The Humble Manuscript Evaluation: One of the Most Useful Yet Underutilised Tools for Writers

Recently, I worked with an author who had written a unique memoir about abuse. With the help of a writing coach, he’d created and reworked his first drafts of the manuscript, but now he was stuck. All he knew was that, in spite of his best efforts to produce a story that felt true to his life experiences, and in spite of the extensive writing coaching he’d received, there was still something “off” with his book. He already had some interest from an international publishing house, but in order to secure a contract, he needed to make sure his script was the best it could be. What now? How could he ensure that his book would not only be accepted for publication but also be more than just an “also-published” title; that it would spark that magical effect of spreading like wildfire among readers?

The script landed on my desk for a manuscript evaluation – a reader’s report of several pages detailing the book’s strengths and weaknesses and focusing specifically on what could be improved on for the book to be in its best-possible shape for re-submission.

It was a riveting read, with an altogether new take on abuse. The storytelling was good. There was great scene-setting, good use of flashbacks, and there were some nice, lyrical turns of phrase. But yes, something was off. At first, I also struggled to tell what it was. But when I was about two-thirds in, there was that wonderful moment when everything seems to click and I suddenly know exactly what I need to say to the author. The problem was with the voice and how the author was characterising himself as the “protagonist”. He also seemed to be trying too hard to dramatise the story: the narrative itself, without bells and whistles, was strong enough to activate and sustain the reader’s interest and sympathy. What was missing was a credible, deeply reflective and critical voice that could help the reader navigate and make sense of the story and the author’s thoughts and feelings. In order to elevate the text above one of simply “telling”, the author had to undertake a deeper, even more honest (and painful) level of self-introspection when it came to how he imaginatively reconstructed his scenes from memory.

This problem saturated the text. It affected nearly all elements, from grammatical tenses (the dramatic immediacy of present tense versus the deeper reflection of past tense) to dialogue (was it overly contrived?) to character gestures (were they believable or overly staged?) and style (too obviously deployed to heighten tension?). However, there were moments of brilliance in which the more mature voice shone through – and in these snippets the blueprint was to be found.

While it was difficult to word the evaluation, as I had to be empathetic to the author, compiling this report was immensely rewarding. There is, perhaps, nothing more satisfying than helping someone else tell their story in a meaningful, authentic and entertaining way.

Unfortunately, too few authors take advantage of this immensely powerful tool. Often, after writing and reworking their first drafts – with help from beta readers and writing courses, groups or coaches (and sometimes with no help at all) – authors tend to rush into looking for an editor. Sadly, there’s only so much a copy-editor can do to “fix” a manuscript that has major structural and other problems. In fact, it isn’t the editor’s job to do so. They are employed to correct basic errors and grammar, and to ensure stylistic consistency.

Perhaps this is so because most authors aren’t even aware of the tool that is the humble manuscript evaluation.

Unfortunately, too few authors take advantage of this immensely powerful tool. Often, after writing and reworking their first drafts – with help from beta readers and writing courses, groups or coaches (and sometimes with no help at all) – authors tend to rush into looking for an editor. Sadly, there’s only so much a copy-editor can do to “fix” a manuscript that has major structural and other problems.

So, what exactly is an evaluation, and how will you, as an author, benefit from having one done?

It is a detailed report (my reports tend to be between ten and twenty-plus pages long – 12-pt, double-spaced Times New Roman) on the major and minor strengths and weaknesses of your book – be it a novel, a self-help book or a memoir. Although there’s no formula for what major issues will be addressed in the report, generally an evaluation will focus on all or some of the following (in addition to any particular issue you ask the reader to focus on):

• Structure/plot

• Appeal to readers and publishers

• General impressions

• Characterisation

• Pacing

• Language

• Style and voice.

An evaluation gives you a nearly complete picture, or an overview, of what work you still need to do as a writer to improve your book so that it stands the best chance of being accepted by a publisher or well received by readers. Most importantly, it will empower you not only to improve your work, but also to develop as a writer.

It will also give you a good idea of how your book will be received by readers, as the editor (someone with years of experience in what makes for literary and commercial success) is preoccupied with reading “on behalf of” the intended audience.

One evaluation I worked on recently helped an author realise that he’d been writing his book on video games for the wrong audience (or an unclearly defined one) all along. Was it gamers, or parents of gamers, he should be writing the book for?

An evaluation gives you a nearly complete picture, or an overview, of what work you still need to do as a writer to improve your book so that it stands the best chance of being accepted by a publisher or well received by readers. Most importantly, it will empower you not only to improve your work, but also to develop as a writer.

Another evaluation, on an epic 300 000-word post-apocalyptic sci-fi trilogy, helped the author realise that it is the human-interest stories of survival that readers are most interested in; not the technical details (which were supplied in tranches) of fictional and wondrous technologies. Also, his project would benefit from some thought as to how to package it as a work of art. Was it, in fact, better as a stand-alone novel with stronger protagonists and a clearer narrative arc? Or even as short stories or non-fiction essays? The author was clearly a genius of sorts. But even he had writing blind spots. The evaluation helped to identify these.

An evaluation will also provide clarity on where your project is headed. Does it need editing? Proofreading? Can you push the big, green “Submit” or “Self-publish” button? While the feedback can sometimes be difficult to take on board, knowing where you stand can give you the confidence to push on, more assured in the knowledge that you have a plan.

A good evaluation is broad, but also specific, in its focus. Another author became aware, through having an evaluation done, that while his novel was generally well written, he needed to pay a lot of attention to improving his use of language. He tended to cram too many subjects into one sentence, potentially confusing the reader. There was also the issue of checking historical facts. There were many errors, from faulty dates to incorrect locations to confused names and muddled chronology.

An evaluation will also provide clarity on where your project is headed. Does it need editing? Proofreading? Can you push the big, green “Submit” or “Self-publish” button?

One of the central elements of an evaluation is its spotlight on structure or plot. One author I worked with had produced a business book in record time, working through the night in hotel rooms while travelling. The result was a script with multiple threads, side-tracks and case studies, with little to hold it all together; no golden thread weaving all into a clear, concise, easily digestible and logical story. The evaluation helped the author to home in on his message. The book, a wonderful one, went on to do very well in the local market.

Another huge advantage of manuscript evaluations is that they are much more affordable than developmental or structural editing. This makes them ideal for self-published authors. An evaluation costs a fraction of the price of having an editor work closely with you on several drafts of your text. This makes it, in my view, one of the most valuable editing tools, pound for pound, that writers have at their disposal.

But perhaps, to conclude, the greatest benefit authors get from manuscript evaluations, in addition to sharpening their overall writing skills, is the objectivity that comes with an evaluation. Often, when asked for feedback on your work, friends and family will say things to placate you, to simply sound smart, or even to deliberately discourage you. An evaluation is an objective report. The reviewer won’t hold back in giving you honest feedback – positive or negative. Ideally, this is a professional who has devoted her or his life to studying the mechanics of storytelling. He or she wants you to succeed. But at the same time, he or she wants your readers to have the best-possible experience while reading your book so that they can pass it down the line and recommend it to others.

Published by Wesley Thompson

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