How to Stay a Bad Writer in 3 Easy Steps

Dick Dastardly - Bad WriterI’m a professional editor. I’m all right at the job. In the past, I’ve worked with some great editors, so I’m well aware of where I am lacking. But I do a reasonable job. And I am capable of turning a bad writer into a competent one — if the writer has any interest in that.

There are two attitudes that writers have toward editors. Some, like me, love editors — as long as they are reasonably good. They help the writer out enormously. Writing is a very introverted activity and just having a sane outsider to point out unclear sections is very helpful. But a good editor (much less a great editor) is a collaborator who can greatly improve a writer’s work.

Then there are writers who hate editors. I am not one of them. But I can speculate because I’ve had a recent run in with someone who is nominally my editor. That wasn’t truly an issue of my not getting along with an editor, however. I was never asked to change any text. Instead, I got a flood of complaints about constantly changing format requests. But I suspect that writers who hate editors feel much as I did.

I felt as though I was being abused. The “editor” was simply trying to assert her authority on me — not doing her job and not asking for anything that would actually improve what I had written. In fact, in the case of this “editor,” I don’t think the text for the vast majority of the work was read. And that is doubtless how editor hating writers feel: that what they produced is just fine and that the editor is just being difficult.

In my experience, writers who hate editors are bad. I suspect a lot of it has to do with their inability to take criticism. There are a lot of people who think they can write who really can’t do much more than talk on paper. And the situation is getting worse because the internet has created an explosion in the need for written content. So it isn’t hard to be a professional writer.

But there’s a problem. If you do something long enough, there is a good chance that you will become at least competent. And then where will you be? Because being a bad professional writer is great! I mean that. When I’m being paid to write something, I fret over it endlessly. I’ll spend an hour working on a single sentence if it is critical to the piece. But for the bad writer, it doesn’t matter. You just dump your thoughts on the page and collect your check.

Editors can stand in the way of that. They can force you to improve. And so, given that I would hate so see any bad writer lose out on the gravy train that they’ve found, I offer the following three easy steps for staying a bad writer:

  1. Submit a thousand words of really mediocre copy. Don’t worry about it being in the least bit interesting. Just dump some words on the page, make sure no more than two to three words are misspelled, and submit it.
  2. You will hear back from your editor who will, fearing for your fragile writer feelings, ask for a “polish.” But because the editor knows that you are bad writer, they will give a specific list of numbered changes to make. Ignore these changes. Spend maybe 15 minutes noodling with some of what you wrote, but be careful: don’t make any changes that would notably improve the copy!
  3. You will hear back from your editor who will, fearing for your fragile writer feelings but now somewhat pissed off because you ignored their previous request, ask for a “polish as I requested before.” The editor will usually restate the requested changes in a different way so that the two of you can pretend that you are not just a hopeless, arrogant, and bad writer who they would fire if they were allowed. Now you must go in and make all the changes requested. But don’t do them artfully; do them as quickly as possible. And then — this is critical — don’t do a final read through to see if it all makes sense. This last bit should be easy, because as a bad writer, you never do a final read through anyway.

At this point, the editor will just fix what the bad writer wrote. The truth is that the editor knows that the bad writer is incapable of doing any better. And even if they were, they wouldn’t care enough to spend the time to do it. What’s more, if the editor hurts the fragile feelings of the bad writer, the bad writer will just complain to the editor’s boss.

Eventually, of course, the bad writer will be fired. But they will just get another job where they will torture another editor.

2 thoughts on “How to Stay a Bad Writer in 3 Easy Steps

  1. The only editor I ever hated was one who altered one of my articles before printing it without telling me. Not “editing for space,” which I can understand, but changing the whole slant by both adding her words and subtracting mine. Needless to say, that was the last article I ever submitted to her publication. On the other hand, you are absolutely correct that a good editor can point out problems, make suggestions, and in general improve what one has written. The key words here are “without telling me”; collaborative editors good, autocratic editors bad.

    • When I was young, I was not as good an editor — or rather didn’t understand the job. So I don’t claim to be perfect myself. Now, of course, I just don’t have the time. But in almost all cases, this is non-byline work. So I can do whatever I want. But I don’t want to. I just want people to write to the assignment. Most of my writers require almost nothing: just a quick read through, a couple of changes, and it is published. But some writers really only care about the money. In the long-term, it is a bad strategy.

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