Knowing when to intervene and when to leave well enough alone is something most of us struggle with at the start of our editing and proofreading careers. This reader question highlights another dimension, that of concern with damaging authorial style in fiction. Here's my take ...
I am struggling with repetition versus an author’s style. Is there a section in New Hart’s Rules about this? Is there a golden rule that should always be followed? Is it necessary to point out repetitions if there are only two or three in a text of four pages, or if they’re in different paragraphs or in the same sentence?
Thanks for your question, John.
Broadly speaking, I think that as soon as something has a negative impact on the reader’s ability to navigate the story, we’re into the territory of finding solutions rather than respecting style. But more on that below. First, a caveat …
The difference between voice and style
You didn't ask about this, but it's something that beginner fiction writers and editors often struggle with so I decided to provide an overview here.
Voice and style are often presented as the same thing in discussions about writing and editing. Actually, it's more complicated because there might be multiple voices in a novel, but one authorial style.
Consider the example of a crime novel:
Thinking about voice(s)
In this example, the story is told through multiple points of view, though only one POV is presented per chapter – so we might follow the action through the eyes of Simon Smith in Chapter 1, and Nicole Jenson in Chapter 2, then back to Simon in Chapter 3.
The narrative is written in the third person, so the voice is that of the narrator, though we will also hear Simon's and Nicole's voices through their dialogue. Still, the narrative voice should be consistent in both chapters.
Overall, though, there are multiple voices in the novel – the characters’ and the narrator’s.
Thinking about style
Let's imagine that the author prefers short, choppy sentences to convey drama, tension and fear. Omits pronouns to keep things lean. Sometimes.
He often uses contractions (I’m, we’d, you’re) to aid flow and mimic informal, natural speech patterns. And to convey emotion, he leans on dialogue rather than detailed description.
All of this is his authorial style. It's present throughout the 10-book series and pulls it together. Readers can identify the books as having been written by the author in part because of the consistency of style.
Now that we've made a note of that, let's return to the problem in hand ...
Style versus poor writing
The fiction editor needs to be aware of the difference between a style choice and a readability problem.
Consider the following:
1A: She always named her cats after favourite aunts; this one was called Molly.
1B: She always named her cats after favourite aunts. This one was called Molly.
2A: He looked over his shoulder and almost felt the arrow as it whistled past.
2B: He looked over his shoulder. Almost felt the arrow as it whistled past.
3A: They walked to the end of the long hallway. At the end of the hall there was an open door beyond which lay three more hallways. They chose the left one and continued towards the interrogation room, no one said a thing as they walked.
3B: They walked the length of the hallway in silence. They reached an open door, and took a left towards the interrogation room.
In 1A there’s a style choice regarding semi-colon use, and I’d respect this unless the author had specifically asked me to omit semi-colons (in which case I’d amend to 1B).
In 2A there’s a style choice regarding sentence length. I’d use my judgement here. I might suggest 2B, explaining in a comment that I felt it conveyed a sense of tension more in keeping with the scene the author’s usual style. Or I might offer two options: 2B and an alternative: He looked over his shoulder, almost felt the arrow as it whistled past.
In 3A, there are multiple problems – chiefly repetition, poor flow and a comma-splice. I don’t want to rewrite the book for the author – that’s not my job – but I can’t leave this as it is. I need a sensitive recast but I need to work with what I have. I might suggest something on the lines of 3B.
And that’s the difference. In 1A and 2A the readability isn’t impaired. In 3A it is. If an author’s style is to write poorly, the editor must intervene. Readability trumps poor style.
Our job when line editing and copyediting is to smooth and correct when things are rough and wrong. To leave as is because ‘it’s the author’s style’ cannot be justified. To do so would render the role of the editor obsolete. We’re hired to sort out problems, and attend to them we must.
Golden rules, or lack of them
When it comes to line editing fiction, there’s no rule book (New Hart’s or otherwise) that will tell you what you must fix and how you must fix it. Each project's different, each brief’s different, and the style and voice(s) in the text will be different.
Above all, it’s intuitive. It takes into account the tension, pace and mood of a scene, and whether the repetition is obvious and makes the writing look amateurish, or whether it’s necessary and key to the novel’s trajectory.
You need to feel your way into the story, get under the skin of the writing, and make sure the reader can move forward without stumbling. And how you, John, approach it might not be how I approach it because we're two different people and our impressions are subjective.
Furthermore, whether and how you deal with repetition problems will depend on frequency, proximity, what you’ve agreed with the author, and whether the amendments are essential, preferred, or, rather, gentle improvements.
Different line editors would handle 3A in different ways. Some would flag the problem; some would flag and explain it; yet others would flag, explain and suggest a solution. My preference is for the latter (unless I'm proofreading).
Assuming we need a recast to avoid repetition in 3A, we could do one of the following:
The approach you choose should be based on what you’ve agreed with the author beforehand.
I work with some authors whose novels require heavy line editing. To keep costs down, we agree that I’ll amend the text directly rather than commenting excessively. In such cases, the authors have decided they trust me to intervene in a way that’s sensitive to their style and the voice(s) in the book. I have other clients who prefer deeper recasts to be offered in the comments.
If you’re not sure how to solve a problem, or you think there are multiple solutions to dealing with repetition, the query trumps the amendment every time.
I do have some 'rules'! These are not about the what but the how. Perhaps they’ll help you communicate with your author about the repetition problems in a productive way.
The mindful rules of fiction editing
What’s the brief?
One thing you didn’t’ mention in your query was what level of editing you’d been commissioned for.
It takes time to sort out sentence-level problems such as 3A.
Correcting the comma splice is a quick fix and takes a second. Creating a recast that’s emotionally responsive to the author’s style and the voice(s) in the narrative and dialogue is a different kettle of fish.
Correcting the comma splice falls within my definition of proofreading – the final quality-control or verification process. The recast absolutely does not; it’s deeper sentence-level editing and has to be priced as such because it takes longer to fix.
Frequent repetition problems are usually evident in a sample chapter, so the editor should be able to see whether the level of edit requested is appropriate.
If you’ve been commissioned to proofread and you find yourself dealing with a few issues of repetition here and there, it’s unlikely to impact on your hourly rate; just make a gentle note in your handover report.
If the file is littered with repetition that renders the work unpublishable, and this wasn’t evident in the sample you were sent, you’ll need an emergency discussion with your author to explain the problem and come to an agreement as to how to proceed.
I hope this has helped. The key is first to focus on the reader’s experience. That will be your best guide as to whether the repetition needs attending to. Then focus on your relationship with the author and let that guide you as to how best to communicate the problem via direct amendment, commenting or a mixture of the two.
And don’t forget the mindful rules!
You ask. I'll answer
I'm more than happy to tackle questions, especially from beginners. If there's something you want advice about, drop me a line and I'll post a solution to your problem here. The more focused your question, the more in-depth my answer will be! And if you want me to mask your identity, no problem.
Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
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