Sometimes editors are asked to change a writer’s voice. This might be most common in educational and corporate promo materials—situations in which “brand” takes precedence over individual “voice.” When you have to take a piece written like a doctoral dissertation and give it a conversational rhythm with a reading level under 8th grade, you’re adjusting voice.
I like commas, perhaps a little too much. I like the way they give me more control over readers' pacing, forcing them mentally to pause when I want them to pause and go when I want them to go. I like how they can break a sentence into discrete chunks while showing how those chunks relate to one another.
But, like I said, I might like them a little too much.
The Chicago Manual of Style gives editors a decent amount of guidance on the proper use of commas, but sometimes it offers open-ended guidelines instead of strictures. Take section 6.36, for example:
Preserving the author’s voice is one of those fundamental tenets of the Typographic Code of editorial conduct. To do that, you’ve got to be able to hear their voice.
What Is Voice?
Simply put, voice amounts to the sum of word choice, order of clauses, sequence of argument, standard vs. colloquial grammar and punctuation, and length of sentences and paragraphs. Think of some strong voices—Palin, Suess, Munroe, Hitchcock—and you can sense how those components contribute.
In part 1, I shared how a day I had planned for doing tangible tasks like editing turned into a day of shepherding projects along. The universe had dictated my day, because I hadn’t paid attention to its earlier signals.
I had it all planned: I had a pile of writing and editing projects that needed to get done. I blocked the day off from meetings and appointments. I booted up my writing music playlist and planned to ignore social media, the phone, and email. I was going to have a Get Stuff Done Day.
What happens when a copyeditor realizes the problems with a text go well beyond what can be fixed with a good copyedit? What tools can you rely on when you have to tell a writer that the writing itself has to be improved before it even reaches the copyediting stage?
Mike Waller, former publisher of The Baltimore Sun, recalls how he started the day when he was on the copy desk of the Louisville Courier-Journal, saying to himself, “This is going to be the day. This is going to be the day that nothing slips past me. This is going to be my day.”
That day never comes.
A copyeditor is a student of human fallibility. We see the mechanical errors the errant hand commits, the solecisms of grammar and usage born of ignorance, the writer’s lapses in taste and judgment. We have seen them all.
The illustration you need was lovingly described in detail, but what you got back looks nothing like it. The first problem is you used words to communicate with a visual person. An artist is more likely to look at a long narrative and think: “Eee gads, I have to read that?!” They try to pick out a few keywords and put the daunting text aside.
Once sentences are lean, can you help make them lithe and lovely? In addition to fixing syntactical pits and bumps, we want to encourage writers to play with sound and tone. Copyeditors should develop an ear for a writer’s voice to help take text to a higher literary level.