for authors because you have to be honest and peel away false selves. You have to offer up your true self on the page, not a polished persona. Maybe her views apply more to memoir than other genres? What do you think? I’ve reviewed her book here: https://editorsreads.me/2015/12/29/book-review-the-art-of-memoir-by-mary-karr/
An interesting idea, Ellie, and it certainly makes sense. I mostly edit academic work, and I find that when I write in my own words I naturally default to academic-style cadence and phrasing unless I consciously remind myself not to. I do enjoy editing the occasional memoir, especially when the author has a strong and appealing voice.
[…] and they can be subtle. However, they can be spotted if the editor is paying attention. My post on authorial voice might give you some ideas on what to look out […]
Hazel, I don’t find your voice to be particularly academic in style, or at least not in a negative way; just plain smart and funny!
SFU is referencing your blog and I met Ellie through SFU and music, of all things.
I appreciate your style and laughed out loud several times reading this article. I’m off to explore more of your voice…
Thanks, Jaye! Really glad to hear you enjoyed the post and I hope it proves useful at SFU!