First Do No Harm

There’s a saying among medical practitioners, loosely based on the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.

This tenet works as a fundamental principle for editing someone’s manuscript too. Before you pick up that red pen, remember: First do no harm.

A writing buddy shared how one editor repeatedly told her that she wrote absolute junk–and that she’d never be published. The result? My friend stopped writing. With that kind of editorial feedback, can you blame her?

When I edit  or critique someone else’s writing, I remember these key guidelines:

  1. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. My mom told me this all the time when I was a kid–and it’s still applicable today. Don’t jump right to the “this isn’t working for me” comments. You’re holding a pen, not a butcher knife. What do you like about the manuscript? Comment on that first.
  2. Just because you see dozens of things wrong with a manuscript doesn’t mean you have to point out every single one of them. If you’re in a critique group, more than likely someone else will also notice misspellings or passive verbs. Pick two things to talk about–maybe how the hook could be strengthened or how the writer head-hopped.
  3. Above all else, be trustworthy. Respect each writer’s work. Isn’t that what you want? Editing or critiquing isn’t altering someone else’s writing so that it’s an echo of your voice. Editing means helping someone else’s voice shine more clearly, unencumbered by run-on sentences or rabbit trails or an avalanche of adjectives and adverbs.

The next time you have a chance to critique or edit another writer’s work, ask yourself:

  • How would I feel if someone critiqued my work-in-progress (WIP) this way?
  • Is my feedback going to encourage or discourage this writer?
Before you pick up your red pen, remember to do no harm to your fellow writer.
So tell me, have you had any experiences with harmful feedback? How did you handle it? Any suggestions for giving worthwhile critique or edits to another writer?

Post Author: Beth K. Vogt

Beth K. Vogt is a non-fiction author and editor who said she’d never write fiction. She’s the wife of an air force physician (now in solo practice) who said she’d never marry a doctor—or anyone in the military. She’s a mom of four who said she’d never have kids. She’s discovered that God’s best often waits behind the doors marked “Never.” She writes contemporary romance because she believes there’s more to happily ever after than the fairy tales tell us.

54 Replies to “First Do No Harm”

  1. Yes, I paid a lot of money to a Christian agency that forewarned me to have a thick skin. Unfortunately, I received five pages of harsh criticism and nothing complimentary. It left me in tears fro days. Further, I had been told by writing friends to make my writing LESS personal so people could identify. After I made these changes, the expensive critique said, “This writer just wants to expose the pain of others without showing any of her own.” Ouch.

    I almost gave up. So glad I didn’t because I eventually got a book deal. My sweet agent had to talk me down from the ledges, so to speak. She said, “Lucille, this is just one person’s opinion.”

    1. Lucille,
      Did you send your ms into an agency or a butcher shop? So, so sorry you experience that!
      I like the “Pauline” approach to critique: Start with the positive, then approach the “here’s what you can improve,” then end with more positive. To receive all negative feedback with absolutely no positive is unprofessional.
      OK, off my editorial soap box.
      I am so glad you didn’t give up!!

  2. Thanks Beth! I have been in great writers’ circles where the one big rule was that we critique the workings and not whether or not the story was to our taste. It cut down on the personal dressing downs and made it easier to listen. I’ve been an editor for years and I take that rule with me because most of the time it’s not my taste, which isn’t the point.

    1. Excellent point, Martha, and one that’s difficult to learn. We have to put our personal taste aside when we’re critiquing someone else’s work. And we have to respect the other writer’s voice.

  3. Great post — thank you.

    I’m a high school English teacher in addition to being a writer, and what you write here applies to grading student essays, too — constructive feedback is key. I always find something to applaud, even in the most incoherent essay. And I love something Anne Lammott once wrote about critiquing writing — you don’t have to chop with the sword of truth; you can point with it, too.

    1. Ginny, I love that admonition to “point with the sword of truth!” So, so good! Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  4. I’ve recently joined a local Christian Writers group. We meet twice a month to share our verbal critiques with each other based on the comments we made on our hard copy critiques. One of our guidelines is that we begin and end our verbal critiques with positives. That support and encouragement helps the members deal with the suggestions sandwiched between.

    1. Keli,
      Sounds like your group has established healthy critique guidelines that will build trust while providing writers valuable feedback. Bravo! 🙂

  5. I’ve had it happen in a very mild way, but luckily not like the horror stories I hear about. Mainly just folks trying to revise it to their writing style. I touched upon this a little in my post earlier this week, Smash That Mirror! Why Self-Referencing Critiquers Could Be Dangerous ( with a tip on how to spot the kinds of critiques where the critiquer tries to mold the main character into a version of themselves.

    1. Angela,
      I look forward to reading your blog post.
      I admit I learned the hard way not to try to mold another writer to my voice –and I apologized to my writer friend for doing so. (We are still best buddies! And I support and love her voice!) I wielded the red pen too forcibly and had to back up, take a breath, and admit that I had harmed her writing.

