Trust Me, I’m a Book Doctor: Do You Need an Editor or a Creative Writing Course?

When I consider the sheer volume of creative writing courses, masterclasses, retreats, manuscript assessment and ‘author solutions’ services currently available to aspiring authors (for example when I can’t sleep), I am often reminded of the rapid rise of Spiritualism in the 1850s, a process that the mathematician Augustus De Morgan likened to the spread of smallpox. As I noted in my inaugural post, none of this pseudo-academic infrastructure was in place when I started writing seriously, with Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson blazing the trail at the University of East Anglia by adding a creative writing component to the MA in Modern Literature at the then School of English and American Studies (despite the marketing legend, this was the course Ian McEwan took). Now these things are everywhere; every university English department offers creative writing as a flagship course, and literary scholars are routinely passed over for chairs in favour of novelists. And if you can’t afford the fees in Higher Education there are a dizzying number of private courses available. Then there are the editorial services. These no longer simply proof-read, copy-edit and block your book; now they are ‘book doctors’ offering critiques, manuscript appraisal, mentoring, and every service you could possibly want to produce a novel, including ghost writing it for you and then prepping it for self-publication. There are some big players in the private sector getting in on the act too, including some major literary agencies, newspapers, and publishing houses. ‘Creative Writing’ – as opposed to actual writing – is a massive industry, or at least what passes for one nowadays.

So, if you make the decision to invest in your writing by accessing one of the above services, how do you choose what’s best for you, and who do you trust?

Although I look like a Bond villain, I’ve been editing manuscripts and teaching literature and creative writing since the late-80s, when the competition’s name was not yet Legion. I hate to tell you this, but most of us have day jobs (writers, I mean, not Bond villains). Anyway, as I write from my secret subterranean lair, surrounded by rockets and sharks, I’m often asked about the pros and cons of editorial services and creative writing courses by new and early-career authors. I’ve been asked about this several times since I started this blog, in fact. This is a good question, and one that has always been a bit of a hobby horse for me, largely because of professional ethics, which are, of course, a terrible handicap if you want to get on in academia or publishing. What follows is my answer to this question. Just to clarify, I have no intention of endorsing any companies or colleges with which I have an affiliation here, neither do I intend to name and shame. My purpose is to honestly advise on the best routes of progression for those of you thinking about paying someone to help you write. Somebody needs to explain this stuff clearly and concisely, because you can waste a lot of time and money if you make the wrong choice.

  1. The Initial Choice: Book Doctor or Course?

The rule here is pretty straightforward, but you’d be amazed how many people try to run before they can walk. If you’re a beginner as far as writing fiction is concerned – and assuming you weren’t born with the wit and wisdom of Charles Dickens and the linguistic genius of James Joyce – then, like any other skill, you’re going to have to learn it. As I said in my ‘Top Ten’ post, just because we can all read and talk does not make us natural writers, anymore than the ability to drive automatically qualifies us all for Formula One. Even if you’ve always loved reading, are good with words, and have already started writing short stories, you will probably find quite quickly that there are limits to your natural literary abilities, especially when you try to write a novel. Perhaps you’ve already written a novel, but even though your friends and family think it’s pretty good, all you’re getting from agents and publishers is an email that says your manuscript does not suit their needs at the present time.

In this case, you still need to study the basics of narrative structure – the kind of things I was writing about in the ‘Top Ten,’ plotting, pacing, setting, character development and dialogue – and you should probably be thinking about some sort of short introductory course. These are the fundamental components of any prose narrative, and you can get the general idea from any half-decent book on creative writing. There are quite literally hundreds of these in print, with more appearing all the time, but they essentially all tell you the same things. I’d suggest you start with a no-nonsense, accessible guide, and then maybe look at something a bit more academic. Amazon customer reviews are always a good way to judge the quality, and remember that there are still libraries so try before you buy. I can’t claim knowledge of all of these guides (life’s too short), but I will always recommend How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark as an excellent way in, while you won’t go far wrong with any of the textbooks from the Open University, which, like UEA, really pioneered creative writing as a stand-alone, critical and practice-based discipline. The latter guides are a lot more theoretical, but they’ll give you an idea of the level of study involved if you are considering a university course. Creative writing guides – like creative writing courses – all pretty much take the ‘critical/creative’ line, so the author(s) will explain a particular concept, give examples from published sources, and then offer illustrative writing exercises. This is the drill, and art schools and technical colleges have been using this format for decades.

