Editing Word Choice

Our medium is words, and before words there is meaning. It is my job as editor, to understand the meaning, as well as the voice, and make corrections, which are the author’s own best self, revealed.

For a moment, let me dwell on the author’s voice: how can I get a feel for it? If that voice is soft, I have to listen closely to repeated words, emotive words. Are many adjectives used, or few? Do the adjectives refer to the senses, or the intellect? This last may sound like dualistic hocus pocus, but in editing, it’s important to respond to adjectives in a specific work. And the editor’s response depends on whether the writer is a scientist, an engineer, an educator, or a poet. Does he write fiction, and if so what sort? If revising dissertation chapters, or authoring the proposal for a committee, the writer’s role is to arrive at a manner of writing which characterizes himself. And mine, as the editor, is something of informed oversight, like the IRS…to make sure this happens.

But think again, this time think of verbs. It is my editorial role to sense an author’s characteristic verbs. Toward what sort of verb do they incline? As commonly accepted, best writing uses active verbs, avoiding repeat versions of the verb, “To Be.” We don’t like too many, “was,” “is”; and we avoid over-use of the “To Have” conjugations, “has,” “had.” We put action into language no matter what direction we wish to move our readership.  However, this over-arching verb rule hardly defines my role and does not exactly guide me in suggesting a direction or properly editing another’s work. For, unless the author’s voice can be discerned and understood, rules don’t help. Which active verbs would I replace with the passive ones? Well, this depends entirely upon the writer.

Ultimately, word choice must all add up to something bigger, each taking its role in creating the cohesive end-product. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, nothing can seem out of place.

–Dr. Harte Weiner

Lead Editor



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