  6. I have to add another “don’t”: Don’t edit something incorrectly. I had a chapter critiquer “correct” every that and who/whom I used–incorrectly. I happen to be an English major, and I taught English for several years. Yes, I make mistakes like everyone else. In this case, though, I had followed the rules; and my uses were correct. It was not a problem for me, but I couldn’t help but think about someone who didn’t know these particular grammar rules. They would have been misled. The experience also taught me to be sure I knew what I was talking about before I commented. Just because something doesn’t sound right to me doesn’t mean that it isn’t right.

    That said, perhaps because I was a teacher, I don’t mind the red. I would love to have someone who had the time to point out every mistake and every word that didn’t work. I can always ignore it if it takes away from what I’m trying to say or from my voice. Not everyone feels that way. I learned the hard way with a family member that sometimes even trying to be nice doesn’t work My comment: This is a really good beginning. What she apparently wanted to hear: This is really good–period.

    1. Excellent point, Sylvia.
      I’ve experience the same thing: Incorrect corrections. This is why writers need to be knowledgeable of both grammar, Chicago Manual of Style (governs books), APStyle (governs magazines), and individual publishers style preferences!

  7. I’m involved with an online editing group and we use the ‘Rose, Thorn, Seed’ approach. Look for the roses: great parts of the story to point out. Next look for the thorns: what should be cut, what needs correcting, clarifying, etc. Finally look for the seeds: what has potential to be more. It’s human nature to see the negatives and point them out, using this helps us look for the good first.

  8. Awesome words of wisdom, Beth. I admire editors and the way they can see ways to make our writing shine in our own voice. You summed it up when you said, “Editing means helping someone else’s voice shine more clearly.” Bravo!

    1. Thanks, Donna. As an editor I believe that is my main purpose: to make a writer look their best. When another editor does that for me, I am so, so grateful.

  9. Excellent advice, Beth! I have a critique partner that is fabulous. The longer we spend time together, getting to know each other’s writing style and in our friendship, we’ve become tougher and pickier but we still keep it positive. I always try to remember that those words came from someone’s heart, even the adverbs. 😉 Wonderful words of wisdom today.

    1. LOL! Yes, even the adverbs come from someone’s heart! 😉
      You and your critique partner are building trust between one another — a crucial element of any critique partnership or group.

  10. If an editor tells a writer over and over she/he won’t be published, the editor needs to find a new profession. Or learn to keep her/his mouth shut. How damaging.

    Great post, BV.


    1. I completely agree, Rachel.
      There’s a way to give constructive criticism–which by definition includes both positive and needs-to-be-worked-one feedback. Just saying “You’ll never get published” — that’s plain mean.
      Not professional.
      At all.

  11. Great reminder to add what we like about a ms as well as suggestions for improvement. For a long time, if I liked something, I usually didn’t make a comment–no red meant it was good! lol But then one day I realized that positive comments were encouragement, so I mended my ways and now whenever I read a part that I like I highlight it and tell why I like it.

    1. In my crit groups, we highlight in green the parts we like. We all go looking for the green. We love, love, love green!!
      We don’t ignore the red, but wow! The green makes a difference.

  12. Hi Beth,
    I love this post! I would like to link it into the Good News for today segment of the ToolShed Publishing site, with your blessing of course. You can reply at my personal email provided if you like. Thanks, and keep up the great posts.

  13. As the mother of two doctors who’ve also pledged to “First do no harm, I especially appreciate this post. Also love the important point that we don’t someone else’s voice to be an echo of ours–God loves diversity as demonstrated by wonderfully varying but inspired writer voices in the Bible.
    When I was principal of a school covering 12 grades, I worked for years with teachers on the fine art of writing true but positive report cards: Johnny is strong in this. I appreciate his efforts here . . . and with a little more practice (or effort, or whatever necessary) am sure he will soon improve or see success here . . . Our efforts were generally appreciated, though we encountered some parents who waited only for unmitigated, undeserved, and unrealistic praise–and didn’t get it.
    Thanks, Beth.

    1. Dee,
      Love you point that God loves diversity — and so there is room for all the different writers voices out there in the writing world!
      When I receive nothing but praise for my writing? I don’t trust it. It’s just. Not. True.

  14. Beth,
    As a new aspiring writer, I appreciate the viewpoint of getting something positive in the midst of the “improvement” recommendations. It really goes a long way in encouraging the person.

    Thanks so much!
    Alena T.

    1. Alena,
      I like the phrase “improvement recommendations.” Good way to put it & good way to approach it.

  15. Thanks Beth for this encouraging post! Sometimes critiques can be painful when the focus of the feedback is all negative and not specific. Getting to know a critique buddy well before sharing your work is always helpful. My critique buddies and I also pledge not to be an American Idol friend…you know the friends who surround a contestant and claim that contestant is brilliant, only they can’t hold a tune in a bucket. The truth in love…spoken one small piece at a time, recognizing the strengths along the way. That’s the stuff great critiquing is made of.