If you are good at processing and applying information, it may well be that a few good books on creative writing are all you need to really raise your game. But you can’t ask a book a question, or get it to evaluate your writing. For this, you need a writers’ group or a course. If you’re on a budget, or just hate the idea of going back to school, then a writers’ group is an excellent way to share your work and discuss the art and craft of writing with like-minded and supportive people. There are writing groups all over the place, live and online, and if there’s nothing in your area then why not set one up? Social networking can be wonderful for this kind of thing. If you’re in the UK, contact The National Association of Writers’ Groups  for information and guidance, and as far as online groups are concerned, of course, you can join them from anywhere.

If you want more structure and professional guidance, however, then look towards the formal creative writing courses. Writers’ groups are great, but their informality is both a strength and a weakness; members can drift away, others tend to dominate, and there’s often quite a rambling agenda. A good course will combine the hopefully motivational interaction of a writers’ group with focused and practical tuition. If you’re a beginner to an intermediate writer (so you’re either starting from scratch or you’ve been writing as a hobby), then to move forward you have to learn the trade. Basically, you need to take a course.

This is the point at which ambitious and potentially gifted amateurs can go wrong, by trying to leapfrog the apprenticeship in favour of professional editing and mentoring. This was the point of my ‘Top Ten.’ When I’m editing – as opposed to teaching – I shouldn’t really have to explain the basics of literary composition to the authors, but that’s what I find myself doing with nine out of ten manuscripts that I appraise for their suitability for publication. And you can’t rely on all editors to do this either, so you might end up spending a lot of money on a dream crushing report that doesn’t even really tell you how to fix your book in a straightforward and practical way. If you’re not ready, then you’re putting the cart before the horse by going straight to the book doctors, and you’re probably spending as much, if not more, on a single manuscript critique than the fees for a ten or twelve week creative writing course.

Everyone has their own reasons for avoiding courses, but there are a few barriers to learning that come up again and again. See if any of these cover your case (be honest):

  1. ‘I have my own style, and I won’t be bound by other peoples’ rules. Taught courses stifle creativity, and I will not compromise my artistic vision.’
  2. ‘I’m a busy person – I don’t have time to take a course.’
  3. ‘I have enough qualifications already.’
  4. ‘Good writing is all about common sense.’
  5. ‘You can’t be taught to write – you either have the talent or you don’t.’
  6. ‘I’m shy. I hate the thought of reading my work out in public, and having people criticise it.’

To which I reply, also again and again:

  1. Good courses enhance individual creativity. You need to know the rules before you can break them – Van Gogh, Picasso and Dali, for example, were all excellent life drawers. A well taught course will give you the knowledge and tools you need to structure a narrative and develop your own style. Some mavericks, geniuses and ego maniacs do make it on their own terms, but most do not, and generally end up moaning about the ‘old boy network’ in publishing that supposedly excludes true genius while self-publishing crap on Amazon.
  2. Find the time. If you’re too busy to take a course, you’re probably not writing either, and most likely never will.
  3. This is about learning a new skill, not gaining a qualification (most short courses aren’t accredited anyway). Even if you have a doctorate in English literature, don’t assume you can write fiction based on your ability to analyse it; critical and creative writing are entirely different disciplines.
  4. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll say it repeatedly: basic literacy does not qualify you to write a successful dramatic narrative. You might be able to work it out yourself from first principles, but why waste the time when you could just learn the basics? And, in my experience, you’ll like as not waste even more time making every writing mistake there is while you’re trying, like falling out of a tree and hitting every branch on the way down. The reason forty-odd thousand people jumped on my ‘Top Ten’ was because they realised they’d probably been making several of these mistakes for years. (I know I did when I started out.)
  5. Any skill can be taught, learned and improved. We can’t all be virtuosos, but study, application and practice will always improve your performance, and successful writing just has to be good, it doesn’t always have to be great. Never compare and despair. You’re not Shakespeare – so what? Even Shakespeare probably wasn’t Shakespeare. Get over yourself and write with confidence in your own unique style and voice.
  6. When you publish a piece of writing, complete strangers will read it and offer a multiplicity of responses and interpretations, some positive, some negative, and some downright insane. (And that’s if you’re lucky – you might not get read at all.) A creative writing course offers this kind of feedback in microcosm. It is a training ground for going public with your work, and for gaining the confidence to do so. Rather than the usual baptism of fire, it is a friendly forum for discussion with people on your wavelength. (And if you’re still shy, try an online course instead, as there’s no reading aloud involved.)

