What is…Narrative voice?

I thought I’d start a series of ‘What is…’ blogs to explain in layman’s terms (as best I can) what a professional editor looks for when preparing your work for publication, whether you are self-publishing or have been accepted by a mainstream publisher.

The interesting thing about the subject of these blogs (I think so anyway!) is that they will serve a dual purpose: not only will they explain a bit about editing techniques, but they will enable you to further understand the art of creative writing, which is always a bonus if you are writing for publication.

So, narrative voice. What is it? It is, simply, who is telling the story; and when, where, and how they are telling it, using a combination of voice and perspective. A story can be told from three different perspectives:

  • First person, narrated from one character’s viewpoint, using the pronoun ‘I’
  • Second person, narrated from one character’s viewpoint, using the pronoun ‘you’
  • Third person, narrated from the point of view of a third party: character(s) or narrator.

First and third person are the most popular. Writing in second person is limiting and rarely used.

Each character should have their own unique voice, based on their age, gender, personality, experience, and view of the world. Therefore the tone, style, and language that is applied by the writer to each character needs to be relevant and appropriate.

Below are some common errors that writers make with both perspective and voice:

  • In first person, the character reveals thoughts or actions about other characters. (Generally, they can’t do this unless they are witness to them, or they are told.)
  • In third person, a character narrator slips out of character, back into that of the author or another character.
  • The tone and the style of the character voice does not fit the character (most common: a child character narrated in an adult voice.)

In first person, a character’s view of their world will be limited, compared to third person, where the narrator can have an all-seeing viewpoint (or ‘omniscience’). Third person offers more narrative styles than first person, which makes it a more flexible method of writing. The most common are single third-person limited, multiple third-person limited, and third-person omniscient, but there are more.

There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to choosing the narrative perspective, but some stories will work better in one than the other. Reading novels in third person puts a distance between the reader and the characters, as if the reader is just watching the action, whereas first person is more immediate, making the reader feel that they are part of the action along with the character. Although not always an easy decision for the writer to make, it’s a good idea to try and get it right from the start; otherwise, a lot of work is involved! 🙂

Double vision – making the best of both worlds

This morning, I printed the first chapter of a novel and sat down to copy-edit it – despite the fact I had already copy-edited up to Chapter 23 on screen!

I’ve always maintained that working from hard copy is more beneficial, although, lately, I’ve been trying to save time and money, so rather than printing numerous pages of text, and using my blue marker pens until the ink dries up, I have been copy-editing on-screen, using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes to aid me. The problem is, as I have now discovered, errors can be missed.

I’d only just reached the end of page two, when the doorbell rang. “Here we go,” I thought. “Time for the distractions.” Making my way to the front door, I could see through the obscured glass that it was the post lady. However, as I was about to reach for the handle, she pushed a magazine through the letter box and walked away. I’m not sure how much quicker I could have got there! I opened the front door and called out ‘Hello’, to her back. She turned round and said, ‘Oh, I’ll go and get your parcel. It wasn’t worth me carrying it from the trolley if you weren’t in…’

A few minutes later, she struggled back, carrying three parcels in her arms. ‘It’s heavy,’ she stated. I thought a better idea would have been to wheel the trolley up the driveway to the front door, but I expect there are rules about that.

Generally, I’m not one of those who will hide behind their front door when someone calls, but today was different. Behind me, scattered over the hallway carpet, lay several squares of kitchen towel, where, earlier, my beloved cat had been retching. I hadn’t yet had a chance to inspect the damage, and being the house-proud person that I am (or perhaps guilt-ridden!), I didn’t want to give the post lady cause to gossip with her colleagues back at the sorting office. So, I signed for the three parcels, and quickly wished postie a good day. Two were for me. I was itching to open them (I knew what one was, but couldn’t remember what the other, heavy, one was), but had to return to my copy-editing, so I left them in the kitchen.

Seven sheets later, and no distractions, there were blue squiggles and comments on every page of Chapter 1. How had I managed to miss so much when editing on-screen? I had picked up punctuation errors, superfluous wording, raised four queries, and reordered some text. Interestingly, there were no spelling mistakes (perhaps, the one thing that Word does efficiently?).

The other forgotten advantage of editing from paper is a noticeable difference in eye strain. Although I now have to wear glasses for close-up reading (but not for looking at the computer screen), my eyes do not feel as if they have been pulled from their sockets and swapped over before being put back in (sorry, if that produced too graphic an image), and they do not feel quite so dry. There is something about working on-screen that result in my eyes feeling as if I have taken a long walk through a windy desert. Thanks goodness for Optrex!

When weighing up the pros and cons of on-screen editing versus hard-copy editing, there are as many advantages as disadvantages, but I do believe that cost-cutting aside, editing from a printed sheet is more productive. For a start, the amount of text visible on the page hints (maybe subconsciously) at what will come next, and of course, computers have yet to master grammatical differences between words that sound the same, but are spelt differently. However, on-screen editing is better suited for global checking. In particular, using search and replace. It’s ideal for correcting words that are consistently spelt incorrectly, or where you simply want to swap one word for another, or where you want to check that dialogue has all its beginning and end speech quotes.

For example, did you know that typing ^$ and then either or in the search box (depending on whether you use double or single speech quotes) will find dialogue not ending with punctuation. Try it. This is a really useful aid to proofreading, as it can be easy to miss this kind of error when checking many pages of dialogue.

