Is Your Editor Giving You Bad Writing Advice? Here’s How You Can Tell

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Writing a book can be a lonely endeavor. It’s just you and your words for hours on end, and it’s easy to lose objectivity when editing your own work, which is why it’s so important to have a good editor to help you fix plot holes, develop your characters, and shape your writing into the most compelling narrative possible. 

No matter how brilliant your ideas are, you need an objective third-party perspective to save you from your own biases and blind spots—this applies even to world-famous best-selling authors. Then there are the typos and careless grammar mistakes that are so easy to overlook when you’re intimately familiar with your own work. There’s no doubt that good writing requires good editing, but how do you know you’re getting good advice from your editor? 

As with any art, what makes good or bad writing is ultimately subjective, yet that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” writing. There most certainly is, but learning to produce good writing is an art, not a science, and you can’t rely on writing templates or “rules” to create literary masterpieces. You just need to know. This can make it difficult to tell good from bad writing advice, especially when it comes to structural issues such as plot, dialogue, and cohesiveness. 

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain red flags you should look out for when seeking advice from an editor. Not all editors give good advice, so you definitely shouldn’t assume that their being professionals automatically implies their advice is sound.

To ensure you’re getting the best notes and suggestions on your writing, check out our manuscript critique services to get an editorial assessment from an experienced professional editor. 

So, how can you tell you’re being offered bad writing advice? 

Bad advice lacks examples or explanations

It’s fine if you ask a friend to read your draft and they tell you something isn’t working but can’t pinpoint why—you shouldn’t expect detailed advice from a layperson. However, it is unacceptable for a professional editor to offer no explanations. Their job isn’t to rewrite your manuscript, but they should be able to give you a reason why something isn’t working and suggest how it could be fixed.

When it comes to highly advanced linguistic issues, your editor may not be able to offer a clear explanation—the deepest intricacies of language may be too complex even for trained linguists. Sometimes, there really isn’t an “explanation”—some things just sound awkward because they defy the way people normally talk in a given language. However, even if your editor can’t clearly articulate why a particular linguistic choice of yours is an issue, they should be able to offer a remedy.

When it comes to story-level issues—plot, character development, and other narrative elements—a good editor should be able to explain why a specific element isn’t working for your story and provide examples that will help you improve it. They may even share examples from other writers who have worked through similar issues. They should also be able to outline the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript and offer targeted feedback paired with a plan for fixing any problems. 

Another thing to pay attention to is how your editor explains the issues they identify in your work. If they explain their notes away with “rules” rather than constructive reasoning, then they might not know what they’re talking about. Writing is an art, and mastering it isn’t done through “rules”—what we call “rules” in writing is more akin to guidelines or suggestions, and the most skilled writers know how to break them.

Bad advice pushes rules that don’t allow exceptions

Every rule has an exception, right? Knowing how and when to break the rules is a hallmark of a great writer, so any advice that contains absolutes such as “never” or “always” should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s your writing, and only you can decide what works and what doesn’t, even if your choices break some “rule”—art doesn’t follow any rules set in stone, and writing is no different. However, don’t use that as an excuse to reject all your editor’s suggestions—if you break the “rules,” you should be able to justify why you’ve done so and how it adds value to your writing.

Don’t be quick to disregard advice with “never” or “always” in it—if your editor advises you to “never” rely fully on writing rules or to “always” consider the context of your sentences, that’s fine. Bad advice is being told to never use big words or to never write in the passive voice. Sometimes, breaking with these conventions can bring out something in your story that would otherwise be lost. 

Since it’s become the subject of heated debate in the world of writing, let’s take a quick look at the passive voice. Consider this: If the passive voice had no purpose, would it have developed in just about every language? At its core, it is simply a mechanism to shift the focus to the recipient of the action (object) in a sentence, with the agent (subject) taking a backseat. Sometimes you need the passive voice, so don’t let a biased editor tell you otherwise.

Bad advice is informed by ego, not empathy

If you’re working with a professional editor, it’s probably because you want your book to be published someday. You must develop a thick skin if you aim to be part of the publishing industry since you might get criticized and judged by people you were hoping would support you. You should not tie your self-worth to your story, and you should be willing to cut out characters or scenes you really loved, even when receiving such criticism can feel like a crushing blow. That said, tough but constructive criticism is completely different from ego-driven advice. 

Good advice should be supportive and thoughtful, aiming to help you improve not only your manuscript but also your craft in general. An editor’s combative or defensive opinion might be a reflection of their own issues or insecurities and probably won’t help your writing, but if they’re experienced and have a solid reputation, try to listen despite their attitude—some good advice could be lurking behind their ego-fueled delivery. 

Ideally, you’ll be able to find an experienced editor who can offer constructive criticism gently and kindly. Even if the essence of their advice is the same, you’ll feel much more receptive to it, and it will be less likely to crush you.

Bad advice comes from inexperience

Not everyone with editorial experience will give you good advice, and not everyone without it will give you bad advice. However, experience definitely counts when it comes to professional editors. Again, your friend might give you great general advice on your draft because they’re looking at it as a regular reader and can offer a fresh perspective on what works and what doesn’t. A layperson’s opinion can be extremely valuable since that’s ultimately who you’re (probably) writing for. 

Still, an experienced editor will be able to give you notes on specific issues and offer examples to help you fix them, while an inexperienced editor will merely spout rules and clichés without explaining how they pertain to your work or the problems you need to solve. A novice editor reviewing your writing based on rules and templates is little better than an algorithm mechanically applying the rules coded into it with no regard for context. Good editing requires nuance, and your editor’s advice should reflect this.

Finding the right editor is rarely easy, and determining what advice to follow or ignore can be overwhelming. If you want to work with a thoughtful editor who will take you and your work seriously and will give you clear, concise, and specific notes on how to improve your draft, check out our manuscript critique services

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