Jennifer Dinsmore Editorial
Free Your Words
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What is a Manuscript Evaluation & How Can it Help Your WIP?

 

Before the New Year, Will Norman of Book Jump interviewed me about editing (episode upcoming). During the course of our talk, the subject of manuscript evaluations came up. He had never heard of them, so I gave a basic description and we moved on.

I thought little of it until a month or so later while listening to a podcast featuring a past client. He mentioned he had used my services for a manuscript evaluation, which proved rather helpful during the writing of his novel. Before he could go on the interviewer cut him off, curious. “Can you explain what a manuscript evaluation is?”

And he summed them up pretty well. “A manuscript evaluation is where an editor will look at your book … not looking for grammar or anything like that. They’re just looking for plot. They’ll go through your book and say ‘I like this character and I don’t like that character,’ ‘I would move this chapter here,’ and ‘You could combine these couple of chapters together ’cause they’re too short or they’re too long….”

A manuscript evaluation is a broad editorial assessment of a novel, covering structure and dialogue and everything in between. Forget, at this stage, about grammar and proper word choice. This is about ensuring all plot threads tie together, about ensuring characters are fully drawn. It is also about bringing to attention little writing tics authors may not realize they have, such as the overuse of a certain word or phrase or tendency to switch point of view.

THE BENEFIT TO YOUR WIP?

As a manuscript evaluation highlights both the strengths and weakness of a novel, you can think of it as a guide for working through your next draft. I recommend this service when I can tell an author has gone through a few drafts and has a firm direction for the story and the characters, yet are lacking in certain elements or have lost sense of the big picture. You may even know exactly the areas which need work, yet are unsure about how to correct it. (It is important to note manuscript evaluations are always meant to be positive, and never should an editor disrespect an authors’ unique vision or style.) The report draws on specific references and examples from the text, with recommendations on how to further develop the narrative.

Now I know some of you are thinking, “But what about having my friends and family read it? Isn’t that enough?” Sure! Having input from another source, no matter what, will help your writing and your work in progress. Although you know exactly your character’s motivations or intricate setting it may not be coming across to readers. Trusted loved ones will be able to point out some issues, but hiring a professional beta reader or editor is always a good idea. We’ll delve deep into the text and bring up considerations most are not trained to catch, or may not even be aware. A manuscript evaluation also mimics reader’s reports, which some publishers use to decide whether to acquire a novel. They will look at the same big-picture concerns to determine if the novel is ready for the market. After all, you want to ensure your manuscript is in the best shape possible before moving on to the next stage. And you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches if you start copyediting only to discover an open plot thread that requires a major rewrite. For some authors, especially those who are self-publishing, going with a manuscript evaluation over a full structural or stylistic edit may be more cost-effective as it covers a lot of the same elements.

OKAY. BUT WHAT EXACTLY GETS COVERED?

Glad you asked! Manuscript evaluations are one of my favourite things to do. I love doing a deep read of a text, getting to figure out the characters and navigating their world. Once done, I generate an in-depth report (about ten to fifteen pages) which covers the specific considerations below. The extent to which each is discussed varies from author to author, and genre to genre. All writers will have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Some genres, like fantasy and sci-fi, require a lot of world-building and so the evaluation may deal more with structure or exposition.

Regardless of the author or the genre, a manuscript evaluation covers the following:

  • Structure and Organization: This goes beyond splitting your book into separate chapters. Is your opening chapter better as a prologue? There is more than one narrator, so is adequate attention given to each? If a longer saga, perhaps the novel should be divided into parts. Are there a lot of short chapters that work better as one, or two long ones that work better as four? If nonfiction, have the chapters been organized in a way that allows for the logical flow of information? Does a section need more subheadings?

Quick Tip: Each chapter should have its own arc, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

  • Exposition: In literary terms, exposition reveals important background information. It deals with setting, character backstories, prior plot events, and historical context. Good exposition is never heavy-handed but rather revealed through a character’s thought and observations, dialogue, flashbacks, and so on. Whether a suburban drama or otherworldly adventure, an editor will comment on how well drawn the world.

Quick Tip: Don’t waste precious pages telling the reader that the walls were purple and the floorboards a honeyed wood and the drapes grey silk and…. Rather, draw on your character’s senses. What do they observe about their surroundings? How may this reflect the current action?

  • Pacing and Flow: Have you ever felt a book took way too long to finish or felt an author rushed through their story so you didn’t have time to take it all in? Chances are they had issues with pacing and flow, the speed and rhythm at which the story is told. As any good piece of music, your story will have dips and valleys. With pacing, chapter length is key. Shorter chapters help convey action and move the story forward, while longer ones help to flesh out character and setting. Your plot will help dictate chapter length, and some genres (such as mystery) may call for many short chapters to keep readers moving quickly along.

Quick Tip: Think of flow as the pacing of each chapter. Do characters transition smoothly from one event to the next or are they hopping around in time and place?

  • Clarity of Ideas: Pretty self-explanatory, but no matter your genre you have to be clear. Otherwise, readers will feel lost and confused, and many may even drop the book and move on. You can spend months on characterization and world-building, but if it’s all a confused mess it’ll all have been for naught.
  • Point of View: This is something I see authors struggle with most. In a nutshell, point of view is the way in which an author decides to tell the story. There are a few different types: first or second person, third person limited or objective, and omniscient. Whatever you choose make sure you stay within that perspective. What does your character need to know, and how will they learn that information?

Quick Tip: Avoid head-hopping, or switching point of view mid-paragraph. If in first person your main character can’t know the exact thoughts of another unless explicitly told. (Or are actual mind readers.)

  • Characterization: This is another self-explanatory point, but an editor will look at how well drawn your characters are. This goes way beyond physical description and focuses on motivation and actions. Do their actions match their thoughts; and if not is the reason clear? Do they need to be a little more fleshed out to avoid becoming a flat stereotype? Did you state the importance of one character early on, only to have them drop out halfway through the narrative? Are their motivations clear? Do they come up against conflict to aid in growth? These are some considerations among the many.

Quick Tip: Create realistic characters based on senses and emotions. Fear will promote a specific physical response, and some places—like the seaside—come with a specific smell. Adding these small details will round out characters, as well as draw readers in on an emotional level.

  • Review of Writing Technique: Have you done more telling over showing? Do you simply list your characters actions? Have you started too many sentences with a pronoun or overused adverbs? Here the editor will take a quick look at some more mechanical aspects of the work in the hope it will help you improve your writing overall.
  • Narrative Style/Voice: This refers to the way in which the voice contributed to the forward momentum of the plot and how well information needed in the moment was revealed. How strong is your main character’s voice? Was it effective at getting the ideas and themes across? Does it aid or hamper the novel’s tension? Many of us can recall a narrator we felt particularly connected to; one whose voice was so strong it was as if they were there before us telling the story.
  • Other: Depending on the author, I may also use an extra space to address things not considered above. If there are any people of colour in the narrative are they as well drawn or do they rely on stereotypes? Same goes for any disabled characters, any who have mental health issues, or any who are gender fluid. (To name but a few.) If nonfiction I may point to elements that will need specific permission to print. If a memoir and referring to real people, have you obtained their consent? We live in a diverse and complicated world, and handling such topics with care is a necessity.

I always close out a manuscript evaluation with three specific recommendations to help clients distill which aspects need the greatest attention. And, above all, I always thank an author for letting me read their work. I know this can be a scary, nerve-wracking process, and in giving my suggestions I always keep this in mind. In the end I have one goal: to help you create your best manuscript possible.

Your success is my success!

Until next time, friends.

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