An American Editor

May 11, 2011

On Words: The Power of Words

Within the past few weeks, Jack Lyon, a regular reader of An American Editor, sent me an e-mail pointing me toward this video:

I found the video poignant and an excellent reminder of the power of words and the role an editor plays in helping an author to shape those words.

In Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process, we explored the relationship between the author and the editor, but not the power of the words put to paper. Advertising, as an industry, relies on the power of words. Choosing the wrong word can destroy a product. Two good examples from the world of politics are “death panels” and “death taxes,” both of which conjure a particular image regardless of whether there is any correlation between the conjured image and the truth.

The big lie is what politics is too often about. The big lie is also what forms the justification for oppression that occurs in many countries. In all instances, the big lie is founded on the power of words to describe and motivate and move people in a particular direction. Is not this true, for example, of antisemitism?

Words move readers in particular directions. Choosing the wrong word can move a reader the wrong way, or at least wrong in the eyes of the author who wanted the reader moved oppositely. This is the role of the editor — to help the author find the right words to describe and convey the author’s message.

Choosing the right words to convey the author’s message is a role that a professional editor is intended to play. Consequently, a professional editor needs to be a wordsmith, needs to be familiar with the power of words and the word options available. How different would our country be had the Declaration of Independence been worded differently? How different would the world be if the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen had been worded differently? How more/less powerful would an author’s manuscript be had parts of it been worded differently? Is it not the craft of the poet to create an illusion in few, but powerful words?

The power of words is something every author and editor should consider — the author when first putting words to paper, the editor when first suggesting changes to those words. The message may be the same, but the words different, more compelling or less compelling, altering the dynamics. The above video demonstrates the truth of this conclusion.



  1. True, so true. Also, a good editor would not change the ‘author’s voice’ to a bland uniformity unless absolutely necessary.


    Comment by Zarine Arya — May 11, 2011 @ 5:49 am | Reply

  2. And when is a blander voice recommended? When the author (maybe unwittingly) is offensive or unfair.


    Comment by Zarine Arya — May 11, 2011 @ 5:51 am | Reply

  3. There are times when the publisher actually requires staff to avoid the author’s voice, even when no-one complains that the original voice was faulty or weak. An instance I know of involved a stirring essay-report on “blue-collar blues.” To run in an encyclopedia’s yearbook, it was to harmonize — like it or not — with the encyclopedia version of English. Not the author’s version.

    I suppose there’s something to be said for the view that the guy who signs the checks has to have the final word. The result isn’t always happy, however.


    Comment by Ed Nelson — May 27, 2011 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

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