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! 🙂

Research, Research, Research

Surprising as it may seem, it is not a copy-editor’s job to spend their time checking that an author has their facts right.  It is the author’s job to check that any factual information in their work is correct. Research, on the author’s part, is paramount.  With the availability of the Internet and other computer resources, there is really no excuse for getting facts wrong.  Of course, everybody makes mistakes, but careless detail will bring an author’s credibility crashing to the ground.  This applies to fiction, as well as non-fiction.

A copy-editor cannot be expected to have in-depth knowledge of the subject of a book, however, if the author has been careless, then a little research by the copy-editor is acceptable, but not beyond basic fact checking. Generally, the copy-editor should assume that the author has done his – or her – own checking. But what if they have not?

In mainstream publishing, by the time a copy-editor is given a typescript to work on, it has already been past the commissioning or developmental editor. However, as a freelance copy-editor, working directly with clients, I can be faced with a large amount of incorrect factual information.  This can result in blurred boundaries between what is a generous copy-edit and a developmental edit, and I believe, in this situation, it is reasonable to offer to carry out the research for an additional fee.

The most common errors of fact, I have come across, occur in the use of:

  • Dates
  • Events (historical and recent)
  • Quotations (misquotes, and incorrect attribution)
  • Timelines (the order in which things happened)
  • Ranks, titles, and forms of address
  • Foreign words and phrases
  • Word origin and use
  • Claims based on myth and misconception

Most of the above can be checked online, but it is always a good idea to make use of reference books.

Of course, in fiction, a writer can claim that the Loch Ness monster crawled out of the murky waters to lay an egg, which hatched and grew into a forty-foot Tyrannosaurus that ate all the local inhabitants… but to then state that Loch Ness is a tidal sea estuary will destroy all of the story’s credibility!

However good the idea behind a story, having to continuously check an author’s facts can make a copy-editor’s job heavy going.  A good copy-editor should draw to the author’s attention anything that appears suspect.