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#MicroblogMondays 34: Editing and Authorship

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There was an interesting post recently on Mental Floss musing that Laura Ingalls Wilder may not have written the Little House books.  Or, she did write a draft of them, but her daughter heavily edited them to the point of rewriting them.

It raises an interesting question: how much editing is too much editing when it comes to designating authorship?  If you wrote a book and then I edited it, keeping all of the same ideas but smoothing out the language, is it still your book?  What if I changed the order to scenes or rewrote a scene or two to change the motivations of the character?  Is that still your book?

The editing process is such a hugely important part of book publishing.  I can only self-edit my books so far before I hit a wall and need an outsider’s perspective on the project.  As an editor, I am always aware of not crossing over a line where my hand is too deeply in someone else’s work.

Does it change your feelings about the books if the original books Laura Ingalls wrote looked nothing like the books that ended up in the bookstore?

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1. A. 16. Infertile Girl 31. Savannah (Because I Can’t Have Babies)
2. Jessica 17. Accio Baby! 32. Mali (No Kidding in NZ)
3. Jen (Days of Grace) 18. earthandink 33. Suzy
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11. Daryl 26. The bespectacled mother 41. deathstar
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15. Isabelle 30. Looking for a Little

23 comments

1 Jessica { 04.20.15 at 6:20 am }

Many authors bow down to their editor’s demands to get their books published. Selling out because they need to.

2 Jen { 04.20.15 at 6:42 am }

Editing with consent – where the author and editor agree the final version is the book they both want published – seems like the best way to get a great book. I feel differently where it seems the book is no longer what the author was aiming for. Or the editing is done posthumously for example. Although it is hard to tell when we’ll never see the original to compare.

3 Persnickety { 04.20.15 at 7:46 am }

Editing can be very important. There are a few authors I no longer read because it is very clear that they no longer get rigorously edited.
And as someone who does a review on documents to be published- editing is important in bringing out the message. It’s hard to cut your own work, it’s also hard to see the holes in sentences and thoughts.
I used to have the books on the writing of the lord of the rings- I find it interesting to see the stuff behind the published work, but in those you can see the value of editing

4 Turia { 04.20.15 at 8:27 am }

I think a good editor helps the author find the book hiding in the drafts. A conscientious outside perspective can be exactly what a book needs. It should be a partnership, but the author’s vision needs to be respected.

I love the Little House books. I guess I don’t mind if they were heavily edited as long as the content was original.

5 Middle Girl { 04.20.15 at 9:40 am }

The few instances I have had opportunity to publish the editors were friends who held my hand gently and suggested changes kindly. The stakes were low, as in, not a manuscript up for mainstream publication or distribution. Even that limited experience illustrated how valuable editors can be to the process.

To answer the question, if I discover the author (so named) and/or editor were exploited.

6 earthandink { 04.20.15 at 10:00 am }

Editing is incredibly important but it isn’t writing. Period.

7 nonsequiturchica { 04.20.15 at 10:29 am }

I think that if storylines don’t change then editing is just helping the writer tell the story better.

8 loribeth { 04.20.15 at 10:57 am }

Agreed that a good editor can make a good book better… and that it should be a partnership. In the case of Laura, it certainly doesn’t bother me, particularly since the editor in question was her daughter Rose, a journalist who knew something about writing as well as the stories Laura wanted to tell. I love the books. 🙂

9 Laurel Regan { 04.20.15 at 12:16 pm }

Interesting question! There’s such a fine line, isn’t there, when it comes to editing. It’s a real art, and I’m not sure people always realize that.

10 Jenn { 04.20.15 at 1:10 pm }

I heard a little about this a while ago. At that point it sounded like they were written with a lot more detail and then edited to be children’s books and “appropriate.” I get the idea of editing for an audience but would love to read the originals.

11 KeAnne { 04.20.15 at 1:20 pm }

I have the new annotated biography of Laura Ingalls! I’ve heard that accusation for years, and I think it is dismissive of Laura and her abilities. Sure, her daughter was a celebrated journalist and writer, but Laura wasn’t exactly uneducated.

The editing process is interesting, and I’ve learned a lot about it after co-producing Listen to Your Mother the last 3 years. We do edit the pieces for length and clarity. We tell the writers our goal is not to change their words but to have their words be as powerful as possible. We’ve had some push back and times and a lot of give and take, but the pieces are still their writing.

