In a word: THIS.

@CherylMorgan tweeted (and posted) a heads-up about this and I thought I’d give it a signal boost. Apparently a publisher decided to “straighten” the deliberately-ambiguous gender pronouns in writer Mima Simić’s story, turning it unambiguously heterosexual. In Mima’s words, “As this gender/sex ambiguity is one of the thematic pillars of my story, this benevolent editorial intervention (which made the narrator a man and the relationship heterosexual!) completely changed my story, its aims and effects.”

It’s worth clicking above and reading her whole article. Her story was translated from Croatian for an English-language anthology, but it’s important to note that the author handled the translation herself, and had her translation checked over by a few trusted readers. This isn’t a translation mistake, then, it was a deliberate editorial choice.

The author is the author of the story. If this sounds tautological to you, then good. It should. It’s basic common sense, and it’s one of the fundamentals I keep in mind when I edit. My job is to make the author’s finished product the best that it can be. Not my finished product, but the author’s. And that means being the author’s partner and collaborator, keeping the story in the author’s voice, and keeping it true to the author’s vision. And that means querying the author when that vision isn’t coming across clearly, instead of proceeding on my own assumptions.

If I see a change that I think will strengthen a manuscript, it’s my job to tell the author, and also to explain my position. Authors are pretty clever people, and sometimes authors have reasons for what they do. I provide my reasoning so that the author can understand the benefit of following my suggestion, and also so that they can provide an intelligent opinion on the matter. Sometimes their position makes more sense than mine, and the original text stays. Sometimes my concerns point out a weakness that the author chooses to strengthen in a different direction. Either way, I’ve stated and explained my concern, we’ve discussed, and we’ve mutually agreed on the choice that will most benefit the story.

If I see something ambiguous in a manuscript, it’s my job to tell the author, “this sounds like it could mean this, or it could mean this. Please clarify in the narrative.” It is not my job to make my own judgment call, change the author’s story, and then print it my way. Even if an author and I don’t see eye to eye on a point (which has happened), it isn’t my place to print it my way behind the author’s back. It’s my obligation to present my reasoning, listen to theirs, and work to find agreement one way or another. Usually, the particular issue I have turns out to have nothing to do with the particular element of the original that the author wants to preserve, and we’re able to find a compromise that keeps their intent, satisfies my concerns, and is true to the story, all at the same time.

Horror stories are emerging, connected to Mima Simić’s case, about editors changing the intent of the story, changing characters to make them more socially acceptable, dumbing down sentences or changing tone and meaning. These sorts of things need to be clearly arranged and agreed upon by all parties — editor, publisher and author. Otherwise, it is not the author’s story. And if a publisher doesn’t want the author’s story, well…why would they choose to take it?

Sometimes, tiny changes are made without author involvement, especially in the end-stages and proofs. A contract may state that minor editing, such as spelling or grammar corrections, may be made without explicit permission.

There may be a few I’ve forgotten, but here are some things I consider minor, and will change without consulting the author:

    * obvious unintentional typos/spelling errors (“They got thier coats.”)
    * obvious formatting errors (One non-italic letter in a word in an italicized sentence, where clearly not a deliberate choice.)
    * obvious punctuation errors and punctuation omissions
    * capitalization to conform internally to a set precedent within the story, or to standard rules of style, in cases where context is clearly not special to the story
    * use of commas, only in lists and in conjunction with dialogue where context is obvious and standard rules of style apply and hold precedence.

Commas elsewhere are so often a matter of style and preference that I send all other comma suggestions to the author to be vetted. There is rarely disagreement on comma placement, but a single comma can change the meaning of a sentence, and I don’t assume that I understand what a sentence is meant to mean; I develop a rapport with the author and story, and I can often guess what the intent of a passage is, but at the same time, the best I can do is guess, and sometimes I guess wrong.

That’s what margin comments — and author contact information — are for. And I’m not afraid to use them.

And that’s what contracts are for. Among other things, they set limits on other people’s rights to your story. Authors, know your rights and don’t be afraid to speak up for your own protection.

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  • Leah Petersen February 3, 2011, 2:04 pm

    I read about this and it gave me the shivers. The examples in the article, the changes they made were appalling. If they didn’t substantially change the meaning, they took a beautiful sentence and made it blah or even blech.

    Thankfully every editor I’ve worked with–or am working with–has the integrity to be an editor, not a dictator.

  • Pratish Mistry June 5, 2013, 8:16 am

    I hired an editor some time back and experienced exactly this sort of thing (unfortunately) – he made changes to the actual content with the claim that he was simplifying it. In the process he changed the plot – needless to say I will not be using him again. I think it’s wise for authors to check up on references before engaging an editor.



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