However, with all of the advances in, and advantages of, on-screen editing, working from hard copy gets my vote. In future, I shall ensure that I print out every chapter for copy-editing. But, I shall first run it through Word’s proofing options, correcting any immediate spelling errors, and investigating any highlighted grammar issues (although, most of those seem to operate on warped logic). After editing on paper, I shall return to the electronic copy, update it using Track Changes, finally running it through some integrated editing software that I have bought. After all this, it may not be perfect, but using the tools that the computer offers will certainly provide the means for my human editing to be as faultless as possible.

As for the heavy parcel: sadly, it wasn’t the six-volume set of Joseph Wright’s, The English Dialect Dictionary, but a box of twelve wardrobe dehumidifiers (don’t ask!). Oh, and the cat hadn’t been as sick as I had first thought. 🙂

Copy-editing versus Proofreading

Copy-editing and proofreading are two separate functions, and it is quite common for people to confuse the two. ‘Proofreading’ tends to be used as a generic term. Some say that they want their work proofread, when they actually mean copy-edited. Others say that they have proofread their own work, when they actually mean that they have just checked it through for spelling mistakes and typos.

Simply put, a copy-editor prepares work for publishing, by checking its consistency and accuracy; a proofreader reads proofs and marks any errors. A copy-editor has more involvement with a typescript than a proofreader has, but both functions are just as important. Here are some differences between the two:

  • A copy-editor may make small changes to a typescript, suggest improvements, and raise queries for the author. A proofreader only looks for typographical and other obvious errors; makes changes and raises queries only when necessary.
  • A copy-editor may be creative, but is cautious about altering the author’s style, or rewriting, unless asked to do so. A proofreader is never creative, never alters style, and never rewrites.

Because these terms are associated with publishing, they can be perceived as a ‘before and after’ procedure: copy-editing is carried out before typesetting (the production of the typescript in book form, known as a ‘proof’). Proofreading is carried out after typesetting.

There is another stage of editing that is carried out before copy-editing begins: a more substantive procedure known as developmental editing, which looks at the fundamental organisation and content of the work. A developmental editor is likely to suggest improvements for the author to make, including rewrites and restructuring, as well as checking whether there are any legal problems, such as libel or plagiarism. (This is not the same thing as a critique.)

For the most part, I only offer copy-editing and proofreading services, and will recommend that a novel be referred to a development editor if I believe it requires more substantial editing. Occasionally, there is an overlap, and I will carry out some developmental editing if required.

If you are considering the self-publishing route, it is important to have your work copy-edited prior to formatting (the self-publishing equivalent of typesetting), and then ideally, to have it proofread prior to submitting it for self-publishing.

I have been asked, “Why is ‘copy-editing’ hyphenated, whilst ‘proofreading’ is not?”

As both words are verbs, my best guess is that it has something to do with ‘copy’ (meaning printed matter) being a mass noun, whereas ‘proof’ is a regular noun. Therefore, ‘copy-edit’ becomes a hyphenated word because it is not possible to apply the verb ‘edit’ to a mass noun, but it is possible to apply a verb to a regular noun, which is why ‘proofread’ is one word. The only other evidence I can find, at the moment, is the verb ‘people-watch’. Again, it is a mass noun accompanied by a verb, and it is hyphenated.

Other than that, who knows? Answers on a postcard, please.

E. & O. E.

If you have ever worked in an accounts department, or received an invoice for goods or services, you may have noticed the abbreviation ‘E. & O. E.’ printed somewhere upon it. This stands for ‘errors and omissions excepted’.

It is essentially a disclaimer: a commercial ‘get-out’ clause used to reduce a company’s liability for potentially incorrect or incomplete information. It states that information cannot be relied upon, or may have changed by the time of use, or that the information is correct, but no responsibility will be held if an error has occurred.

If you self-publish without employing the services of an editor, and are just relying on your own checking abilities (however good they are), or on those of friends and family, then you may as well print ‘E. & O. E.’ on the pages of your novel, because there will be errors and there will be omissions, and probably more…

The problem is that Joe Public can be your harshest critic. One only has to read the 1-star reviews on, say, Amazon, and an author’s sensitive ego can be torn to shreds in a sentence (the writer’s ego is something to blog about, but later, perhaps).

So, what stops a prospective author from having their work copy-edited? Lack of finances? Fear of criticism? Naivety? Over-confidence? I suspect one, some, or all of these!

It is my belief that many self-publishers-to-be do not fully understand the role of a copy-editor. There is so much more to it than just simply checking through a document page by page, to ensure that spelling, punctuation, and grammar are correct. A copy-editor has to go through a typescript line by line, word by word, and character by character, making sure that a piece of work is suitable for publication by ensuring that the work is prepared to a standard that Joe Public will understand. It is not a five-minute job either, so there is little point in being impatient. Copy-editing takes time, it takes concentration, and it takes dedication.

To be fair, though, copy-editing is not cheap. It’s not cheap because it’s a skilled job. I am sure that there are writers who simply cannot afford to pay for the services of a copy-editor, and so take their chances, but sadly, it’s not enough, especially if they are thinking of submitting to a literary agent. In conventional publishing, the work has to be error-free and that goes for self-publishing too.

If you decide to self-publish without having your work copy-edited, you will need to make sure that your skin is thick enough to cope with those low star ratings. If you sell enough copies, there will always be one. Everyone’s a critic! Bad reviews will pull the book’s overall rating down, and risks putting off potential buyers. Even worse, if the sample shows errors, you may not sell any.

Maybe it’s not such a bad idea, after all, to print ‘E. & O. E.’ on the copyright page of your novel, or on the back cover, before going to print!