Monday, June 14, 2010

Editing Out Voice

For those of you who don't know, I'm a writer/editor/project manager in the corporate world, although these days I seem to be spending far more time managing than doing what I think I do best: writing and editing. I've worked in advertising, marketing, and sales, and am fluent in corporate speak.

I've also edited newspapers for nonprofits and newsletters for businesses.

Although I play at copyediting, it is not my strong suit and I make no apologies for that. Too many grammarians -- especially in the corporate world -- get caught up in the rules and forget about what makes writing effective and memorable: voice.

Since I don't have the luxury to pick and choose my projects, I work with text that runs the gamut from techno-babble that makes precious little sense to competent copy that reads fine but just isn't that compelling. Unfortunately, I also work against a corporate mentality that rewards the bland and frowns on anything outside a small range of approved voice.

Two projects stand out most for me where I had to battle for the addition of voice, one a technical white paper and the other a company newsletter.

In the white paper, which I ghost wrote for an executive, I used an extended metaphor to get across the idea of why business continuity and disaster recovery are critical components of a company's IT strategy. (Stop fidgeting; I promise that's as technical as I'm going to get.) For the metaphor, I chose the asteroid slam that wiped out the ponderous dino beasties and gave the smaller, more agile mammals a chance to thrive. "What's this all about?" was the cry I kept hearing from one reviewer to the next. "This kind of thing just isn't done. Not in this organization! We pride ourselves on being a staid and incomprehensible IT company. Stop making what we do accessible to the general public!"

For a paycheck, I'm willing to compromise -- but only to a point. I argued that the metaphor was the paper's hook, the thing that would make it stand out from all those other white papers every other IT services organization was writing on the subject. We could either be noticed or be assimilated. And if they chose assimilation, someone else was going to have to write the paper. In the end they signed off on it, grumbling all the way. Of the hundreds of white papers the company produced, that one had the longest shelf life and was the one most downloaded and used. In fact, when the original executive resigned a couple of years after it was first published, the one taking his place slapped his name on the paper and kept it alive a few more years.

There weren't any groundbreaking revelations in the paper. In all other respects, it was pretty run-of-the-mill. It was popular because of voice.

In the second example, when a techie guy working at a client site sent in an article about how his team had pulled together and overcome obstacle after obstacle to get a computer network up and running, I knew I had to use it in the company newsletter. Why? The actual details weren't any different from any other team's challenges in putting in a network, but there was such a raw enthusiasm in this guy's writing that it begged to be included.

Corporate speak it was not, though, and that was a problem. I had a choice: rein it in so it was in line with the bland brand or give it its head and let it take others along on its rather wild ride. I chose the latter, which actually presented the greater editing challenge. Preserving unique voice in an unpolished work while making it conform to at least some syntax, structure and punctuation rules is akin to performing delicate surgery. The last thing I wanted to do was kill the brash joy that crashed through so potently.

I published the newsletter. The investment relations manager was outraged. "What if a client sees this? I want all future newsletters to come through me so I can give them a professional edit."

Which, if you know me, didn't sit well at all. "Um, excuse me, I am a professional editor. And if I were a client, I'd be thrilled that someone working on my site had the level of passion this guy obviously has for the work he's doing. Given a choice between this guy and someone just punching the clock and spending his days conjugating verbs correctly, hands down I'd choose this guy -- meaning OUR company -- every time."

What is it about a large corporation that makes people afraid of standing out in some way? Of infusing life and voice into the work it produces? Of wearing passion on its figurative sleeve?

As a result of that article, we had employees with some truly amazing stories tell us they felt they could submit them now because they weren't intimidated; our employee newsletter was now accessible by its intended audience. And yes, the article did fall into the hands of some of our clients, and they expressed hope that future issues would be highlighting similar stories and teams at their companies.

So what does any of this have to do with your fiction writing?

You have a unique voice. Use it -- loudly and well. Don't give in to the pressure of critique groups who try to flatten it or otherwise corrupt it. Have confidence in your voice, nurture it, praise it, reward it.

