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.