When I advise editorial clients to take a course many are quite horrified, often objecting on one or more of the above grounds. They will then frequently invest in another editor (who will say the same thing) or keep coming back to me. This is definitely doing it the hard way, and authors who do this on average fork out for three manuscript assessments before the penny finally drops and they knock their novel into shape. At the industry rate, three professional reads on a medium-sized novel will not leave much change from a grand-and-a-half ($2400 USD at time of writing). Such extravagance appals me, but then I’m one of those ‘artist in a garret’ types, so I don’t have money to burn. Apparently some folks still do.

  1. What Editors and Book Doctors Do

I should probably define my terms here. There are obviously all sorts of editors, but what I’m talking about here are specifically the ‘editorial services’ pitched at new writers, rather than the world of executives and chiefs: the developmental and author’s editors who assess manuscripts for their suitability for publication, guide authors – often suggesting quite significant structural changes – and generally make the manuscript fit for purposes. These are the ‘Book Doctors,’ whose mysterious art combines aspects of copy-editing (improving the style, organisation, accuracy, and formatting of a text), manuscript development, private tutoring, and even ghost writing. (Copy-editing, by the way – which includes proofing – is the bit you do last, when you’re preparing your manuscript for publication.) By far the most commonly accessed service in this context is manuscript assessment, which is something I do a lot of myself.

A good manuscript assessment is a detailed and objective appraisal of your work by some sort of publication professional (usually a published author and critic). This takes the form of a ‘Reader’s Report,’ a constructive critique which comments on your overall premise, the structure of your narrative, its commercial viability, and its suitability and options for publication. Reports vary in length according to the size of the manuscript being assessed, but are always several thousand words long. Fiction is usually analysed according to genre, concept, originality, plot, narrative pacing, characters, dialogue, and setting, as well as the technical aspects of structure: coherence, continuity of style, and narrative organisation. You won’t agree with everything your reader says – and you don’t have to – but if you’re reasonably open-minded this process should aid your growth as a writer, strengthening the best qualities of your manuscript while identifying areas in need of improvement. Crucially, manuscript assessment acts as a buffer between authors, agents and publishers (this being the ethos of The Literary Consultancy, for example), by offering a realistic appraisal of your chances in the literary marketplace, telling you honestly when to re-write, when to approach a literary agent or publisher, when and how to self-publish, and when your manuscript is simply not ready to go public.

There are many manuscript assessment services out there, some offered by long-established companies, others by freelancers, so shop around. Many advertise in trade magazines such as Writing Magazine and Writers’ Forum, and there’s some good advice on these services in Harry Bingham’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Guide to Getting Published, as well as on the websites of the providers themselves. If you decide to take this route, do your research before you press ‘Pay now’ – good questions to ask would include:

  • Who is assessing my manuscript? What are his/her credentials?
  • Do you have a team of regular readers, or do you contract out?
  • What can I expect in this report, and how long will it be?
  • What is the turnaround time?
  • Do you read my entire manuscript?
  • What happens if I am not satisfied with this report?

