The other day, an author emailed to ask me, ‘How much does it cost to copy edit a book in South Africa? This is my first novel.’
I replied, ‘It depends on the work involved. Please send me the word count and a few sample chapters.’
A day later, the author sent me two chapters and asked me to quote her on ‘around 5 000 words’.
Surprised, I sent her the quote but added, ‘Kindly note that this is for editing 5 000 words only, which covers your first two chapters.’
She wrote back: ‘I would like to ask, do you recommend that I finish writing the book before editing? Or is it wise to edit chapter by chapter?’
It was only then that I realised she hadn’t finished writing her book. Yet, she was rushing to find an editor. This happens too often. Authors get overwhelmed by the excitement of the writing process and the prospect of having their work published, but this is the time to be cautious.
I replied, ‘It’s much better to finish writing the whole novel first and then to revise and rewrite it as many times as necessary to produce your best possible manuscript. Just keep on writing and rewriting. When you’re done with the first draft and feel ready to get feedback, you can have a manuscript evaluation done. This is much cheaper than editing, but more importantly, it will give you a better idea of where you stand when it comes to publishing and how you can improve your book before editing. It will help you become aware of and address any major structural issues or other problems with the book.’
The author replied, ‘Let me just buckle up and enjoy the long road ahead!’
Before finding an editor for your book, it’s a good idea to get a sense of the quality of your work before spending lots of money on editing and publishing services. A manuscript evaluation is a good first step to take. Because you will use it to improve your writing, it can also save you money down the line by ensuring your editor gets a cleaner script to work on when it is ready for editing.
But what is a manuscript evaluation? Also known as a manuscript assessment, a manuscript appraisal, a reader’s report, or a manuscript review, it is a report done by a professional reader (usually an experienced editor) on the strengths and weaknesses of your book, how you can improve it, and your chances of being published.
To help authors get an idea of what a manuscript evaluation entails and why it is the missing link in the publishing journey, I have compiled some quotes from a few of the manuscript reports I’ve worked on. The writing issues discussed below, ranging from improving attachment to protagonists to discovering a credible narrative voice in memoir writing, are some of those I encounter most frequently in authors’ manuscripts. I’ve included quick tips after each quote to help you think about your own manuscript and how you might improve it before editing. These tips and techniques are all useful, whether you’re writing a novel, an inspirational self-help book, a business title, or a memoir (although if you’re squarely focused on non-fiction, see the section at the end titled ‘Non-fiction and memoir’).
A manuscript evaluation I wrote on a mythology novel helped the author identify his weakness in attaching strongly to characters:
‘On the one hand, the text struggles to attach itself to the protagonist, particularly in the first half of the novel. It strains under the weight of the need to tell us everything he does, but it feels like we are distanced from his thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, the narrative attachment to the protagonist’s wife is strong. We get a compelling sense of her feelings, her desires, and her fears. The details of the things she does and the events that have an impact on her are described in a consistent way and are presented through the emotional prism of her experience.’
• We’ve all been told that every good story needs a strong protagonist, but what every good story really needs is strong attachment to a protagonist.
• A good way to improve attachment to character is to tell the story in such a way that we see events unfold through the eyes of the protagonist.
• For example, how does the protagonist feel about these events? Instead of having events simply happen to her, show us how she is responding to them in the moment.
Through a manuscript evaluation on a fast-paced action novel, another author learned to avoid weak descriptions of minor characters:
‘Often in this book, minor characters are not described in enough detail in order for readers to identify with them. We haven’t been given enough information about them to know who they are or to be interested in what they are saying. We don’t know what they look like, what their distinguishing traits are, what their biases are, and what they mean to the protagonist. Describe each new character in more detail. From the outset, before characters speak or engage in action, we need to know who they are and their importance to the story. A particularly useful vehicle for this is to describe them through the eyes of the protagonist.’
• Often, minor characters are not described in any significant detail at first mention. Only later in the text, when the author has had more of a chance to think about them, do these characters come to life.
• After you’ve written your first draft, go back and flesh minor characters out at first mention of them in the story.
In a report he commissioned on his historical novel, an author found that he had more work to do on ensuring character gestures feel believable:
‘“She laid her head on his shoulder, breathing in the familiar scent of his body.” The protagonist is an amputee. No mention is made here, or elsewhere, of his crutches. If he is using crutches, perhaps he might be able to support her weight, but it doesn’t seem likely. Shortly, she “pushed away from his arms”, which would likely cause him to lose his balance. Later, it says, “she turned to run across the road”, but she’s in the shop. Later, “she tried to blush but failed”. How does one try to blush but fail? She then seems to be trying to mouth out some words, with “the tip of her tongue running over her lips as she silently spelled them out”. It’s difficult to picture this. Perhaps she should just be mouthing out the words.’
• Would your protagonist actually sigh when thinking about his sweetheart?
