To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: Author’s Voice

Putative portrait of Christopher Marlowe (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).
Putative portrait of Christopher Marlowe (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).

This week, Oxford University Press announced it was listing Christopher Marlowe as coauthor of the three Shakespeare Henry VI plays. While the authorship of Shakespeare’s works has been subject to scrutiny for years, this is the first time Marlowe has been named a coauthor by a major publishing house. (Lesley is totally a Marlowe fan girl and is super excited about this.)

How did the research team come to this decision? They analyzed vocabulary and phrasing in the Henry VI plays and compared them to other works attributed to Shakespeare and Marlowe: “Much of the authorship analysis is quite technical because it involves analyzing every word of entire plays, looking for patterns and clues.” Thus, figuring out authorship is its own kind of puzzle.

Each author has his or her own voice when writing. The cadence, the word choice, and the overall style can be like fingerprints. While certainly influenced by what the author has read and what the author likes, the author’s voice still has a sound of its own.

As editors, we have to be very careful to improve the flow and grammar while also maintaining the author’s voice. Keeping in as many of the original words as possible is one good technique for this. Another is to really listen while you read so you internalize the author’s rhythm. Some writers prefer choppier text, while others have rambling sentences. Editors must know when to allow choppiness or rambling prose for the betterment of the manuscript and when to adjust it for the reader’s ease.

As ever, editors should always have a specific rule or a reason for an exception in their heads before making an edit. Each edit should have a clear purpose.

Do you have tips on keeping an author’s voice while editing? If so, share them with us!

2 thoughts on “To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: Author’s Voice

  1. Many factors about an author’s voice are subtle, but I develop a feeling for that voice as I get deeper into the manuscript. Your example about maintaining an author’s rhythm (choppy or rambling) is very apt; in fact, when I took the IE editing test, I needed to keep that very factor in mind.
    I routinely change misplaced modifiers, often with an AQ explanation so that the author can understand my suggested change. Usually there are at least two legitimate ways to correct the problem, and if there is a question in my mind about which correction best fits the author’s voice, my AQ will include both alternatives, leaving it for the author to decide.
    I regard each instance of my editorial markup as a suggestion, which the author is free to override. And unless the manuscript is laden with problems, I try to maintain a light hand.
    And, of course, if the ONLY reason I can come up with for marking up a sentence that an author wrote is “I would never write it like that,” I leave the sentence alone.

    1. Well said, Allan! One bonus of treating a manuscript with such care is that the author is more often appreciative. When authors can still clearly see themselves in the edited file returned to them, the idea of someone else monkeying with their words isn’t quite as terrifying.

      When we respect the authors’ language choices, we gain their respect in return. Win win!

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