If you’re getting a full-length novel assessed, then prices obviously vary depending on its length. As a ballpark figure, expect to pay somewhere between £350 and £500 ($560 and $800 USD at time of writing), with freelancers charging less because they have lower overheads than the big companies. Quality control is quite variable here, but the established providers will be checking every report, while even the sole traders should have ‘Terms and Conditions’ (if they do not, avoid like the Black Death). Don’t judge the readers too harshly, because if they were bestsellers they wouldn’t need to undertake editorial work. This does not mean they are amateurs. Look for readers with a demonstrable publication record (not online or self-publishing only), and/or some sort of professional background in publishing or at a literary agency, editorial experience, and relevant academic qualifications (preferably to post-graduate level); some teaching experience is also useful, as teachers tend to be better at explaining complex narratological issues.

But here’s the important point: If you are a beginner, or you’ve just written your first novel (without any previous experience or qualifications in creative writing), or your manuscript is an early or even first draft, then you do not need a manuscript assessment; you are not ready, and you will largely be wasting your time and your money. As I said, you need to walk before you can run. You need to be a reasonably competent writer before editorial services become useful, and you need to have taken your project through several drafts. These services polish, they do not build from scratch.

  1. What Editors and Book Doctors Do Not Do

These services cannot directly get you published. They will not hook you up with industry contacts, or refer you to literary agents or publishers. If they say that they do, be more than a little wary. Credible literary agencies and publishers receive hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every week – they do not tout for business, they do not need to. Remember that what manuscript assessment services do is give you an honest evaluation of the publishable quality of your project, help to get it fit for purpose, and advise on realistic ways forward. There’s no quick way to find an agent or a publisher, and no one is going to help you – you just have to do your homework. The most important thing you need to know in this regard is that your manuscript is of the quality and professional standard expected of any mainstream publication (and editors can help you to do this). Basically, it has to be as good as it can possibly be before you go anywhere near an agent. If it is less than perfect, then that’s your time wasted and a bridge burnt. Manuscript assessment services will tell you if you are ready, or how to get ready; they will not teach you how to write.

  1. Choosing the Right Creative Writing Course

I’m not going to get into university courses here. All I’ll say for now is that, as above, they won’t get you published. They will teach you to write, but do you really need to spend that much time and that much money when, in truth, after you learn the basics it’s down to you how much you’re willing to work to develop your style and your portfolio. The professors won’t do this for you. I would not personally recommend you take a creative writing degree, especially a higher degree, unless you specifically want that qualification, and are looking towards a career in education. You don’t need an MA, for example, unless you’re going to go for a doctorate, and you don’t need a doctorate in the humanities unless 1. You want an academic career, or 2. Because it’s there. Higher degrees in creative writing do not get you published either, though they might get you a job in publishing (though Eng. Lit. is probably better); or, if combined with a teacher training certificate, the qualifications will give you a way to pay the bills while you work on your novel. Student loans are very big debts to have, and writing professionally, on the whole, does not pay very much. You can see where I’m going here. The elite university creative writing courses are impossible to get a place on anyway, while the rest just want your money. Use it to buy yourself time instead, and go and write your novel.

Short courses, on the other hand, give you much more bang for your buck. They should only cost a few hundred quid or dollars, and if they are taught well and you’re willing and able to do the work they can do wonders for your confidence and ability as a writer. Remember, the main thing is that a writer must write, so most of this is down to you; what the courses provide is direction, motivation, and essential and transferable skills.

There are a lot of courses out there so, again, shop around. Think about the level that you are at, realistically, and what you feel you need as a writer. If you’re already banging out novels and short stories on CreateSpace and getting reasonably positive feedback, but are not yet breaking through professionally, then you should consider intermediary or advanced courses – you need to refine your art a bit. If you are a beginner when it comes to writing fiction – however hyper-literate you might otherwise consider yourself to be – then take an introductory course. This will give you the basics, which you should be able to usefully apply to any genre. If you’re interested in a particular genre, try a general beginner’s course first, and then look for something more specific as a follow-up. (The only exception being life writing, which is a different skill unless you want to try a ‘Bio-novel,’ but even so learning the structural essentials of prose fiction still won’t hurt.) It’s very important to learn your fundamentals! Unless you’re in a major city, you might not have so much choice in terms of live, face-to-face courses, but there are genre and specialist courses available online.