12 torthuil { 04.20.15 at 3:00 pm }

I had a part time job for a while where I re-wrote classic (i.e. not copyrighted) novels as ESL readers. I had to shorten the novels to a specified word count, and keep the language to the specified vocabulary level. There were other requirements too: the company wanted to sell these books in the Middle East so I had to edit out any references to alcohol. (Those pirates in Treasure Island really liked to…party, and after a long day of that there were sure….sleepy). Since I love books and writing I took the re-writes seriously and tried to make them as true to the original thematically as possible while meeting the other requirements. The result? I definitely feel like I wrote the books, even though I didn’t come up with the original plot or characters. After all that work, it was impossible not to feel ownership. So yes, I think editing does convey a degree of authorship, although what I did probably went beyond editing (but I have no knowledge of publishing other than that experience so I don’t know). How would I feel if an author was heavily edited? I don’t know that it would bother me particularly, at least not at this age. When I was young it was discombobulating to find out that authors could be very different people from what I imagined by reading their books. For example L.M. Montgomery created the Anne Shirley character, who is famous for being upbeat, but she struggled with mental illness. Her characters all end up happily married, but she had a loveless marriage. Now I understand that things are not always, or even not often, what they seem, but it was an unnerving revelation at the time.

13 Amber { 04.20.15 at 3:58 pm }

My perspective of the books doesn’t change, because the story I read is still the same. I mean, were the books edited and published after Laura Ingalls passed away? It’s been so long since I read the books or thought about it that I don’t even know! I suppose they could be considered co-authors? Just a thought.

14 Reb { 04.20.15 at 4:43 pm }

This is an interesting question for me as a university ESL writing teacher. We tell our students that every word in a paper that they submit has to be their own (aside from properly referenced quotes, of course), so it’s actually considered an academic integrity violation to hand someone else their paper to have it edited. They can get help and feedback, but no one else can change anything – the student has to understand and personally make any changes in order to claim ownership.

On the other hand, as you mentioned, once you move up into the professional writing world, editors are necessary and important. It’s an interesting disconnect in the world of education! I don’t mind that the original Little House writings might have been changed – they are good stories! – but I think it’s important to acknowledge who had a hand in creating the final products.

15 Cristy { 04.20.15 at 8:01 pm }

This has been a long, on-going debate. Not only because of the edits to the timeline, but also because it’s hard to tell where the author’s voice ends and the editor’s begins. That said, I think the Wilder’s had an interesting relationship and one that is rarely seen. Still, I agree with Loribeth. Torthuil’s point is something to think about too.

16 Jess { 04.20.15 at 9:58 pm }

I loved Little House on the Prairie, and I agree that the heavy editing in this case coming from a daughter who was probably highly sensitive to what her mom would want, doesn’t really bother me. Although it does seem a little more like co-authoring than true editing if it’s as heavy as it seems from the media. I have a great respect for editors who can take a wonderful story written by an author and make it the best it can possibly be — after a while, I’d imagine all of your own rewriting could be blinded by how close you are to your own work. I don’t think I knew that LM Montgomery had such a difficult life! I loved the Anne books, too.

17 Shannon { 04.20.15 at 10:15 pm }

I would be so interested to read an unedited version of one of the Little House books! I still love them, but now I’m always going to wonder how much was changed.

18 Jamie { 04.20.15 at 10:37 pm }

I loved the Little House books. When I wad in eighth grade, I read an adult biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and learned about the inconsistencies of the children’s books. It made me feel a little sad, but I loved the children’s books just the same. I realized they were more based on a true story. But the spirit of the story of the girl becoming a woman was my bigger take away than total accuracy.

19 Mali { 04.20.15 at 10:43 pm }

For me, it’s all about enjoyment of the final product – perhaps because I never read the Little House books. (Or if I did, I don’t really remember them). If the editing adds to that finished product, then I don’t care how extensive it is. Sometimes perhaps a good editor should be credited along with the person who had the idea. I have read books though that have either been spoiled by poor editing (a friend’s book was made awkward by editing additions, for example), or that are desperately in need of more extensive editing. Editing is a skill in its own right.

20 Stephanie (Travelcraft Journal) { 04.20.15 at 11:09 pm }

If they stay pretty true to Laura Ingalls’s experiences and perspective, then it doesn’t bother me.

You do raise an interesting question, though, about how much editing is too much.

21 Suzy { 04.21.15 at 1:06 pm }

I still love the series. Like everyone else, I have enjoyed the final product. 🙂

22 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.21.15 at 3:38 pm }

I like what Turia and KeAnne say.

On the subject of collaboration, someone once declared that neither the Lennon songs nor the McCartney songs were quite as good as the Lennon/McCartney songs. Maybe however the magic emerges, I’m OK that it emerged.

23 Mary Francis { 04.22.15 at 2:14 am }

Here in Britain The Littke House On The Prairie became population r through the tv series. Someone must have written the screenplay,and I don’t know who, and it’s a different medium, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was the originator, and to her I gave the credit for the wonderful stories. I did read tge books later and loved them just as much as tge screenplays. The

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