Few of us enjoy working with someone over our head, constantly scrutinizing our every move. This is particularly true for creative endeavors, like writing. Broadly defined, a writing supervisor is a person who has a stake in the text someone else is writing, and as a result tries to direct the process.
Since writing is an inherently solitary activity—as a writer, you spend long stretches of time working alone in front of a screen, often remotely—a writing supervisor can’t physically supervise you the way one would a factory worker.
However, this also means that writing supervision can be more insidious. In other words, it’s easier to detect and defend against direct supervision; it’s far harder to do so against a subtle one.
This presents clear dangers to a writer. Put simply, you might end up losing control of your text, and nothing good ever comes out of that. But on the other hand, having a writing supervisor can also be an important asset if you know how to deal with it.
I’ve had all kinds of supervisors, in many different contexts. For many years, I struggled with the nuisance of having someone try to control my writing. But these experiences have also taught me a thing or two. In this post, I’ll show you how to turn the nuisance of having a writing supervisor into an asset, improving the quality of your writing—and preserving your sanity to boot!
First of all, just in case there is any doubt, we need to clarify one thing: A person editing your text is not a writing supervisor. An editor is someone who doesn’t really have a stake in your text, but helps you get your ideas through.
Conversely, a writing supervisor has a specific set of guidelines, goals, or standards they need to abide by and tries to steer your writing in that direction. However, rarely would a writing supervisor breathe down the writer’s neck—for practical reasons, if not any other; as I mentioned earlier, a writer isn’t a factory worker whose work can be assessed as it happens.
To name a few examples, a writing supervisor could be the editor-in-chief of the newspaper you’re submitting an article to. They could be the professors leading a research project you’re participating in. Or, if you’re a freelance fiction writer, a writing supervisor could be the client who hired you to ghostwrite a romance novel.
All people in such capacities have a stake in what you write, and they will try to control your writing for that reason. But, since they can’t do it directly—unless they have you chained in a dungeon with a typewriter in front of you—they do it indirectly; perhaps even subconsciously, without realizing it.
And so, it’s important to realize two things:
Problems usually arise when writing supervisors overstep their boundaries, often inadvertently, and try to vicariously write the text themselves. Perhaps they are controlling personalities, or perhaps they simply feel very passionate about the project. Maybe they were great writers recently promoted to their supervising role, where they sadly can’t display the same skills, thus regressing to their previous capacity.
Writing supervisors are often under a lot of pressure to see results, but they have to rely on others—the writers—to do so. For someone in a supervisor role, this requires experience and good communication skills to handle. Some people might not even be up to the task as a result of personality traits or another similar reason.
As a result of all the above, some writing supervisors might end up micromanaging the writer, focusing on how they would write the text instead of helping the writer deliver results. This, ironically enough, causes delays, frustration, and a poorer quality of writing.
I once had a supervisor who had an infuriating obsession with minute details. Pages of text I submitted were often returned indecipherable from all the red markings. That made the process harder, not only because of psychological reasons, but because I simply didn’t have the time to process all those pointless corrections, and eventually stopped paying attention altogether.
This didn’t help our job. On a practical level, it caused me to miss some good points the supervisor had made. Furthermore, seeing the project stalling stressed out both of us.
As we’ll see in more detail below, letting a writing supervisor use you as a tool to write the text the way they want ends badly for both of you.
An experienced writing supervisor—one who understands the requirements of the job—knows how not to get in the way and only support the writer, even if the latter is inexperienced. Similarly, an experienced writer knows how to handle an inexperienced writing supervisor and draw a line where it needs to be drawn.
Sadly, however, there are often cases where both the writer and the writing supervisor are inexperienced or otherwise lack confidence and soft skills. From the perspective of producing a high-quality text, this is, unsurprisingly, the worst possible combination.
Some possible scenarios are a college freshman and a young lecturer, a new employee and a newly promoted manager, or a freelance writer at the beginning of their career and a bossy client. These kinds of writer-supervisor pairs can often lead to writing woes as a result of the dynamics involved.
Broadly, we can divide the ways the writing process can suffer as a result of this into three categories, which I’ll name distraction, detachment, and control.