• Automatic writing results in portraying characters in unconvincing ways. This happens when authors don’t take the time to think through their characters’ gestures, and they include the first action that comes to mind or that sounds good.
• Every sigh, blush, snort, deep breath, nod, shake of the head, and wry smile needs to be carefully considered. Use them sparingly, in emotionally and socially convincing ways.
An appraisal of her romance novel guided an author on avoiding making characters seem too good to be true:
‘Some work can be done to make your two protagonists more rounded. They are portrayed as flawless, they are exceptional at everything they do, everyone loves them, and they can’t seem to put a foot wrong. While they do face some challenges, they seem to overcome these too easily, without any real test of character. If they are portrayed as too good to be true, readers will sense that something is off. In fact, readers will enjoy glimpses into the protagonists’ darker sides.’
• Many authors believe that readers have to like their characters. So much so that they fall into the trap of making their protagonists flawless. The result is one-dimensional characters who don’t feel like real people to us.
• Readers don’t have to like your protagonist, but they do have to like, believe in, and be invested in your protagonist’s quest. They have to at least like who the character will become by the end of the story.
• Allow your characters to surprise you and to act in unusual ways, as long as their actions are motivated by real human motives and believable, deep-seated fears and desires.
Through the same report, the author gained insight into the art of including backstory:
‘Caution should be exercised when including backstory. Instead of providing it in tranches – endless sections of detailed history or never-ending flashbacks – it should be weaved in subtly.’
• Sometimes, authors include too much backstory in an attempt to make their protagonists feel more real. This usually just gets in the way of the story.
• Backstory should be limited to that which has a direct impact on the story itself.
• Find ways to include it subtly, for example through dialogue or character reflection.
Another author, who had produced an epic sci-fi trilogy, found that he needed to rethink his approach to including only relevant details:
‘Your writing is characterised by a tendency to over-elaborate on logistical and technical details. We are told the minutia of how the characters will travel, where they will go, what they will do once there, where they will stay, and how they will return. The result of these tracts of logistical description is to split the reader’s attention off from the plot. The reader gets lost along the way, and the description itself becomes the primary focus, whereas the reader cares more about what the characters are thinking, feeling, and actually doing. We prefer to experience this in well-established scenes, and then we want the plot to move on quickly.’
• Keep in mind what your reader is expecting. If you’re in the middle of a chase scene, would the reader want you to stop and smell the roses?
• The same is true of every scene with a developing thread (read: every scene), even those in which characters are reflecting: the reader just wants to get on with enjoying the story.
One reader’s report helped an author understand how her romance novel was already satisfying the conventions of genre:
‘At its heart, this is a love story. It is broadly structured as such, framed by the overarching question: Will the lovers be together in the end? It is impelled with the urgency of the lovers’ respective quests. This gives substance especially to the first half of the novel. They are faced with obstacles that threaten to derail their undertakings to find partners. They overcome each of these, in the process proving themselves worthy. In this way, the structure is effective in that it gives rise to a pattern of problem followed by decision followed by problem, until all the hurdles have been overcome so that nothing stands in the way of the lovers being together, thus resolving the cardinal story question, satisfying the reader’s curiosity, and fulfilling the conventions of the romance genre.’
• Every genre has a set of conventions that you need to be aware of. These are the things that readers will be expecting. For example, in romance, you must answer the basic question: Will the protagonist(s) find love? In thrillers, the story question might be: How will the hero manage to outsmart the villain?
• Your book needs to be structured in such a way that it satisfies these conventions, otherwise your readers will be disappointed.
In another novel, the author was advised to avoid the story falling flat halfway through:
‘The story feels to fizzle out more and more the further we move on from the midpoint. There is a lack of tension because the characters have already mostly got what they want. The text falls a little flat, since the next plot driver is not strong enough to ensure an escalation of drama, tension, and intrigue. The stakes need to be raised and the obstacles heightened after the climax at the midpoint.’
• Often, stories race to a thrilling climax too fast. After this point, when the protagonists have got what they want, there’s nothing at stake for them and nothing left for them to achieve. The story fizzles out to an unsatisfying conclusion.
• Plotting can help you build the story to breaking point at about two-thirds of the way in.
• Once your protagonist gets what he wants, put him through new hoops. Put him in even more danger. Have him ask himself unbearably conflicting questions. Force him to make difficult choices.
The same report alerted the author to the need to become aware of sensitivity and inclusiveness issues:
‘This reality of the character’s poverty is never really reflected on in any meaningful way. It is never seen or heard by white eyes and ears. In fact, we have no window into her experience of this world, and of the hardship of poverty and of grief. She’s a blank slate instead of a person with a real, lived past. She is too conveniently forced into circumstances that cause privilege to get what it wants.’
• It helps to get a fresh perspective, particularly that of someone who is specifically looking out for material that could feel off or even be offensive to others.
