Ask The Divas: What is a Manuscript Assessment and Why Do I Need One?
A professional manuscript assessment is more than a critique of an author’s story. Sure, an assessment goes through the story, looking at plot, character development, pacing and rhythm, narrative and dialogue, not to mention countless other manuscript-driven items, but it also discusses more abstract topics like genre, point of view, tense and timing, and even marketability. A good assessment will pinpoint a story’s strengths and weaknesses impartially, allowing the author to focus only on the parts that need work.
But why does a manuscript need an assessment, exactly? Most authors are not hermits; they have friends and family—some of whom may be writers, as well—to read and critique their work for them. And this is a wonderful thing, as every author needs a support system behind her, ready to go to bat for her. The issue with friends and family is impartiality; most friends and family find it hard to be blatantly honest with those they care about. And that’s completely normal, of course. I mean, who wants to tell her friend her story line is slow and boring, or her protagonist is wimpy and needs a shot of testosterone?
That’s where the professionals step in. Impartiality is a professional editor’s badge of honor. Assessments are made on a manuscript, not on an author, and that differentiation is sometimes hard for friends and family to make. When an editor is assessing a manuscript, it’s never an issue. Critiques and comments are made for one purpose only: to make the story the very best it can be. Editors’ suggestions can be minute tweaks; perhaps a simple change in pacing could alter the tone of the entire story. Or they can involve massive rewrites, cutting of primary or secondary characters, a change in genre, a switch in point of view or tense—even a shift in protagonist or antagonist. But every change is suggested to turn the manuscript into a publishable submission. And whether an author’s final destination is traditional publishing or self-publishing, I don’t think many would argue they want their end result to be ready to publish.
So when should a manuscript be assessed? Usually after the second or third draft of a story is a good time to have an assessment done. Once an author has completed her own edits and has had her set of writing friends or critique partners finalize their thoughts is the best time to have an impartial set of eyes go through the manuscript. The process usually takes a couple of weeks, depending the amount of other work on the editor’s desk, but it’s really in the author’s best interest to allow an editor as much time as possible to read through the story multiple times, pick up on nuances and patterns that might not be apparent from a single reading. After the read through, the editor will put together detailed suggestions, broken down by topic (e.g. Characters, Theme, Pacing, Dialogue, Grammar and Punctuation, etc.) along with multiple examples of the editor’s findings from the manuscript. The editor will then recommend the type of edit that would best fit the manuscript based on the findings.
An assessment can be overwhelming to an author—just from the sheer amount of information one usually contains. Added to the fact there is nearly always criticism in some form, we always tell authors to read through it first and then close the file, walk away, and come back to it a day or so later. That allows the information to sink in while giving the author some distance to avoid taking the critique personally. Will an assessment hurt? Sure, it can sting. No one likes having her hard work criticized. But it’s a necessary tool in the growth process, for both the author and the manuscript. No person, author or not, will grow if never challenged, and friends and family who cheer for an author make a fabulous support system, but when it comes to giving honest constructive criticism, they usually don’t meet the criteria.
Once an assessment is complete, it is up to the author to either take the suggestions and work with the editor through the editing process… or not. Like the proverb says, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” An editor can only supply the information. The author has to make the decision that she feels is best for her. Personally, I think all manuscripts should be assessed first, to determine what type of edit would be suitable and to ensure all manuscripts that pass through Write Divas have the best chance possible of being a best-seller.