Occasionally, a client for whom I am editing a book will ask, “Does the book sound natural? Does it sound like a native English speaker writing in a conversational tone?” Often the clients who ask me this reside outside the United States and are concerned that American readers will be put off by stilted or unfamiliar language.
Once in a while I get the feeling that the client’s book was ghostwritten by a low-priced non-native-English-speaking writer, and the book’s owner is having second thoughts. This seems to happen frequently with business books that focus on self-help or advice.
This is a difficult question. Normally, to edit a book does not mean that you have to rewrite every sentence. When editing a well-written book, sometimes entire paragraphs are found to be perfectly acceptable.
But if the book’s tone or voice is stilted or just doesn’t hit the cultural bull’s-eye, it is because every sentence and every phrase is a little bit “off.” A sentence can be grammatically correct and understandable, but still seem as if it were written by someone who does not hang around at the Mall of America.
Here is an example from a book I recently edited about the fashion industry. The language is not bad and there is nothing grammatically wrong. But the syntax has the whiff of the non-native English writer:
“Creative fashion geniuses often have ample resources for suitable inspiration and can regularly create striking and splendid designs. But since most are amateurs, they are on a constant lookout to get their work noticed and presented in the already streaming market. By finding the right opportunities and right people, it is quite possible to have the chance of a lifetime of getting your work into the limelight and even have the prospects of making big bucks out of it. There are quite a few processes involved in this fashion industry rigamorale and we shall make it easy for you by the following steps and useful information pieces.”
The text is perfectly acceptable but seems stilted. The book’s owner asked if I could edit the book to make it sound more natural. My response was that the best analogy would be to compare two automobiles, a Mercedes and a Lexus. Both are good cars. But if someone said, “Please turn my Mercedes into a Lexus,” you are looking at a very big project. A typical car has 20,000 parts. To achieve the transformation, you would have to change each of those 20,000 parts. A book is the same. To achieve a different tone or voice throughout, you have to re-write practically every sentence. The voice of the book is embedded in every phrase and every paragraph. This is why a book by Ernest Hemingway is instantly identifiable and different from a book by Stephen King. It’s there in every sentence, just like every cell in your body carries your DNA.
To make the fashion industry text sound more like homegrown American, I’d have to rewrite every sentence, and charge accordingly. The client declined. But the takeaway is this: editing is not the same as rewriting, and when you edit a book you’re not changing the voice; you?re enhancing what is already there.
Ghostwriter, Editor, Proofreader