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The Baltimore Sun

Hearing voices

The complaint comes with an almost liturgical uniformity and regularity: "You’re interfering with the writer’s voice."

That’s entirely possible. Some voices mumble; some stutter. Some shout into the reader’s ear. Sometimes a Florence Foster Jenkins mistakes herself for a Rosa Ponselle. [Note below] Usually the complaint to the copy desk about interfering with the voice means that a copy editor has canceled a maladroit attempt at humor or lanced and drained an adjectival inflammation. It requires restraint not to bark back the advice of Wolcott Gibbs to New Yorker editors circa 1937: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” 

But the editor’s task is more complex than that rebarbative impulse would suggest. Another New Yorker editor, Roger Angell, son of Katharine White and stepson of E.B. White, includes in his memoir, Let Me Finish, some key advice on editing he had from William Shawn: “It’s no great trick to edit a piece of fiction and turn it into the greatest story ever written. Anyone can do that. It’s much harder to take a story and help the writer turn it into the best thing he is capable of this week or this month.”

Editors have to remind themselves constantly that it is not their job to turn the text into the story or article they would have written. Of the hundreds of writers I’ve encountered in 27 years as a professional copy editor, not one has ever said, “Gee, I wish I could sound like you.”

No, our job is to draw out of the text the best that the writer has been able to accomplish. Often that means clearing the underbrush that clutters the view. It may mean recombining the parts in a more logical order, or highlighting one element above the others. It may be as simple as replacing imprecise words with more exact ones. But in all this, the copy editor cannot get beyond what is offered. As Anthony Trollope said, “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.”

For this delicate process to work, both parties have to learn humility. Not every writer’s effort succeeds. Not every editor’s suggestion improves the text. The smart ones listen to each other.

[Note: Florence Foster Jenkins regularly provoked laughter at her voice recitals, capping her career by renting Carnegie Hall in 1944. A recording of her attempt at the Queen of the Night’s aria "Der Hoelle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" from Mozart’s Magic Flute has been sending opera buffs into paroxysms of mirth for decades.]

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