I have mixed feelings about day schools and retreats, but it depends what you’re looking for. Broadly speaking, I think the same rules apply as editorial services, so day and weekend courses will suit someone who is already reasonably experienced, but they probably move too fast to be of any real use to an absolute beginner, unless you’re very good at assimilating new information quickly. Day schools on genres are likely to be more useful, as long as you already have the basics. Retreats are themed holidays – probably fun, but I’m not sure you’ll come away with your next novel; something for the hobbyist, perhaps, rather than the obsessively ambitious.

There are so many beginners’ courses, on the other hand, that it’s definitely a buyer’s market. There are two types of creative writing course (whether live, online, or correspondence): those run by qualified and dedicated writers and teachers, and those that want your money. The former category also wants your money, but in return they offer value. Education is a business, just like publishing; I’m doing it for free because I’m nice. Remember De Morgan and the mediums; you have to be sceptical and selective. Courses are run by universities and colleges, local authority or voluntary sector providers – such as the Workers’ Educational Association – and the private sector. University ‘Continuing Education’ courses can always be trusted, because they are being taught and managed to the same academic standard as any other course in the university, often by teachers who also lecture during the day. There are fewer of these around than there used to be, for some reason, but they’re very good if you can find them. There used to be some online ‘Cont. Ed.’ options as well, but I’m not so sure there are any left now. WEA can also be trusted for similar reasons. But while these excellent adult education services are being squeezed by the forever recession, the private courses are growing like weeds, especially online. Some of them are good, some of them are great, and some of them are, well…

  1. How to Evaluate a Course

Use this handy checklist when assessing a creative writing course that you’re thinking about taking in order to root out the charlatans and the carpetbaggers:

