The Truth About Terrible Writing

Here is the most common question I am asked as a copy editor: what do you do when the writing is just really bad?


I want to say there is no such thing as bad writing, but I’m certain in doing so I would lose all credibility.

A lot of what makes writing “good” or “bad” is subjective. Some people love poetic language, while others find it cloying. Some people just want a book to mindlessly entertain, while others want to be intellectually challenged. As a copy editor, whether I like the story is irrelevant. My role is to prevent the mechanics—the skeleton, the bones, the letters that organize into words and then into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, et cetera—from distracting from the story. How can we appreciate the great American novel if it is riddled with typos, misplaced punctuation, superfluous adjectives, mis-conjugated verbs, and an array of other linguistic blunders?

Well, we can’t. We can’t even get into the more esoteric discussion of whether a piece is “good” or “bad” if it’s simply unreadable on the most basic level.

The good news is that “bad writing” on a mechanical level is easy to fix. Just call on your friendly copy editor and let her have at it with her bold red pen. Once you get past the initial shock and rage at the bleeding word carcass she returns to you, I’m certain you’ll find that the bones of your work are solid, strong, and supportive.

The rest is up to you.

- Jaime