Be mean to prose and nice to people

A Few Good Men

I hate bad prose. (Maybe you’ve noticed.) This affects the way I edit: with inspiration, with passion, instinctively, and relentlessly. All prose has flaws — I find them and critique them mercilessly. I can’t help it. And weirdly, people seem to like it.

When a writer sends me something inadequate, I tear it apart. I delete vast sections, recommend wholesale reorganization, poke holes where it’s weak and unconvincing. I skewer passive evasions, impenetrable jargon, equivocation, bias, and babbling on. You don’t believe me? Here are some actual comments I’ve recently made on writing (to people who were paying me, or who I wanted to start paying me):

This stuff is a bit of a mess. Your main example of your own career move from 20 years ago is both too personal and too old to be convincing on its own. There is no point in word-editing the material you have produced so far since it will have to be completely exploded, reordered, augmented, and integrated.

Blah blah blah blah. Lacks meaning or actionability.

“Accelerates” is good. “Dramatically accelerates ” reads as bullshit. Adverbs — cut as many as possible.

Here is how people will react to your argument:  You must be exaggerating. It can’t be that simple. You have no proof your simple steps work. You are arrogant. You believe you are smarter than everyone, and you are insulting to them. I’m offended.

Your opener is a snooze.

Regarding your personal story, it’s interesting, but it’s missing something. AN ENDING.

The paper should get a top-to-bottom rewrite in which each section relates to this main idea. Big ideas need to be front and center, not hidden deep in the paper.

These heads do not make the structure clear – in particular, they obscure the four-step process at the heart of the paper. As a result, the reader is left wondering what they’re reading and how it fits.

Tell us, for each piece of research that we read, why it is, why it is important, how it relates to the main idea, and what it means for [client’s name]. In the absence of this, the reader just ends up thinking, “Wow, I just read a lot of charts, but I don’t know what they mean.”

There is a lot of equivocal language in the paper. In addition to the equivocal summary of the research, you have opaque sentences filled with qualifiers. Ini one place, you said, “There’s no right answer and more is not necessarily better, although many of the most successful innovations combine several elements to create a more powerful offering.” That doesn’t really say anything.  The writing reflects a lack of conviction in the ideas.

I feel bad being so mean to prose, but it’s an ingrained habit by now. And after so many years of doing it, I’ve noticed a pattern. The writer listens. They want to please me. They work hard on another draft. I rip it apart again. Eventually the writing gets really good. We publish it. The writer is happy. The readers are happy. And then . . . the writer asks me if I will do it on their next piece.

Really? You want to go through that again?

I’ve thought carefully about why people find this effective. And I’ve distilled it into these principles:

  • Have a reputation for being smart (or at least act as if you have one). Somewhere, early in my career at Forrester, I developed a reputation for being a good writer. This meant that other good or developing writers assumed they could trust me. I can’t give you this reputation (you have to earn it), but I can tell you to act with unshakeable confidence. The writer wants to believe you can fix what they created.
  • Criticize writing, not people. I’m often angry when I read a piece of bad prose. “You are lazy and repetitive,” I think. “You didn’t do the research.” “Why do I have to wade through this bullshit?” But that’s not what I say. I say “This part is weak.” Or “you have to do more research to back this up.” Or “I cannot figure out what you are saying.” If you critique people, they curl up and hide. If you critique their prose (assuming they have reached some maturity as a writer), they listen and respond. “This is what I expect in the next draft” is helpful. “You have insulted me with this drivel masquerading as writing, because you are lazy” — not so much.
  • Criticize at the right level. Don’t bother word-editing stuff that’s got no idea or no structure. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.
  • Explain why the problems are problems. Tell people that passive voice leaves readers feeling uneasy, or that equivocation undermines your point. Explain that failing to put the best ideas up front means people will never get to the rest of the document. When you do this, writers learn — they internalize improvements and become better. (I think it’s why my writers want to work with me again.)
  • Suggest solutions. Suggest ways to reorganize. Suggest better language. Show how to make things better. This is hard work for the editor. But it gives the writer a direction to go. I do this by instinct — I always think “how would I fix this?”
  • Say something nice up front. Every piece of writing has something good about it. You may as well say “I am impressed by this idea” or “You have a very vivid and fluid style” before you start ripping. It helps to be hopeful at the end, as well.

I’ll sum this up simply. Prose will not get better unless you are hard on it. Be relentless in fixing things. Don’t let writers get away with anything. A good editor should get mad at bad prose. Use every tool you have — especially humor and sarcasm — to explain why it’s not working.

But be nice to writers. They are people. If you have faith in them, they will improve, and they’ll love you for it, even if you’ve savaged what they’ve written.

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  1. The key to a successful writer-editor transaction is to set expectations up front. If the writer expects a word edit and gets a full-on critique, or vice versa, the transaction has failed — no matter how good my edits are.

    Once you’ve developed a reputation as an editor (your first bullet point), people will have a pretty good idea of what they can expect from you. In lieu of that, I find that the best strategy is to have a good talk with the writer before I pick up the pen. After that, it’s exactly what you said: attack the prose, not the writer.

  2. What a hard but important truth. Wanna edit some website copy? Seriously, so much of what you write, I know, but just needed someone to put it out there. Very helpful.