  1. Think about basic delivery – is it a live, classroom-based course, or distance learning – so online, or by correspondence?
  2. What form best suits you as a learner? – If you hate computers and find Facebook a baffling nightmare, then an online course is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you’re quite shy about sharing your work, or you need a flexible learning/teaching schedule because of work and/or family commitments then an online or correspondence course is more likely to work for you. Distance learning is also the better option if there are no live courses in your area, or if travelling is a problem.
  3. Is the course accredited? Do you care? – Legitimate accreditation can only be awarded by an academic institution, but courses offering this will cost more. If a course is not accredited but still charges similar fees to a university be very suspicious. You don’t need course credits to write, anyway.
  4. Is there coursework? How much? Are there deadlines? Is the work assessed? – Just because you don’t get course credits should not mean your work is not assessed. Creative writing courses usually set short writing exercises each week, which are discussed but not formally marked, and then one big project which receives detailed feedback from your tutor and some sort of grade at the end of the course, the passing of which is required for a certificate of completion (not quite credits, but it proves you did it). You need deadlines to motivate you to write – courses with open or optional deadlines or no assessment are useless.
  5. How long is the course, what does it cost, and what do I get for my money? – If it’s a conventional classroom course, it’ll probably run for ten to twelve weeks, rather like a university seminar course, with classes lasting about two hours. If it’s an online course, it’ll probably last longer, between three and four months. Online tuition is different to the classroom, so I’ll cover this below. There should also be some sort of refund option built in if you decide the course is not for you in the first week or two, so clarify this in advance.
  6. Online courses can either work like correspondence courses – so you get a workbook and have a certain amount of interaction with your tutor via email – or ‘Virtual Learning Environments’ which involve proper teaching on interactive forums. If the model’s ‘correspondence,’ you’re not really getting much ‘contact time’ with your tutor so fees should be lower. Unless you’re very self-motivated, I wouldn’t bother. You’re probably better off with a manuscript assessment.
  7. (Online only): How is the course structured? What kind of Virtual Learning Environment will we be using? How do I access and use it? – Any good course will give you a guide. There are several VLEs, the most common being ‘Blackboard’ and ‘Moodle,’ which use password protected teaching modules and an online discussion forum for sharing work, group interaction and teaching. There are probably newer platforms based on social networking, but I’d be lying if I said I knew about these yet. Like Batman, I shall look into it… I am a bit of a VLE creative writing pioneer, if I say so myself, and have been designing and teaching on them for years. They are very easy to use, and online writing groups are lovely, while the demographic diversity available through the global reach of an online course makes for fascinating and dynamic group interaction. I have, however, seen online courses that are basically PDFs hanging in cyberspace with an email address, so ask for a few screenshots before signing up.
  8. (Online only): How much live contact with the tutor is there? – Online students require more support because they’re working in a bit of a bubble. A lot of online teaching ebbs and flows like email or Facebook, with students posting work, questions or comments, and the tutor responding later, but the good ones will also schedule regular ‘live’ sessions. My personal rule is one live day a week, nine to five.
  9. How many students are there usually in a group? – Too many makes it impersonal, and while a small group can be quite intimate, like an Oxbridge tutorial, too few can be pretty flat if one student misses a session. Somewhere between eight and eighteen is about right.
  10. What is the level, and what is the syllabus? – This should be pretty straightforward to figure out – if they’re cagey, however, about content then avoid. Levels are usually ‘Beginner,’ ‘Intermediate,’ and ‘Advanced.’
  11. Who is the teacher? – As with editorial services, look for someone with a demonstrable expertise in the area. In our case, that means a published author, preferably with industry experience and some sort of teaching qualification. They don’t have to be bestsellers, but they need to be writers who can teach. Look them up.
  12. Who wrote the course material? – This should be the teacher. If it wasn’t, the chances are that it’s quite generic, as is the tutor. Look for teachers with a passion for their subject – not the ‘Good business is where you find it’ crowd and their minions.

And finally, avoid without question:

  • Anything that makes extravagant claims, especially if followed by exclamation marks: ‘You too could be a bestselling author!!!!’ …that type of thing.
  • Anything where the advertisements feature pretty girls sucking pencils provocatively or gazing into the middle distance while idly fingering a laptop keyboard.
  • Anything that name-checks internationally bestselling authors and then strongly implies that there is some arcane trick to this level of success that can be yours for a modest fee. (Remember what happened to Dr. Faust.)
  • Anything, in fact, that promises you the ‘Secrets’ of professional writing. There are no secrets or shortcuts of any kind. Writing is hard work; it takes a lot of practice, study and dedication, and success is largely a matter of luck.

In conclusion, then, here is my advice:

Buy a book, take a course, practice, write, then get a manuscript appraisal – in that order.

If you invest in the wrong editorial service at the wrong time, results can be disastrous for your confidence and your bank balance. Trust me on this – I used to be ‘The Book Surgeon.’ I hope this has been of some use and interest, in a straight shooting kind of way. Please consider it a public service announcement for the purpose of connecting students and writers with the right courses and editorial services, because it breaks my heart to see kindred spirits throwing good money after bad in pursuit of their dreams. Now if you’ll all excuse me, I’m expecting Mr. Bond…

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8 thoughts on “Trust Me, I’m a Book Doctor: Do You Need an Editor or a Creative Writing Course?”

  1. A very informative post, thank you! I’ve thought about taking writing courses but in the end I’ve always decided not to, based on some of the reasons you had on your list. Reading your post made me think that maybe I haven’t researched any of the courses properly; I don’t even know what courses are being offered in my area but I’ve just automatically thought they’re not worth the trouble (I’m not sure why). Your list for how to evaluate a course seems especially helpful though, and perhaps now I can look better into what’s being offered near me and decide if any of them work for me. The parts about editorial services were also interesting to read and definitely something I’ll keep in mind for later.

    Liked by 1 person

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