Imagine being asked to edit a manuscript that is so poorly written that you know it shouldn’t proceed to the editorial level. Maybe the manuscript is poorly organized, or maybe the writing would demand painstakingly substantial revisions. What do you do as an editor? Here are a few tips on how to handle the conversation with the author.
Find a suitable entry point for the meeting.
Before scheduling to meet with an author, prepare concrete examples of what you’re concerned about in their manuscript. During the meeting, start by commending the writer for the work they have put in. It may not be very good, but the reality is that they spent time on it. Then find a cordial entry point to begin discussing the manuscript. That could be something like, “I am glad you found time to meet with me. I look forward to discussing how we can work together to enrich your manuscript.”
Focus your feedback on the work, not the person.
Ensure that the session does not become an “attack-defend” kind of talk. This comes about when comments seem to be directed at the person and not their manuscript.
It is a fine line between targeting the work and criticizing the author.
Critiquing the work allows an author to detach themselves from their manuscript. It also allows them to participate in the discussion objectively. Offer comments like, “The manuscript requires improvement in the writing style and grammar” or “The work needs a clearer central theme” or “Elaborate on these points.”
Propose suitable options.
One common solution is for the author to hire a ghostwriter or ghost editor to help them write the book. Another is to guide the author to rewrite the entire manuscript. Rewriting can mean expunging text, adding more chapters, or further developing existing sections. It can also call for a reordering of ideas.
Know when to let go.
Despite providing these and other options, the author may not be comfortable with any of them. Should this be the case, part ways agreeably and end the contract formally.
Four Tips for Handling Bad Writing was originally published in Tracking Changes (Spring 2020 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.