‘Apt words’ and the author’s voice

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There’s one question I don’t get asked nearly often enough. Why are you called Apt Words?

That’s simple enough. All words are not created equally, let alone all phrasing. It’s important that your writing is appropriate – or apt, if you will. One might even say it’s important that you use apt words. And that’s one of the things I help with, as I’m editing your text.

What you write and how you write it depends on two big things:

1          Who you are.

2          Who your audience is.

That applies to every piece of writing you do – or it should.

Big Thing 1: Who you are

The first one is inescapable. You are you.

You have your own feelings about what words go in what place, your own rhythm.

You have your own pet words and your own list of words and phrases you just don’t like. (Mine are commence (shudders), utilise, ‘as such’ and ‘you’ll find this in life’. Just… ugh.)

You have your own verbal tics – things you write, or a way you write them, that you repeat more than you realise. (Mine are an overuse of starting sentences with ‘So’, and an over-reliance on en dashes, when I should be starting a new sentence, or using a comma or semicolon. When I’m writing for publication, I have to go back over my writing and calm it all down. When I’m not, I let ’em rip. Apologies to people receiving my emails!)

You also have your own set of beliefs about what words are appropriate in what place (aka apt words!). You won’t find me complaining about jargon – it’s useful shorthand, used for the right audience, and it shows your familiarity with, nay, mastery of, your field. Bring me your terms of art, and I won’t flinch.

But some of those beliefs may not be as useful as you think. The copyeditor is there to represent the reader, which can involve taking out some of the padding, or suggesting rewording. I’ve noticed a distinct move away from pomposity in academic writing over my editing career, and most welcome it is. But some authors, admittedly mostly novices, still get tied up trying to make things sound more impressive than they perhaps are – and in the process you tie your readers up, too.

More and more scholars are writing more and more directly, so it was such a shame to see on social media a few weeks ago that a PhD student had gone back to his editor with the comment that his natural, direct, un-pompous writing (helped along that route by the editor) had, at the behest of his supervisor, to be puffed up a bit, you know – more ‘utilise’ and less ‘use’, more reliance on the passive, rather than just the right amount for the right effect. And preferably a lot more pointless puff to bolster the word count.

Yeah, let’s make people read a lot of unnecessary words. How much time does that waste, when you multiply it by the number of readers now and ever after? Adding a level of formality isn’t something you can just graft onto a text, if it’s to work. It has to be fundamentally rewritten to change the vocabulary, the phrasing, the tone.

That said, I’m not a fan of cutting text to the bone. The text has to breathe, to find its own rhythm if it is to sweep the reader along. If that means an introductory word or two, or a phrase that could possibly be cut but that allows you a moment to take in what you’ve just been reading, that’s fine by me.

Reading dense text with fact after fact, idea after idea, pounding down the road to you in quick succession can make you feel like you’ve been slapped upside the head. It’s hard work, and it can make your reader put down your book or article and never pick it up again. Readers need time to appreciate what you’re telling them. Give it to them, without boring the pants off them. It’s a fine line to tread. But ask yourself: how can they cite you if they couldn’t read and absorb what you wrote?

So remember – you write you. But how you write depends also on the second big thing: who your audience is. The name for this is ‘register’.

Big Thing 2: Who your audience is

If you’re writing for your peers, you’ll use a more formal register than if you’re writing for the general public. If you’re writing a note to a friend you’ll be utterly informal, compared to a letter of complaint to the council or utility company. If you’re writing a textbook, you’ll be different again

So far, so good. But you’ll also change your register depending on what you want to happen, once someone’s read your text. Who are you appealing to? What are their likes, dislikes and unspoken prejudices and preferences? Do you want your readership simply to be informed, or to do something? What?

Choosing what to foreground, and what to place less emphasis on, or even omit, is a key part of getting the register right for the purposes you have for whatever it is you’re writing. It doesn’t all have to go in, all the time.

If your textbook is for GCSE pupils, you’ll have a different approach – or should – from how you’d tackle your textbook for undergraduates: higher-level ideas, simpler language, more explanation of the basics, fewer or even no references.

If you’re writing a report for the government body that funded your research, then you may place more emphasis on the steps needed to fix whatever it is you’ve been researching, rather than taking all the space to simply describe the situation and its origin.

If you were writing a contribution to your institution’s Research Excellence Framework submission, you’d take a different approach again; much tighter, much terser, with only the highlights but bounded by the requirements for what information to include – and how much of it, and those horrible word and reference number limits.

This is why copyeditors will ask you who the intended readership is, before beginning an edit. We’re trying to understand how you need the writing to be pitched. We’re trying, you might say, to ensure you’ve used apt words.

Big Things 1 & 2 = the authorial voice

These two big ideas together – you and your audience – combine to create your voice as an author. This is something a sensitive copyeditor will aim to preserve. I don’t want my authors to sound like me – heaven forfend! (If you like the word ‘commence’ you can have it.) I can’t believe publishers want to put out cookie-cutter books. More and more, these days, I’m seeing briefs that tell me to follow the author, rather than impose the publisher’s style rigorously, though a floundering author will end up edited into the publisher’s style. A competent author will end up having things much more their own way!

Journals, in my experience, tend to be much more keen that authors stick to the style guide, and their copyeditors will be more thorough in ensuring they do. It’s still entirely possible to do that without compromising your authorial voice. For the journals I work on, the register of the articles in an issue goes up and down the ranks of formality, though within a fairly narrow range compared to all that’s possible. But the structuring, the mechanics, adhere to the journal’s house style (or at least they do once I’ve finished with them).

In summary

It’s not my job, as a copyeditor, to trample all over your writing; it’s my job to edit sympathetically, balancing the tripartite needs of the reader, the publisher and you, the author. I want to preserve your voice, using apt words.

A version of this article has been published in Communicator, the journal of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, Spring 2022, 4(1): 26–27.

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