    1. Michelle,
      So fun — don’t be an American Idol friend!! Why, why, why do those friends of people-who-can’t-hold-a-tune-in-a-bucket let them embarrass themselves??

  16. Hey Beth,

    Great post. Definitely worthwhile to keep in mind, both in giving and receiving feedback. Sometimes when I’m critiquing someone else’s work, I don’t want to overwhelm them with a million comments (even if they are good) so I tend to leave off the good ones! I’ll have to try harder to find a good balance, because you’re right, when I get feedback, it’s so nice to hear what someone actually liked!

    1. Amy,
      I agree — it’s easy to forget the positive stuff as we try to “help” someone with all the fixing that needs to happen in a manuscript. We have to be sooo intentional about giving constructive feedback, which includes both the “here’s what’s working” and “here’s what’s not” parts.

  17. When I edit a person’s work, I need to remind myself to leave their voice intact. For some that is easier to than others — and I fear there are times when I fail. Nonetheless, that is my goal and intent.

    1. I don’t think there’s a perfect editor alive — but I think the best ones intentionally protect a writer’s voice. And they also realize there’s a living, breathing person on the other end of the manuscript they’re editing.

  18. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that not only do I need to be able to trust my critique partners’ motives, but I need to have trustworthy motives of my own. They’re entrusting me with something precious. It is my job as a critique partner to find the best way to help them realize their dreams. That means being honest. And it means being kind, too. And surprisingly, those two things are not mutually exclusive. 🙂

    Excellent post, Beth.

  19. Beth, as an editor and a professor, I’ve learned that what you’ve said is essential. You cannot just blast someone and expect him/her to respond well. Most people will take your advice and (1) become depressed because you’ve given them no suggestions for improvement and only badgered what they did, or (2) throw it out because your feedback was too overwhelming and not constructive (in other words, tend to say “well, this person is just way too nitpicky”).

    Always, always say something constructive. Give comments on what you DID like and what DID work well (there is bound to be something…even if it’s just that the person presents an idea in a way you wouldn’t have thought of or clearly put a lot of effort into something). This method softens the “blow” of any more critical comments.

    And always present things in a positive manner. Don’t taunt or make fun of the person or the idea. This is unprofessional and just plain mean! (Believe me, I’ve had fellow editors do this, and the result can be devastating for the writer.)

    1. Lindsay,
      I’ve both experienced crushing critiques and seen it happen to other writers — I mean, I’ve been there when it’s happened. I don’t like it. At. All.
      Writing is an act of vulnerability. In that sense, we need to be respectful of another writer’s words.

  20. I love what has been said previously about giving praise, constructive criticism, then more praise. Most of all, don’t mess with a writer’s voice, especially if s/he is new and still developing/discovering it.

    1. Good summary of all that’s been said: praise, constructive criticism … repeat. And respect a writer’s voice.
      And repeat.

  21. I’m fortunate to be a part of two critique groups that are both very helpful. With my local group, we do the following:

    1. Start with where we felt the most emotional connection or impact.
    2. Ask a question of the writer. (This helps the writer identify spots where he or she isn’t clear in her writing.)
    3. The writer asks the others a question. (This gives the writer a chance to see if others are picking up on what he/she wants to communicate.)

    I have to admit that when I started critiquing, I did some unintentional harm in my enthusiasm to be helpful and thorough. I had to learn about what critiquing was and wasn’t so I could emphasize the good while helping a writer identify areas for herself that he/she would like to improve.

  22. Good point, Beth!
    I think sometimes the harm is unintentional. We’re inexperienced critiquers and we misstep. The best thing to do then is apologize, back up and try again.
    I like how your crit groups provide feedback. Great steps!

  23. I’m a former writing coach with Writing Coaches of Missoula (MT), a volunteer organization that provides middle- and high-school students with individual writing instruction. Our training emphasized praising a student’s strengths before we suggested improvements. I was amazed to see and hear the gratitude many students expressed to me–for taking the time to read their words and provide helpful comments. It’s especially important to encourage young writers who may not yet know the power of words.

  24. Great advice, Beth. Sometimes I wonder if some critique-ers are unduly harsh because of personal issues. I know some people feel everyone else is competition. So sad. There really needs to be trust and respect among critique partners.

  25. I can’t tell you how many times I have broken each of these rules. I have often lamented over this fault. It has taken me a while to learn NOT to repeat these infractions. Fortunately, I have some amazing forgiving friends 🙂

    Thanks, Beth for this wonderful reminder.

    Ps. You should write a book on editing;) just sayin’

  26. This happened to a friend of mine on an Internet poetry critique board. One of the moderators critiqued her poem something like this: “Your grasp of poetic fundamentals leads me to conclude that someday you can aspire to write doggerel.” Ouch! She was a tough bird, however, and such trollish behavior, by a moderator no less, didn’t deter her.

Comments are closed.