Can an Editor "Fix" Really Bad Writing?

Dec 02, 2020

Editors often see projects at radially different stages of development. Truthfully, we sometimes see writing that is really, well, bad.

But does this mean it’s hopeless? When do you know if something is too "bad" to be worth fixing?

Of course, "bad" is a highly subjective term. Writing might seem "bad" to one reader, while another reader loves it. For me, "bad" writing means I detect multiple basic problems that might be craft based or have more to do with topic, timing or even themes. My personal opinion on whether the prose sings or the storyline is interesting is irrelevant--what matters is whether I can see what the writer is trying to achieve and have an opinion on whether they're achieving those goals or not.

Less experienced writers often seek validation from editors. Their secret hope is that we will recognize the genius in their work and maybe even help them find an agent or publisher. Many ask for feedback and yet fight tooth and nail about every suggestion. Others understand the process better and trust that their work is more likely to appeal to readers (and therefore to the various gatekeepers standing between them and publication) after multiple drafts.

A couple of years ago, a manuscript in very rough shape crossed my desk. Should I keep going? the writer asked me. Is it worth the effort? He was looking to me to give him the thumbs up or the thumbs down, like Commodus at the Colosseum.

The truth is the manuscript was a mess. It was unfocused and confusing. The tone was off. While the core idea was interesting, the execution was flawed. It needed a lot of work. And yet I could not answer his question. Why? Because an editor working with a new writer cannot really predict what can be created by the alchemy of an open mind + a willingness to learn and to work. It can create a kind of magic: A final product that works.

Just because a piece of writing is “bad,” doesn't mean it can't become good or even great. It can be flawed without being hopeless. In fact, it's my belief that it's a good editor's responsibility to tease out the areas where work needs to be done and guide the writer toward finding solutions, rather than be an arbiter of viability, taste or validity.

So how do you know when bad writing is really, truly hopeless? Here are some questions to ask yourself before quitting:

  • Have I been willing to learn from feedback? Have I really been hearing what my readers are saying?
  • Do I trust myself? Is my vision for the work intact? Have I been overly influenced by someone whose opinion matters to me?
  • Conversely: Have I hacked away at it with an open mind or am I sticking stubbornly to an early idea that just isn’t working?
  • What can positive feedback teach me about where my strengths lie? How can I build on those strengths?
  • What can negative feedback teach me about what I need to learn in terms of executing on my idea?
  • Will I benefit from a break? Working on something different for a while?
  • Am I paying enough attention to other creative needs/ interests that are only tangentially involved with this project but may be necessary for me to bring the right kind of energy to the table?

Sometimes you do have to admit defeat and move on, but it’s not an editor’s job to tell you that. Since we can’t really know whether you’re the kind of writer who will learn and grow, who are we to pass final judgment on early drafts?

So instead of giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I prefer to wave. Hey you, come sit next to me and roll up your sleeves! Let's get to work!