As most writers will tell you, getting distracted isn’t a great thing. At best, it means you can’t write anything, but guess what’s even worse: actually writing something!
Has it ever happened that you read something you wrote the day before and wonder where on earth your mind was traveling while you were writing it? I know, same here. It’s difficult enough when you’re alone with just your own brain.
Now, throw another brain (or half, if you’re particularly unlucky) into the mix.
I once worked with a writing supervisor who emailed me virtually every morning with a new idea he’d thought of concerning the piece I was writing. “I know we said A yesterday, but how about if we did B after all?”
So on I went, working on B. Of course, that meant having to make other changes, for example in terms of establishing a theoretical framework. That is, until three days later, when the supervisor came up with a new idea: “Would it be better, after all, to say a thing or two about C?”
This happened a long time ago. I was quite naive and inexperienced then, thinking I simply had to follow orders from someone higher up the corporate food chain. The result, unsurprisingly, was catastrophic. We ended up with a text so incoherent it had to be scrapped.
Not only was I distracted, which caused me to make mistakes and write substandard text, I became emotionally detached from the whole process, which is equally disastrous, as we’ll see.
Recall the last text you wrote that made you feel really great about yourself and your skills. Remember how emotionally invested you were in every word and every sentence, how you really put your soul into it?
Now, recall some other text—perhaps one you wrote under pressure—that you aren’t that fond of. Maybe it’s still an acceptable piece, maybe it served the purpose it was supposed to, but you really didn’t have that much emotional attachment to it, for one reason or another.
Which of the two texts above would you call both your favorite and overall the better text?
The truth is, in fiction and nonfiction alike, we write better when we put a little piece of ourselves into the text. Except for authors low in the writing karmic scale, who simply produce texts mechanically and meaninglessly, most of us want to see some soul and personality in our writing.
Imagine if there were a force that made you hate the text you were writing. That’s what a writing supervisor lacking experience or soft skills can do to you, if you allow it.
That supervisor I mentioned earlier, who kept asking me to write B instead of A, eventually made me hate the piece I was writing. I no longer recognized it as my own; it wasn’t something I was writing. I had unwisely allowed that writing supervisor to write the text he wanted, using me as a tool.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that in most cases, writing supervisors don’t do that deliberately. They aren’t vicious, intellectually greedy people who want to somehow take advantage of you. Often, they have the best intentions.
Sadly, however, lacking the experience or interpersonal skills to properly work with you, they end up working against you—as well as against themselves and the project as a whole. Perhaps precisely trying to control every aspect, thinking that’s what their role is, they end up losing control altogether.
If you are unlucky enough to have ever met a jealous, overcontrolling person, you know how it works, with near-mathematical certainty: The more one tries to control someone or something, the less control they can actually exert over them. This happens in personal as well as professional relationships.
It happens in writing, too.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, I once worked with a supervisor that simply had to splatter red ink on every single line of my text. Some of the edits were typos or other errors, that is, they were objective corrections. Others were simply subjective opinions. Some of those remarks were simply wrong. And a few weren’t even that!
Inevitably, trying to preserve both my sanity and the writing project’s timeline, I began ignoring all the comments. In some cases when there were only a few on a given page, I would perhaps go through them, but whenever I saw more red, I … “saw red,” and simply moved on.
I lost many legitimate corrections this way, which cost in time and effort later. This kind of obsession over minute, unimportant details became counterproductive. It also temporarily damaged the professional relationship between that supervisor and myself.
But once again, it was my fault, too. I wasn’t able to see an alternative. It felt like the only two options were to either give up my sanity (growing a long white beard in the process), or to ignore the role of the writing supervisor altogether.
Was there an alternative? The answer is yes. There are always alternatives, as we’ll see in the next section.
Inevitably, the critical factor allowing you to deflect the problems listed above is experience. As I have often mentioned, the problem with experience is that it comes with bad decisions. Put simply, you learn from mistakes.
Of course, it doesn’t mean they all need to be your own.
In the preceding sections, I highlighted some of the mistakes I’ve made. Learn from mine, reflect on yours, and adapt your interaction with your writing supervisors to avoid repeating these mistakes. It basically boils down to three things: boundaries, communication, and filtering.
