Every writer has his own voice

V.S. Naipaul in 2007 (Photo: Georgia Popplewell @ Flickr)

Copy-editors are an essential cog in the wheel of publishing and a world without them would be an unkempt one, its verbose books peppered with redundant hyphens, needless repetition, misplaced semicolons, dangling participles, needless repetition and factual inaccuracies. Despite this, their relationship with the author can sometimes be a strained one. In 1988, on receiving his manuscript from an apparently overzealous copy-editor, Nobel Prize-winning author V. S. Naipaul – a man who once wrote a list of rules for novice writers including such advice as “do not write long sentences” and “each sentence should make a clear statement” – fired off an angry letter to his editor at Knopf.

(Many thanks to V. S. Naipaul – used with permission.)

10 May 1988

Dear Sonny,

The copy-edited text of A Turn in the South came yesterday; it is such an appalling piece of work that I feel I have to write about it. This kind of copy-editing gets in the way of creative reading. I spend so much time restoring the text I wrote (and as a result know rather well). I thought it might have been known in the office that after 34 years and 20 books I knew certain things about writing and didn’t want a copy-editor’s help with punctuation or the thing called repetition; and certainly didn’t want help with ways of getting round repetition. It is utterly absurd to have someone pointing out to me repetitions in the use of “and” or “like” or “that” or “she”. I didn’t want anyone undoing my semi-colons; with all their different ways of linking.

It happens that English – the history of the language – was my subject at Oxford. It happens that I know very well that these so-called “rules” have nothing to do with the language and are really rules about French usage. The glory of English is that it is without these court rules: it is a language made by the people who write it. My name goes on my book. I am responsible for the way the words are put together. It is one reason why I became a writer.

Every writer has his own voice. (Every serious or dedicated writer.) This is achieved by the way he punctuates; the rhythm of his phrases; the way the writing reflects the processes of the writer’s thought: all the nervousness, all the links, all the curious associations. An assiduous copy-editor can undo this very quickly, can make A write like B and Ms C.

And what a waste of spirit it is for the writer, who is in effect re-doing bits of his manuscript all the time instead of giving it a truly creative, revising read. Consider how it has made me sit down this morning, not to my work, but to write this enraged letter.