How to Avoid Bad Editing

How to avoid bad editing

How to Avoid Bad Editing

This is not a post attacking editors. I love me some editors. They are my people.


Recently an author told me a story that’s unfortunately not as rare as I wish it were: A developmental editor she hired to help her with one of her manuscripts decimated her confidence to the point that she nearly gave up—on the story, and on writing altogether.

These stories always hurt my heart because of the negative impact experiences like this can have on a writer’s story, career, budget, and psyche.

Here are some of the stories I’ve heard from writers about their experiences with hiring editors: Editors who didn’t seem to “get” the author’s intentions; editors who tried to take over an author’s story or push her in a different direction from her vision; editors who rampantly changed an author’s prose. Editors who did next to nothing; editors who did far too much; editors who disappeared altogether. Manuscripts that fell into a black hole; fees that ballooned during the editing process.

And worst of all, editors who attacked, denigrated, or dismissed an author’s writing or person.

So many—too many—authors have told me in private, sometimes teary confessions that they nearly quit in discouragement after an edit like this, feeling worthless and hopeless. Some did, returning to their creative work only by dint of fierce determination.

Quite honestly, these stories piss me off. Editors are entrusted with an author’s creative efforts, some of the most personal, most intimate, tenderest parts of a person’s psyche. To abuse that privilege with unhelpful, unskilled, or even destructive feedback is to discourage and shut those efforts down, rather than helping an author to develop and build them up, as is our proper function.

But they also bother me because hearing about or having a bad experience with the wrong editor may make authors gun-shy of hiring one—or of editing in general. Yet a good edit with the right editor can be transformative—some of the best money, time, and effort an author might ever spend on her writing career.

A good edit with the right editor can be transformative—some of the best money, time, and effort an author might ever spend on her writing career.

Editing Requires Fortitude

Let me speak up for my people, the editors: I do believe that most who get into this field have good intentions. They want to help authors grow their work and their writing skills.

But I feel there is a misconception with editors who may take a what I consider a hard approach about how best to achieve that: that a good edit is “tough love,” helping authors prepare for the brutal realities of the publishing industry.

Publishing is a tough business, it’s true. There are going to be harsh realities along the path of any publishing career: difficult feedback, major revisions and rewrites, manuscripts that never get published—for reasons that are often outside the author’s control (not that authors have a lot of control in this mercurial business). Poor sales from manuscripts that do get published, bad reviews, dropped contracts. Unimaginable competition, discouragement, failure. And rejection—so much rejection. Not all of it kind or gentle.

“We have to help prepare authors for all that,” is the gist of why some editors may take a more critical approach. “It’s realistic.”

Now, I’m not saying authors should be coddled or have sunshine blown into their nether regions, or saccharinely Stuart Smalleyed (“You’re good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like you!”).

But not only is dismissing, denigrating, or attacking an author’s work (or, heaven forfend, their person) unproductive and unprofessional, but editors don’t know everything and they aren’t always right, gods on the mount. No one is, or every book would be a Harry Potter–level smash.

As with any creative art, this is a subjective field. Our job as editors is simply to hold up the mirror and reflect what we see on the page, and bring our (hopefully) extensive skill and experience to bear in helping the author convey her vision as effectively and elegantly as possible.

“Possible” may mean within the author’s current abilities. A good edit helps authors learn and grow and stretch—but that doesn’t mean every author may be ready for prime time with every story. A good editor’s role is to help them along that path, though—not shoot them off of it because their story may not yet be publisher-ready.

And a good edit is no walk among the roses, friends. I frequently quote author Camille Di Maio’s assessment of it as “a literary root canal.” It’s going to get all up in your story business and shine a very bright light into the shadowy cluttered corners, and might reveal a fair amount of housekeeping that still needs to be done.

It’s hard work, and it requires the clichéd “gimlet eye” on the part of the editor and the author, taking an unflinching look at what you may have thought—and certainly hoped—was in pretty good shape.

Feeding Creative Efforts the Food that Helps Them Grow

But imagine this scenario: Someone comes to you with something he made or something he plans or hopes for or dreams of. And maybe you realize it’s not yet fully thought out or realistic, a little bit underbaked.

Would you say, “This is stupid”? “Toss this whole idea”? “This is worthless”? Would you let another human believe, for even one moment, that he is worthless?

I think most editors genuinely want to help authors. But being realistic or offering “tough love” doesn’t mean being negative, discouraging, or popping someone’s balloon.