Your voice is you. Never, ever let anyone edit it -- or you -- out of your work.


Michelle Massaro said...

Thank you for this article! I find the topic of voice a fascinating one. I envy those who possess a stand-out, unique voice that can be recognized instantly; I myself never felt I had one. Your article says we all have a voice, which is comforting. I am still figuring out how to identify mine, but when I do I'll hold on tight and never let go!

fairyhedgehog said...

You're right and you express it so compellingly that after reading your post the point you're making seems obvious - but it didn't before reading it!

Critique groups seem to me to get hung up on ideas like "don't use adjectives" or even worse "don't use the passive voice" when no one is even clear what the passive voice is! I think that can be a useful way of explaining what needs changing if a piece of writing doesn't work but they aren't a good way of judging the writing in the first place.

I'd love to read the articles you refer to. It must be frustrating editing for people who really don't appreciate what you're doing.

Dave F. said...

Good article, most people never experience or understand that "stuff".

sylvia said...

I used to do translation work and that's another area where you really have to watch for voice. I think it's invaluable experience because it makes you look at words in a different way.

I don't "hear" my own voice and I don't know if there is really anything there that stands out, as Michelle puts it. But then, the people whose work I translated had no idea that I was trying to preserve their voice. I think people can't judge their own (and as FHH says, can be too quick to undo other people's)

Phoenix said...

You know, as Michelle says, sometimes it does take some exploration and some attempts at writing different things to find the voice that's yours -- the one that comes easily and naturally. Or sometimes it's a persona you try on that has the voice you're looking for.

FHH, yours comes through in each of your blog posts. It's a quite friendly voice. And, yes, critique groups can sometimes cause hoarseness and larynigitis if we don't take preventive measures, eh?

Dave, I think of you as having two voices: your writing voice, which I can spot pretty quickly -- it's that strong -- and your regular Dave voice from your comment posts. I don't think it's just familiarity, either. Others have mentioned that as well.

Sylvia, I think yours is a fairly strong voice, too. It's very comfortable. Relaxed and a bit lyrical. And I hadn't thought about translations, but now that I am -- wow, that must be very hard to maintain the writer's voice. I have a couple of stories that have been translated, but since I don't read the languages, I can't tell if the translator improved my voice or not.

I haven't read much of your work yet, Michelle, but there's a voice starting to come through in your blog posts, too. It does seem a little at odds with the grittiness you describe in the beginning of your novel, but that's a trick we writers all have to perform, isn't it: slipping into another voice at need ;o)

Michelle Massaro said...

Thanks for helping us with some personal, outside perspective! I hope one day to earn a fancy adjective like "lyrical". :)

Robin S. said...

This is a freaking AMAZING piece, and I so appreciated reading it. Why oh why is it that everyone wants to suck out the unique and leave the bland in its stead? And not only, as you mention, in Corporate World.

Voice is personality; it's history and family quirks and regional usage. It's what makes resding worth reading - that, and story.

Good on you, for sticking to your guns.

Phoenix said...

Thank you, Oh Queen of Voice Herself Whose Voice Is So Unmistakable It Can Be Spotted From The Next Galaxy Over!

Whirlochre said...

So, so glad we're on the same team.

I, too, am not overly fond of corporate safety and blandness.

Why seek the lowest common denominator when you could split the atom of vapidity?

Jeb said...

"Voice" is one of those nebulous concepts, impossible to teach but easy to recognize when it's there.

Usually, that is. fairyhedgehog is right when she says some critique groups often get hung up on rules and ignore voice. That's a mark of inexperience, I think.

Voice seems to me to develop one of two ways: either you absorb grammar, structure, and so on but struggle for a million words to find your unique voice, or you start off with a voice but struggle with structure, character development and the other unwieldy tools of the trade for a million words before your voice can rise again in a more fitting milieu.

Phoenix said...

So true, Jeb.

I also think a really good editor is like a really good actor: able to take on the part of several different voices, so instead of sublimating a voice, a good editor can fall into the voice and "become" that voice while they edit.