Are You a Difficult Writer?

"Of Flames and Shadows," by Markus Röncke

Difficult writers and difficult people tend to share some characteristics; you might already know whether you are one or not. If you feel that being difficult is something you do well and rather enjoy, then carry on. Otherwise, here is a bit of self-examination and amateur therapy.

First, let me point out that difficult writers are often good writers. Reasonably protective of their prose, they unreasonably see editing as an assault.

They are defensive. They read the editing with “No” at the ready. Unwilling to consider why a particular change might be helpful, and unable to read objectively to find the problem in the original, they assume that they know best, and that the editor is meddling.

They are uncommunicative and dictatorial. Instead of engaging in a dialogue or negotiation with the editor, they simply write “Stet” or “No.”

They are unobservant. On Page 249 they decide to uppercase “classical,” never mind that the editor had noticed their lowercasing of it in the first two chapters and their occasional inconsistency thereafter and had opted to lowercase it throughout.

They are passive-aggressive or rude. On Page 354, where the copy editor failed to correct an instance of something she has been correcting throughout, instead of simply marking it or querying, they force a confession of incompetence: “I fail to see how this is different from the examples you changed on Pages 3, 43, 67, and 112.”

They inflate the value of their own outdated knowledge of grammar and style and misjudge their consistency in applying it to their own writing.

They fail to read cover letters or follow directions or notify their editors of delays.

The point of submitting a piece of writing to the scrutiny of another is that self-editing is so darned hard. Scholars especially need another eye on their work, because they compose at a high level of abstraction and detail. Few brains can simultaneously monitor conceptual progress and mechanical detail without lapses. Academic copy editors can find plenty to improve even in the writing of English Ph.D.’s—just as those scholars are perfectly able to point out errors in writing other than their own.

Easy writers—most writers, in my experience—are curious and open to learning about  trends in style and grammar. They object in reasonable tones to editing that doesn’t suit them, and they forgive an editor’s occasional errors or inability to understand specialist content. They keep in touch regarding deadlines; they ask questions; they express appreciation. The best ones enjoy the dialogue, the banter, and the spirited arguments that are part of a true collaboration.

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Readers with questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing may e-mail Carol at


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