Book Editing, Writing Style, and Writer Intuition

Monday, July 03, 2017

I recently performed an editorial review on a book that came to me through IngramSpark, and when the author, Dave, decided to move forward with editing services, I cherry-picked it. Our schedule was tight, and a week or so later, I recommended 2,523 total edits and offered 78 comments . . . only some of which he decided to accept.

He made his revisions and returned his manuscript with the following missive:

Ellie,

I have attached the draft with most of the comments intact. In the interest of having little desire to conform to the accepted rules of good writing practices, I’ve decided to change a couple things back to the way I had them.

I hope we get a chance to talk again. I enjoy our conversations. 

Thank you,

Dave

Keep in mind Pressque edits all sorts of books with all sorts of needs, and Dave is an able writer and his manuscript didn’t need what we call “heavy lifting.” The narrative needed stronger transitions, a few commas, strategic paragraph breaks, and, in some instances, for him to make stronger word choices. In other words, it merely needed finessing. In my initial appraisal, I referred to this level of book editing as a “spit shine,” and while there’s no doubt I had a hand in ironing out glitches, what strikes me is Dave's candid resolve to “change a couple things back to the way I had them.”

His writer intuition was right. It’s clear he knows punctuation and grammar, yet, he chose his personal writing style, and his book is better off for it. Our experience went like this: he wrote; I made suggestions; he revised; I made suggestions; he revised. When I prompted him with the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” to describe his writing quirks, he countered, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him wear swim trunks.”

While it’s an editor’s job to question, belabor, and poke holes in content, during the editing and revision process, authors should follow their writer intuition. A slew of great, gutsy authors buck convention. Cormac McCarthy once told Oprah that “…if you write properly, you shouldn't have to punctuate.”

Sure, writers should understand their mother tongue—as well as its canons and tenets, but what makes a good book unforgettable often comes down to writing style. A writer should know rules before rules are bent or broken, because if what’s offered wasn’t intended, then there’s little chance the writing will come off as authentic—and it sure as heck isn’t style.

How we communicate with language, especially in long narrative form, is subjective and personal, and what makes good writing doesn’t solely or necessarily hinge on punctuation. As someone who loves reading and writing and editing, I’ve come to realize magic happens when someone makes what they’ve offered seem effortless.

Look at it this way, there’s always an element of instinct in good writing—what word to use, how to balance dialogue and narration, even how to vary sentence structure so everything doesn’t sound the same. It’s almost musical. A worthwhile editor gets this and wants to take a journey that not only addresses the grammatical technicalities of a manuscript in the book editing stage but also gets into this territory of instinct to help authors celebrate and hone their own natural writing style and hone it into really good writing.

 

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Ellie Maas Davis

Ellie Maas Davis owns Pressque, a publishing consultation firm located in downtown Charleston that offers editing and ghostwriting services to authors and publishers.