An editor’s job is to help inflate that balloon so the author can make it fly.

Intuitive Editing Tiffany Yates Martin
Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin

A good edit, as I say in Intuitive Editing, isn’t about tearing down—neither the author nor his work. It’s about “the creative, intuitive art of building up, deepening, developing, homing in on the story you set out to tell.”

Yes, competition is definitely fierce. Publishing careers will likely be full of plenty of negativity and discouragement.

But that should never come from the people an author hires to help her navigate those difficult waters. An editor’s job is to build up, not tear down. To help the author see clearly, develop, deepen, grow—be competitive.

As I say frequently, creativity never responds to the stick, only to the carrot. Nothing is served by negative, destructive editing.

Make sure the editor you hire takes a constructive, respectful approach by taking time to vet who you hire: checking their experience and track record, and seeing how they work firsthand before you hire them.

I wrote about how to do all this in these blog posts, a recent Writer’s Digest series you can find here, and this article for Jane Friedman. You can also find my extensive “Get It Edited” guide to hiring the right editor on the resources page of the website here.

Check out “Get It Edited and all my FoxPrint Working Writer Courses.

And if you want a thorough insiders’ guide to everything you may never have known you need to know before you hire an editor, my course “Get It Edited” dives deep into the subject, and also features examples of real-life sample-edits and contracts.

9 Comments. Leave new

  • Nicole Brooks
    January 20, 2022 3:46 pm

    Thank you for this. I had a very bad experience with an editor two years ago. I own my part in it-I didn’t vet her properly. And I paid for it. Her feedback of “agents and editors are word people and your writing is not for word people” literally destroyed me for a month (besides a bunch of other things she was strangely nit-picky about). It’s a good thing I’m stubborn, because I managed to get back to it eventually and am now working with a (highly vetted) editor that has ‘inflated the balloon’ as you say and it has transformed my work (with the same MS too!)

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      January 20, 2022 4:29 pm

      I’m thrilled to hear you found a good editor, Nicole–and one who helps build your story and your writing. It’s astonishing the effect that can have, isn’t it? So is the flip side, unfortunately–glad you found the wherewithal to believe in yourself. The more authors educate themselves on what good editing is and should look like, hopefully the rarer stories like that one will become. Thanks for sharing yours.

  • Libby Waterford
    January 20, 2022 6:55 pm

    Loved this post so much. I’ve been hesitant to work with editors occasionally because of the fear of being torn down, but I also know how helpful editors can be in making one a better writer. This is a great, nuanced take on the topic. Thanks!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      January 20, 2022 8:04 pm

      Thanks, Libby–if it helped you reconsider your feelings about editing, I’m delighted. A bad one can burn you, but a good one can be just unbelievably helpful for an author’s writing, story, and career. Doing due diligence in choosing the right editor for you can go a long way toward making sure you get the latter kind. Thanks for the comment!

  • Thank you so much for this post, Tiffany. I thought it was just me, but now I know that it isn’t. Still. over the last thirteen years (and over the course of six novels), I’ve experienced every kind of devastating experience with an editor that you described (and a few you didn’t, from people who are known in the business.) Confused, exhausted, and demoralized, I finally gave up because I’d come to the conclusion that I just wasn’t good enough. But since writing is in my blood, I’m back at it, so here’s my question for you. I’ve attended a number of your classes on Zoom and have read your book, Intuitive Editing. Your energy, enthusiasm, and compassion for writers is so striking in contrast to what I’ve encountered, that I’d love to be added to your waiting list, no matter how long it takes for your schedule to free up. Would that be possible? And if so, how would I go about signing up. All best, Barbara

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      January 21, 2022 3:02 am

      This slays me to hear…in the bad way. I’m sorry to hear you had such difficult experiences, Barbara. I believe so strongly in what a good edit can do for a writer and a story; I’m always upset to hear an author has had an unfortunate experience. I’m so glad you stuck with your writing–that takes courage and self-confidence.

      Thank you for such kind words about my work and my book–they really mean a great deal to hear. I’m working on finding a way to open up more slots to new clients each year. I haven’t found it yet…! But the first place I’ll announce it when I do will be my newsletter, so subscribers will always be first to know. Meanwhile, you’re welcome to drop me an email anytime. Thanks for being here, and for your comment.

  • Thank you, Tiffany!

  • Elizabeth Seckman
    April 10, 2022 11:33 pm

    Knock on wood, I have been very lucky and had wonderfully nice editors. I have had some mean beta readers…


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