Much of the heartache involved in the writing process can be avoided if there are clear boundaries between the writer and writing supervisor. This means there needs to be a clear distinction between what each side does and doesn’t do.
Writing supervisors can’t be allowed to write a text. This is the writer’s job (and responsibility). The supervisor’s role is limited to presenting requirements and guidelines, and offering some relevant suggestions.
For instance, if you’re submitting an article to a newspaper, the editor-in-chief might ask you not to use academic language or otherwise complex terminology. Or, if you’re writing an academic essay, the supervisor will ask you to structure your text in a specific way, according to established academic practices.
Make sure you understand these boundaries. Then, make sure the supervisor understands and respects them, too.
Of course, establishing these boundaries is relatively easy. The real test—which most inexperienced writers and supervisors fail—is dealing with deviations from these agreed roles. That’s where communication enters the picture.
Remember that supervisor I told you about who filled my pages with red ink? There’s a twist in the plot.
At some point, I realized—let’s call it an “aha!” moment—that some of those corrections were actually useful, and they would actually make my text better. I just didn’t have the time or energy to go through endless (and sometimes subjective or inaccurate) commentary on unimportant details in order to find those precious few, genuinely helpful corrections.
I don’t remember exactly how I communicated the problem—there was a complex hierarchy involved in that context, with other people involved—but I did find a way of doing it. The number of comments and notes was drastically reduced; only the most critical mistakes or observations came back to me. This allowed me to deal with them.
It was difficult for me to talk, and I can sympathize with writers in similar situations who prefer to struggle rather than tackle the issue. Depending on the context (and even culture), it’s often difficult to tell someone above you in a working hierarchy, “You’re doing it wrong; you’re not helping.”
And yet that’s exactly what you must do—albeit, in a tactful manner. It’s the only way to do your job as a writer, to help your supervisor do theirs, and, ultimately, to make sure the text you produce is the best it can possibly be.
As the above story shows, some of the advice a supervisor gives you is good, some isn’t. In my case, the problem was exacerbated by the scope of the corrections—in other words, there was too much to even filter.
But in most cases, a supervisor will offer you an amount of advice or suggestions that you can cope with. Whether all of it is good is the real issue, and that’s where filtering enters the picture.
A case where a writing supervisor’s set of comments, observations, and requests is useless in its entirety should be considered exceedingly rare. Similarly, however, I have yet to meet a writing supervisor who was 100% right in all their comments—unless the text in question was very short and the suggestions were very few.
This means that you, the author, must learn to filter these suggestions. You shouldn’t be intimidated because you’re dealing with someone who supervises you. They’re not infallible, nor do they necessarily understand that your way is as good as theirs. This isn’t math, where there is only one correct answer to “How much is 2+2?”
Again, this isn’t necessarily easy to do; it takes confidence and certainty about your work to tell a supervisor “No, I don’t think we should do as you said.” Be prepared to explain why, but if you feel fairly certain, don’t give up on your idea that easily. Be open-minded, but also ready to defend your text.
Writers are solitary creatures when they’re working. It’s just you and the screen—or typewriter, if you’re old-school. This might offer you the illusion that nobody controls your writing. But unless you’re a true artist, writing solely for your own pleasure, this isn’t quite accurate.
The truth is, most of us need to abide by some sort of rules, frameworks, guidelines, or practices. The newspaper you’re submitting an article to has a certain audience; your college essay must follow certain academic guidelines; and the client who hired you to ghostwrite a novel has, similarly, certain expectations.
In order for such processes to work smoothly, there are writing supervisors. Ideally, their job is to help you understand what’s expected from you, what kind of audience you should have in mind, or what kind of style you need to follow. Reality, however, often is less than ideal. Depending on someone’s lack of experience or soft skills, writing supervisors might inadvertently inhibit your work instead of support it.
That’s when you must help them help you.
Supervisors, even if they are nominally “superior,” can actually be less experienced than you. They can be less skillful, less good with people, or simply less interested in their role. Difficult though it may be, you should then establish boundaries and communicate problems.
In the end, you must not lose focus of what’s important: producing the best possible text.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.