I recently received a review copy of Don McNair’s Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Clear Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave, which is available now from Quill Driver Books. I’ll be up-front: I was very skeptical of the idea that you could editor-proof your writing by following certain steps, and my opinion hasn’t changed after reading the book.
McNair starts with a basic and intriguing premise: that most writers who get repeatedly rejected are making the same mistakes over and over again without realizing it, and if they could only see what they are doing wrong and make some changes, they’d sell some manuscripts. He even says that some of his critique partners had success after following his tips. It certainly sounds promising, especially to a writer struggling to get published. But I could tell within the first few pages that this book was not going to be the panacea that it claimed to be. A few pages into the introduction, McNair writes,
Most editing manuals are like geography books that give great information about an area, but don’t show you how to get from place to place. This book is a GPS that guides you through the writing wilderness to solve your specific writing problems.
That’s the major problem with this book: it can’t address my specific writing problems, because it has no idea what they are. It may be true that many novice writers suffer from many of the same problems, but those aren’t the reader’s specific writing problems.
But the next paragraph really befuddled me:
Most editing manuals are like dictionaries from which you’re asked to select words to write the Great American Novel. This book shows what specific words to use and what ones not to use.
Why have two back-to-back paragraphs with the exact same formula but different metaphors? Why not pick one and stick with it? (On a side note, McNair frequently mentions writing the Great American Novel, but his advice seems geared more towards writers of pulp romances and mysteries than to aspiring literary greats.) And again, the book does not show which specific words to use. The chapters on “putting words in” are mostly about cramming your first chapter full of hooks and ramping up the tension by making your main characters fight while also making them attracted to each other. McNair gives plenty of before-and-after examples from his own works, but I have to say that I never found any of them very compelling, and some of them I found downright cringeworthy, as in this “after” example of putting in sexual tension:
I wrapped my arms hard around his neck and smothered his face in kisses. At least I hoped they were kisses, and not just slobber. Wren’s arms encircled me, and his hot, Juicy-Fruit breath hit my neck.
The rest of the passage isn’t any better.
The advice gets more specific when it gets to the section on “taking words out”, though I’m not sure it’s any more helpful. McNair provides plenty of words and constructions to avoid—infinitives, present participles, the passive voice, -ly adverbs, the past perfect tense, prepositional phrases, and several pages of phrases that are redundant or otherwise deemed “foggy”. Much of this advice is familiar, though some of it was new to me. Some of it may be helpful to novice writers, but I doubt any of it will editor-proof a truly terrible manuscript. Some of the advice actually seems counterproductive and even contradictory. He says to avoid cliches and recommends replacing a statement like “It was as black as pitch” with “It was as black as the inside of an octopus.” Only a few pages later, he cautions against saying that someone’s eyes were glued to the TV screen, because the reader will be distracted by the image of a pair of eyes wandering out of their sockets and being literally glued to the screen. I wouldn’t give “glued to the TV screen” a second thought, but “as black as the inside of an octopus” is such an oddly specific and random image that I would probably find it distracting enough to put down a manuscript.
The last section, on “sharing your words”, is probably the most helpful. McNair stresses the importance of critique partners and gives several rules for finding good ones. He also discusses the value of hiring a professional editor to help you polish your manuscript before shopping it around. He also gives advice on writing query letters and synopses. Again, all of this advice is probably pretty familiar to anyone who is serious about getting published.
That brings me to another problem: most chapters are only two or three pages long, barely long enough to cover the basics and certainly not long enough to develop the ideas in any depth. The advice feels not just familiar but superficial and even trite. He barely mentions larger issues like character development or plot, assuming that readers already have those things mastered and just need to polish their prose to get out of the slush pile. Perhaps that’s true of some writers, but I suspect that many more will never be published no matter how well they follow the advice in this book. The title makes a very bold claim, and I don’t believe that the contents live up to it.