Can “That” Really Change Your Voice?

Seems like everyone is dealing with edits lately. I know that’s likely a false observation, based on only a few data points. But one of my CPs was wresting with copy edits she didn’t totally agree with and another received kind of on odd batch of late-breaking line edits after copy edits, mostly eliminating word repetition. Another is coping with pretty deep first round developmental revisions.

For those not in the trenches, there are various rounds of edits we receive from our publishers. They are:

Revise and Resubmit

This is before you get a contract. Usually you’ll get a letter from the acquisitions editor saying what they like about the book, along with what you’d have to change for them to acquire it. A surprising (to me) number of authors won’t do them, saying they won’t “work on spec.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll accept if you revise. Still, as my fab editor Deb Nemeth points out, it takes a substantial amount of time and effort for her to write an R&R letter. It’s much easier to say no. With an R&R, they’re already invested.

Developmental Edits

The first step after you sign your contract. There are one to two rounds of these, usually depending on how well you revise on the first round. These can be overarching changes like “firm up the heroine’s motivation” or “write this chapter in real time, not as a memory.” Sometimes writers react to developmental edits like they’re an insult or as if the author screwed up. No, it happens to established authors all the time and can have a lot more to do with how the publishing house wants to target the book. One friend of mine had grandparents in her YA novel who were way too supportive and helpful. Her editor asked her to go through and make them unsupportive, to add more tension.

Line Edits

This is what it sounds like – the editor goes through the whole book, line by line and scrutinizes every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph. Usually there are two rounds of these. Hopefully the second is far less painful than the first.

Copy Edits

The final round! (Or two.) The Copy Editor is a different person, very specialized who has the job of Quibbling. They fact-check. They fix everything according to House Style (the established rules of the publishing house – for example, Carina has a no colons or semi-colons rule). Copy Editors tend to be very literal. They hate metaphorical language and they love Perfect Grammar above all else.

So, my friend who was angsting over her Copy Edits was upset at having a lot of “thats” inserted. It’s the difference between, for example, “The hammer that she used every day” and “The hammer she used every day.” A lot of writers hate “thats” and work to eliminate them. Copy Editors tend to insert them, for perfect sentence structure. The writer felt that (heh) this changed her voice.

There’s lots to be said about voice – volumes, really. Amusingly, as I was deciding how I could wind this up succinctly, I was discussing on Twitter this book I finished readingĀ  last night, how much I loved it and how, this morning, I’m missing it. And my editor, the aforementioned fabulous Deb, replied: “That feeling of wanting to be back in a story after you finish reading the book? That’s the quality I look for in a submission.”

And that, my friends, will never be affected by a few more that’s.

Heh – at least I amuse myself.

16 Replies to “Can “That” Really Change Your Voice?”

  1. Okay, my jaw dropped when you said the copy editor was inserting thats. I run a search on my manuscripts during the editing phase looking for that and then weighing each instance to see if it’s necessary. Most times, it’s not. And CEs want to put them in??? Derp.

    I’m not editing at the moment. I gave myself two days to finish this WIP and then I’m diving into the edits for my previous WIP, so maybe Wednesday (if all goes well), I’ll join y’all in editing-hell.

    1. I think it made her jaw drop, too. But I think the lesson is that obsessing over “that’s” is really not all that useful, because those minor things change with house style and copy edits. We’ll be ready for you!

  2. Yay for having this procedural info out there! I think that we tend to believe that once the sale is made, the book is “done.” Nope! It’s still raw. Needs to be cooked for awhile.

  3. I would have to say, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. The author has an idea in mind and when a copy editor decides it should’t be that way of changes a purposely misspelled word, the author has every right to B*tch and moan.

    1. Oh sure, Nora, the author does have every right, but the author can also exhaust herself fighting every battle. Some of them just aren’t worth it. I suppose the trick is knowing which ones are.

  4. Hi all!

    I’m a writer and a line editor so I have a pretty good view on both sides of this subject.

    Once you sign that contract, the manuscript is no longer just your baby. These words and sentences can’t be your darlings. It’s a product. Believe me when I say it takes a village to produce a book. We don’t just want your words out there, we want the best possible book that can be produced. Sometimes that means putting some “thats” in to avoid possibly confusing the reader. Sometimes that means your gorgeous sentence needs to be rewritten because the subject isn’t the one/thing preforming the action as written. I can also say, as a line editor and knowing many, many copy and managing editors, we love your voice. We strive to keep it intact as much as possible. However, overusing a device or construction isn’t your voice, it’s a habit. You may not think the use of a gerund in every sentence is distracting, but then it’s your baby. You might just be too close. That’s why you need us.

    And as a writer, I feel ya; I really do. It’s my baby too. I’ve looked over the red and thought you’ve got to be kidding me.

    1. Thanks, Shawna, for that terrific insight. I totally agree – and value – that the process of book production is a team effort. Thank you also for the reminder that our editors take us on loving our voices. Verbal tics aren’t voice. Like you say, they’re just bad habits.

      Ha! “Just” is one of MY personal bad habits. Eesh.

      1. LOL

        Jeffe, I have plenty of them. I tend to cluster words. I don’t know why. I’ve had a few editors kindly point it out to me so now I watch for it and other habits. I’m just as guilty of grumbling as the next writer.

  5. I took a composition class a while back, and my teacher basically stated if you have the Word THAT, you can always replace it with WHICH, and if WHICH doesn’t fit, remove the word THAT all together. So it’s not a grammatical issue. It’s a “tradition” issue, because we traditionally OVERUSE the word THAT in our day to day conversation. Just as we traditionally overuse JUST. šŸ˜€ I try to word my sentences so they rarely need the word That. I could say that I word my sentences so they rarely need the word that. Yes, I use the word THAT sometimes, but not nearly as much as my editor does. LOL I Just shake my head and accept the change.

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