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Prescriptive Editing Demystified: What Every Author Needs to Know

By October 27, 2023November 15th, 2023Editing Tips, Hiring an Editor, Manuscript Editing

When you plan to publish a book, working with an editor may be an intimidating part of the process. You want to work with someone who helps your voice shine through. Unfortunately, there are some that would rather apply what they consider to be the “right” type of voice and mechanics to your manuscript which may change your voice in a way you don’t like.

Learn more about what prescriptive editing is and how to find the right kind of editor for your project.

What is Prescriptivism?

If you’re not familiar with the concept, prescriptivism describes the idea that one’s version or variety of their language is the “correct” one and that others ought to adhere to it.

This way of thinking promotes a certain way of writing, taking an “all or nothing” approach to the revision process. This absolutist view is rigid, structured, and leaves little room for variation or nuance.

Following a prescriptivist method to editing can be problematic in a number of ways, most noticeably in dampening the author’s intended voice and tone. If they are from a marginalized group or have characters within marginalized groups, authors may find this philosophy does not work with their worldview because it does not allow for linguistic diversity.

If you, your characters, and your story center on experiences that differ from what someone with this thought process sees as fitting within their monolithic viewpoint, you may find yourself facing criticism for not following what that specific person sees as the “right” way to write.

For instance, if your character speaks with a certain dialect and you want your writing to reflect it, someone who subscribes to this thought process may take issue that they aren’t speaking “proper English.”

Most readers will not have this issue if they understand the character’s background. They understand that the world is diverse and not everyone will sound the same. However, expectations from a prescriptive mindset may not allow for this kind of nuance.

Naturally, if you’re familiar with or enjoy fiction, or you are an author looking to hire someone to edit your book, you can see how this mindset ultimately leads to problems during the editing process.

Unfortunately, it may not be immediately obvious an editor you’re vetting takes this approach with projects. You can take some steps to ensure you mesh with them, though, before ever signing a contract.

Signs an Editor is Prescriptivist

Some signs the editor you’re working with may be prescriptivist include:

  • You find yourself having to explain your word choices and voice because of the absolutist bent they have when working with you
  • Their sample edit has large amounts of revision with no room for nuance, especially in dialogue where most editors will not make sweeping changes
  • If they have a social media presence, the advice they give may be rife with “shoulds” and extreme statements in content and social media
  • Their feedback and recommendations seem to be less constructive recommendations and more focused on valued-based judgments
  • Feedback comes with few recommendations that allow for nuance or context within the scenes you have had them review

While there may be other signs that the editor you’re considering follows this way of thinking, the way they talk about language and the editing process can tell you a lot about how they will approach your book.

How do you combat prescriptivism? One way you can focus on taking a descriptive pathway in your editing process starting with your self edits. This means ensuring the changes you make still preserve your voice even within your chosen style guide.

Once you’ve gone through that process, find an editor that appreciates a descriptive pathway to make sure the book you envision follows your philosophy.

Why a Descriptive Editor Better Suits Indie Authors

Most indie authors will tell you an advantage they see of owning the process of editing is the creative control, and what better way to have that than have a descriptive pathway in your edits?

Benefits to having a descriptive editor as a partner in your project include:

  • Their experience lends their edits to be more nuanced
  • They are likely driven to help polish rather than bring a perceived perfection to revisions
  • The editor understands voice and enhancing it

How to Find a Descriptive Editor

If you’d like to avoid the philosophy of prescriptivism in your revision process, there are some things you can do to make sure the editor you choose meets your expectations and avoids this mindset.

  • Ask for editing samples: Most editors will edit 1,000 words of your manuscript to give you an idea of what they can do. While the beginning of a manuscript is recommended, it may also be a good idea to choose from a chapter midway through the book since you’ve most likely done more revisions in the earlier parts of the book than in the later parts. Once you’ve collected a few samples, compare them and determine which editor’s style you liked best.
  • Discuss their background and ask questions: As you are vetting editors for your book, be sure to ask how they got started, what drives them, and what kinds of projects they have done. Experience in your genre is a plus!
  • Word of mouth referrals: Referrals are often the lifeblood of many small businesses, including freelance editors. Asking other authors who they recommend can help you create a list of trustworthy people to consider working with on your project.

Book Your Project Today

If you are considering an editor who is passionate about making your voice shine through in your manuscript, I’d love to be considered. I have my project availability listed in my monthly newsletter, the Editor Exclusive, or you can contact me directly to find out more.