When the Author Has Nothing Worthwhile to Say

Having worked as an editor for a long time, I’ve plumbed pretty much all the depths of the author-editor relationship. Most of that mine, fortunately, is filled with gems, especially when you get to collaborate with people at the top of their disciplines. And when the raw material isn’t great, experience teaches you how to make it so. But, like everyone, I have an Achilles heel — one situation in which I simply don’t know how to find diamonds in the dirt. It’s when I face the self-deluded author whose content really and truly isn’t worth a damn.

Now I’m not talking about bad writing. I’ve plumbed that depth many times, and those situations are eminently rectifiable. Making good writing out of bad writing — and even good writers out of bad writers — is at the heart of what I do in my various roles as editor and teacher. I’m instead referring to the folks who, whatever their skills as writers, are selling snake oil without even realizing it.

For some authors, this foray into uselessness is a one-time journey: They’re digging in an empty hole on a mostly gem-filled landscape. If you have a good relationship with an author like that, you might even be able to state the truth plainly, thereby allowing him or her to save face in the end (you’ll be thanked for it, too). If you don’t know the one-time fool well, you might just have to enable the behavior, do your best with what’s in front of you, and console yourself with the knowledge that this author will get back to the worthwhile stuff soon. But maybe I’m just chicken that way.

For other authors, a whole career has been built upon the useless. At this point, I can spot chronic sterility a mile away, yet I still don’t know what to do about it. When possible, I’ve refused assignments by making up an excuse (“I’m booked” does just fine). However, such refusals aren’t always feasible, for a variety of reasons, and then I have to just grin and bear it — and release the grin the minute I turn my face away. But the whole time I work on material like this, I can feel my innards disintegrating. I can’t help but think about how everyone’s time is being wasted — mine, the publisher’s, the public’s, and actually the author’s, too, blind to it as he may be.

Many people I know in publishing say, “Who are you to judge what’s useless? You’re just the editor, not the expert.” Besides, what counts as substance is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. Call it my perception, call it reality, call it what you will. But working with an author whose entire career appears (to me) to be built upon promulgating poppycock is the one indignity I’ve never learned to suffer well. Perhaps I should just take a deep breath and let it go. But wasted time and wasted space, even on the limitless internet, is criminal to me, and I can’t help but feel like an accomplice.

Luckily, I don’t have to do this Ruth Madoff routine too often. But I still hate it, and I don’t how to escape it. If you do, please lend me a hand here. I’m numb from the digging.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

4 Responses to When the Author Has Nothing Worthwhile to Say

  1. Lilith says:

    I share your pain, which you describe so exquisitely, and I wish I could offer a salve. Unfortunately, I approach the situation just about exactly the way you do, so I’m no help there. But I can report a rather frightening variant of the syndrome: the author who, at first blush, seems to write reasonably well, but who in fact has NOTHING to say. I’ve only encountered this once, but I’ve been leery ever since.
    It was particularly insidious because the problem isn’t easily discovered through a superficial read. It’s only revealed through editing. Once I’d stripped away the throat-clearing preambles, florid embellishments, and disguised repetitions, I found that the remains not only made no sense but seemed to be utterly unrelated in any way. There was not even a coherent point–much less anything remotely resembling a true message. Happily, this occurred in a context where the thing could be quietly shelved. (May it always be so!)

  2. LKT says:

    May I ask a beginner question? What would you constitute as worthless? I by no means consider myself a writer (I’ve read your blog on bad writing – I’ll keep working on mine), but I like to write/tell stories that entertain, and ideally I would like to one day have them published and have people actually want to read them (I know – a delusional thought, but I hang on to it regardless). Would a worthless voice be talking about mating snails (which I have to believe many people would find a snooze-fest)? Or is a worthless voice one who finds itself it’s favorite subject? Would it be a story that does not entertain? Or a thought that is all over the place?

    I know it is said that the only stupid question is one that is not asked, but if this ranks as one, feel free to email me and let me know. And if you have a book (or another article or blog) that would answer my question, please send that my way also.

    Thanks so much.

  3. LKT, I’m referring exclusively to expository writing in this post, not fiction or other types of creative writing.

    Regarding fiction, the best bits of advice are to read writers you admire and study their craft, to join a competent writers’ group that gives you useful feedback, and to develop a relationship with a good fiction editor.

  4. LKT says:

    Steven, Thank you for your response. Now I understand what you are saying in this piece. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I’m only a reader in the arena, not an Editor, so I have the luxury of passing on the gem-less wonders. Being in finance, there is definitely a lot of “paste” that comes my way.

    And thank you for the advice. I’ll proceed with my homework.

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