A number of you give helpful and insightful comments on the openings of novels that are posted here, and both the writers and I are very grateful for them. But there's a type of comment that may not be as helpful as you think.
It's a certain kind of rewrite, the kind that fails to respect the writer's voice. There's an example from the recent comments on the opening I posted from one of my WIPs that falls into that category, and I thought it would be worth discussion here.
This is not to say never offer a rewrite. Rewriting can help a writer see an alternative way of expressing the narrative.
But not if it doesn't sound like his or her narrative.
When I do an edit, I'll frequently include "thought-starters" that are either new pieces of narrative or a reconfiguring of what's there. But the suggestions I make are, as close as I can get them, true to the voice of the writer. Actually, I'm a pretty good mimic. I may not be enamored of the writer's voice, but an agent or an editor might love it, so I feel obligated to be faithful to it.
What are good reasons for offering a rewrite?
In my edits, most frequently it's where there is a lack of clarity.
If a line of narrative is clear, I'll leave it pretty much alone. If
there's a dull verb, I'll point that out
A lack of clarity because something is missing
My editorial philosophy: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Now, I'm not picking on this particular contributor, and he's not the only one who does what I'm talking about, nor am I trying to defend my writing. In fact, other thoughts in his comment were worth considering, as well as those in other comments that offered rewrites within my narrative voice. This is about editorial philosophy, about how I think an editor approaches trying to improve a narrative.
The problem with rewriting that is clearly not within the writer's voice
In the last post, the 16 lines I put out there ended with this paragraph:
Kurt placed the gun back on a plaque that displayed a Bronze Star medal and a brass plate that read, "Major Jefferson T. Dengler." His grandfather hadn't made it home from World War II, but his heroism and his sidearm had. Kurt used his tie to polish away a fingerprint, snatched up the TIME and the new polls, and left his West Wing office for the Rose Garden.
A reader wrote this as a suggested replacement:
Kurt laid the gun carefully beside a plaque displaying a Bronze Star above a brass plate that read simply "Major Jefferson T. Dengler." Kurt's grandfather hadn't made it home from World War II, but his heroism and his sidearm had.
A quick swipe of his tie served to polish away any fingerprints. Then Kurt snatched up the TIME and the new polls and left his West Wing office for the Rose Garden.
When I read this, I wondered why the changes were there. To me, the
original wording was perfectly clear. For example, in terms of clarity,
Kurt placed the gun back on a plaque
seems clear, and there's nothing gained by changing it to
Kurt laid the gun carefully beside a plaque
An unnecessary adverb was added, and the action was changed
Here's another puzzler. The original line:
Kurt used his tie to polish away a fingerprint,
And the rewrite that seems to be a change done solely to match the voice of the editor rather than the writer:
A quick swipe of his tie served to polish away any fingerprints.
To my eye/ear, both voice and meaning are changed. Even the visual picture intended by the original is changed.
- We go from a fingerprint on the plaque, which we can visualize, to a vague "any fingerprints" that may or may not be there, and we can't visualize. Remember that specifics create reality in a reader's mind, generalizations do not.
- We go from the character doing something to his tie doing something, a shift from active to passive.
- We go from polishing, which I think evokes a clear picture of a brief rubbing of a particular spot to make it clean and bright, to a "quick swipe" which seems to me the opposite of polishing.
- The rewrite is 3 words longer, but to no purpose.
- The use of "served to" is the biggest departure from the
original voice, in my view. If you go back to the original post and
read the whole sample, that kind of lingo just doesn't happen.
So why the rewrite? I don't think there was a clarity issue
The answer here is because the revisions sounded better to the editor's ear. Well, that's not a good reason to do a comprehensive rewrite of narrative. If you don't care for the author's voice, live with it. It will never conform with yours, nor should it.
So stifle your own voice
The point of all this is the care I owe a writer to respect the voice and intent of the narrative, and so do you. In fact, an editor's function is sometimes to help reveal the writer's voice by weeding the narrative of clutter that obscures it.
In my view, you don't alter the meaning and action that's presented if there's nothing incorrect about it. You don't change the flavor of the language from the author's to yours, though you can suggest ways to enhance it within the writer's style.
When you're critiquing another writer, whether in a critique group, online, a friend, whomever, leave your own wonderful voice in its box.
Okay, now I'm stepping down off my soap box. I DO NOT want to discourage this commenter or any other from helping the writers who appear on FtQ. But sometimes the advice, as in this case, just isn't helpful, at least the way I see it. When you suggest alternative language, you'll help the writer most if it fits with the rest of the narrative, and especially when it focuses on an issue such as a lack of clarity.
For what it's worth.
Public floggings available. If I can post it here,
- send 1st chapter or prologue as an attachment (cutting and pasting and reformatting from an email is a time-consuming pain) and I'll critique the first couple of pages.
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
- And, optionally, permission to use it as an example in a book if that's okay.
- If you're in a hurry, I've done "private floggings," $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait you turn, it's okay with me to update the submission.
© 2008 Ray Rhamey