• Sometimes, getting a sensitivity reader – someone whose job is to read your book specifically to spot problematic social and cultural representations – can help to ensure your book will be well received by all readers.
A manuscript assessment on another action novel focused on factual accuracy:
‘In this book, there are some problems regarding factual accuracy. For example, the protagonist hears “the murmuring of the stream” from “a few hundred yards away”. Would this be audible from such a distance? It is mentioned that CCTV is used in the London Underground, but the year is 1970, and CCTV doesn’t seem to have been prevalent until the 1980s? (Please double check this.) Later, he uses Sellotape to piece together a priceless ancient parchment; would this not damage it?’
• We all miss things. Sometimes, doing a separate reading for factual accuracy, or getting a reviewer to focus on this, can help weed out errors.
Through a report on a book about video games, the author learned more about defining the target audience:
‘Who exactly the book is aimed at isn’t so clear. In different places, there seems to be an attempt to write the book for two distinct, specific audiences: gamers, and parents of gamers. There is a third audience, however: the more general, universal one. It will be difficult to sell the book to an audience that is too general or not well defined.’
• Poorly defining your target audience negatively impacts structure, length, accessibility, marketability, saleability, and other aspects of producing a quality product.
• Do some research. How do books similar to yours define their target audience on their sales pages?
A manuscript evaluation on a business book homed in on ensuring a balance between telling and showing:
‘Readers want stories most of all. In general, we don’t want to be spoken to, or to be taught lessons. We’d much prefer to learn such lessons through reading stories of others that have high human-interest value to us.’
• Just because it’s non-fiction, it doesn’t mean readers don’t want to be entertained by good storytelling. Telling the reader often amounts to a lecture; showing them, by couching lessons in immersive stories, brings the point home.
• Using storytelling practices commonly deployed in fiction, such as good scene-setting, creating compelling characters, and building tension – while staying true to the facts – can be a useful way of creating intrigue.
In the same project, the author found that he had some more work to do on getting to the point and avoiding side tracks:
‘There is a problem with the narrative being interrupted by side tracks. We should allow only for succinct reflection between points of the story, focusing on only the most important lessons to emerge, and let the stories do most of the work in delivering the lessons so that they arise organically. We read these sections with half an eye, our attention diverted, hoping for the narrative to continue, for something to happen, and for something to connect to.’
• If interludes, anecdotes, and side tracks are too long and too many, they will distract your reader from the main thread.
• Similar to fiction, non-fiction requires that everything mentioned in a book must be there for a solid story reason. It needs to bolster the thrust of your argument, make clear your assumptions, heighten the tension or increase the intrigue, or illustrate your points in meaningful ways.
• If there’s no story or structural reason for a side track, cut it.
One report identified a need for the author to discover a credible narrative voice in memoir writing:
‘One of the most important aspects of memoir writing is to create a credible narrative voice. Readers should be convinced by this voice, and the picture they form of who the author is, is central to their enjoyment of the book. Also important is for the reader to be able to sympathise with the author. This is a character construct that results from a number of things, including the writing techniques used, the language, and other aspects such as character gestures and dialogue.’
• It might help to think of yourself as ‘the protagonist’, even though you are writing non-fiction and not fiction. How do you think you come across to the reader as a ‘character’? Does the voice you use in the text feel real in terms of who you are?
• The use of various writing devices and techniques can affect how you come across. Using present tense, for example, might increase the text’s immediacy, immersive quality, and dramatic impact, but this might come at the expense of deeper hindsight.
An author of a book on education benefited from a report that helped him to identify the natural dramatic arc in true stories:
‘It becomes clear that the chapter lacks a basic structure designed to optimise the dramatic impact of the story. It feels to meander from one point of observation to another, and it seems as if it is structured quite rigidly on chronology. Has the story been deliberately shaped so that the tension builds, from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next, and one scene to the next? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is there, indeed, a climax? It feels like there’s also no real hook to draw the reader into the story. The challenge is to identify the natural shape of a story in the material at the author’s disposal, and to then write the story in such a way that it is of undeniable intrigue to the reader. The challenge is also to find a way to heighten drama while remaining true to the story: for the writer to give himself more licence in his storytelling, to step away from the fidelity to transcript.’
• Authors of non-fiction books and memoirs often feel compelled to write every fact as it happened. This comes at the expense of good storytelling. It is possible to find a dramatic arc in almost any story material. The author’s challenge is to discover this arc and exploit it while remaining true to the facts.
These weaknesses would’ve remained in their manuscripts had these authors, all of whom went on to produce wonderful books, rushed to find an editor and not taken the time to have a manuscript evaluation done. The points made in the reports, along with the many, specific page references to where these problems occurred in their books, helped them know exactly how to fix their manuscripts. Manuscript evaluations are the missing link in the publishing journey because they can help you avoid some common mistakes, save you money, give you an idea of where to go next, and ensure you develop as an author.f t