When physicians swear to uphold the tenets of the Hippocratic Oath, they understand the principle of “Do no harm.” When a patient sees a doctor, the last thing they need is treatment which worsens their illness or adds a complication. But in the literary world of editing, there is no Hippocratic Oath. Many editors and story doctors will hire out their services, happily taking a writer’s money in exchange for a critique that cuts deep into a story’s gut, digs around, and comes back up with a small lump while the patient bleeds out on the table.
Why this word of caution today? I’ve been researching for my upcoming workshop on editing for the Vancouver School of Writing, and while some of the editing services I’ve seen look legit, many of them are run by people without credentials who are looking for money. As in the days of old, there is always a charlatan to prey upon the naïve. Editors without scruples will give you lots of advice, quote a library of how-to books, and place a burden on the writer’s shoulders that Atlas himself couldn’t lift. Many writers leave in despair, not sure where to begin to revise, not sure if they should try. It is literary euthanasia, yet no writer intentionally hires a story doctor for the purpose of putting his novel out of its misery.
If you hire an editor, make sure that they can actually help you. Make sure that they believe your story is worthy of being told, of being born. Make sure they have references from writers who have survived the operation table. Look for credentials in the areas that you need help with, whether it be precise proofreading or big-picture structural editing. Make sure the editor sees something positive in your writing before you proceed. Bad critiquing is easy; helpful critiquing is harder. In order for an editor or a doctor to accurately assess where the illness resides, they must also understand what health looks like and help move you towards higher possibilities. A good editor doesn’t just hate on a story, they also have hope for it and see its strengths.
Sue is Pulp Literature’s Acquisition editor. To register for her course on hiring editors and self-editing go to the Vancouver School of Writing website.