When Bad Manuscripts Happen to Good Editors

A toolkit of emergency repair ideas for the times when that article you really need turns out to be something you can’t use.

Sooner or later it happens to every editor. The one you were counting on , the piece you thought would make this issue a winner, falls through. So what do you do? At EPA ’95 “Leadership” editor Kevin A. Miller gave some good advice on the topic. We’ve pulled out some of his comments here for your review.

There are ways to fix a bad manuscript so the author won’t mind, although you may have to retell the story. I call this making Stone Soup.

Novice writers goof in three areas. First, they omit the details. And we know that the more details there are the better.

Next, they leave out dialogue. If a story lacks dialogue, you can take a direct statement and put it in quotes. For example, convert, “I felt troubled by that,” to “I feel troubled.” This gives the story more immediacy, and the writer shouldn’t complain because you’re using his or her general sentiment.

At Christian Reader we had a story by a Christian woman who confessed to embezzling from her employer. The two key scenes in the story were the first time she did it and the time she got caught. I thought, “Could I overhear those, please?” So we called her and asked her what she actually said, and the six or eight lines of dialogue she gave us became the heart of the piece.

Finally, beginning writers often deliver the punch line up front when it is more powerful to delay it until the end.

Avoid the Temptation to Rewrite in Your Own Style

What if you just have to use an article that doesn’t meet your standard, but you can’t ask the author for revision? If possible, stop just short of rewriting it yourself. This way you’ll have more variety in your magazine, and every author won’t sound like you. Readers want a general consistency across the publication, but a little variety in the orchestra is not bad. You’ll proivide that for your readers if you allow the author’s voice to come through.

Use the Delete Key

Cutting improves virtually any piece of writing. (Readers have short attention spans today anyway.) If the author makes four points and two are weak, cut the two weak ones. At “Christian History” we had a prolific author who sent in a bunch of manuscripts. Reading his work was like shopping in a thrift store: every once in a while we’d pull out a gem. We ran those as sidebars.

The two most powerful tools I know for ratcheting down the size of an article are these: convert the passive verbs to active and remove words that clutter. If you weed out passive verbs, you’ll tighten by at least 20 percent. Go from “Harry is a cab driver” to “Harry drives a cab,” and you’ve cut the sentence by a third. You’ve also gone from weak construction, to a stronger, visual and more energetic voice.


Even if you don’t touch the text, you are in control of everything around it. You can improve the title and the subtitle. We ran an article on how the Islamic people felt when the Crusaders showed up. The author was an historian, and her title was something like, “Islamic Attitudes and Resistance in the Levant.” We retitled it, “Christians thought they had liberated Jerusalem from Infidels, but what did Muslims think?” We didn’t’ change a word of the story, but the average reader would be much more like to read it.

Order Out of Chaos

Put in subheads. Introduce these judiciously, and you can help to put order into a piece that doesn’t have any.

Write an introduction

An introduction can tell readers exactly what they are going to get. Put the introduction in italics (the editorial voice), and the author shouldn’t mind.


A good sidebar will do wonders for most articles. At Christian History we did an issue on women in the church. The lead article was going to be on Catherine of Sienna, but it was late coming in , and when it did it was positively soporific. We were sweating bullets because we had reserved the front pages of the book for this pieces. However, while preparing for the article I found that Catherine lived at the time of the Bubonic Plague, so in the midst of this article we ran a huge sidebar on the Plague.

Ring Up a Celebrity

If you’re really tight on time, try a quick phone interview with a big name. Ask for 15 or 20 minutes and pose the juicy questions you wish the article had answered.

When All Else Fails

Finally, keep a file of publishable articles. Or keep a file of quotes to use as fillers. If all else fails, have a few cartoons or photos ready. Everyone reads cartoons and photo captions. At Leadership Journal it’s often embarrassing. People tell us, “I love your cartoons, and every once in a while I’ll read an article.”

(Printed in the EPA Liaison, November/December 1995)

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