Arrant Pedantry

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Book Review: Editor-Proof Your Writing

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.

8 Responses to Book Review: Editor-Proof Your Writing

  1. Alma says:

    I wish I could share a picture of my cringing face when I read the slobber-kiss-Juicy-Fruit-breath passage. Seriously?? Instead I’ll just describe it. It was stunned like an octopus that has been tasered.

  2. I may have made that face myself.

    I’m still hoping you write a book someday, by the way (other than your books for your class, that is).

  3. Rebecca says:

    Also, can’t we stop with the “editor as enemy” approach? Good editors truly do have a writer’s best interests at heart—that’s why we do what we do!

  4. He’s talking more about acquisitions editors, who seem to be much more focused on the publisher’s interests. It’s their job to sift the wheat from the chaff and find something that the publisher can sell, so they naturally reject a lot of manuscripts.

  5. Nyssa says:

    Thoughts on the last paragraph, and on the scope of the book: When I make submission decisions for magazines, I heavily weight the quality (or at least competency) of the prose. If there are just a few things wrong with the plot or if a character grates in places, I can talk these issues through with an author who can write well. But I don’t want to invest my time into poor prose. It takes a long time to copyedit a manuscript with good characters and plot but bad prose into being publishable, and sometimes it feels like the author is just working against you. You can’t have the same symbiotic and creative relationship with an author of bad prose, IMO.

    As for the book . . . My question, I guess, would be whether this is really making you a better writer, one that I would value working with creatively and would really be able to celebrate and encourage along the way. If all you’re doing is clipping words and adding clumsy similes (this man seems not to like a passable metaphor) instead of reworking trite and “foggy” passages, I don’t think that’s making you the kind of writer that editors can really work with. It’s just masking (or adding to) deficiencies that probably need to be completely overhauled.

  6. Good comment, Nyssa. I’m glad to get the perspective of someone who deals with submissions.

    I especially like your last point. I don’t think that memorizing lists of words and phrases to cut really help you become a better writer, especially when the discussion on each point in the book is so brief.

  7. Shan says:

    I recently crossed that line between writer and editor, and your post has definitely helped to blunt my frustration somewhat. I knew that I would like the blog as soon as I saw the words “arrant pedantry.”

  8. Michael says:

    I enjoyed your article, BUT i think you’re missing something: non-fiction books like the one reviewed are intended to be sold by way of a gimmick, and its gimmick is to help writers with self-editing. To give this book a bad review simply because it doesn’t live up to its gimmick that is intended to sell it is kind of, well, lame. I think you’re taking the title too literally as I own this book and there is a lot of useful information therein. rue it’s for novices, and if your writing is crap then it won’t help you much, but it WILL help you improve your crap writing to less crappy writing, and that’s the point of the book. There are a MILLION books you could give a bad review to simply because they don’t live up to their selling gimmick 100%. I can name 30 books off the top of my head that promises to help you sell your manuscript, but i can’t name a single person who used them and then sold their manuscript because of it. Same thing, just different books. Again, i enjoyed the article, but i think you’re taking it too literal. Just a quick scan on Amazon will give you a thousand different books that make big promises they never live up to, but they still help writers with their writing. The truth is if you ARE a good writer then you simply don’t need books like this, so they’re pretty much for novice writers who WILL have their writing improved, at least a little if not more, because of it.

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