Monday, October 31, 2011

Editing Out Voice

For those of you who don't know, I was a writer/editor/project manager in the corporate world for 23 years, though toward the end I seemed 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 played at copyediting, it was never a job I relished doing. 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 didn't have the luxury to pick and choose my projects, I worked with text that ran the gamut from techno-babble that made precious little sense to competent copy that read fine but just wasn't that compelling. Unfortunately, I also worked 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.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.

No comments: