A manuscript assessment has several names: assessment, critique, analysis, evaluation, etc. But what does it do? It is an editor’s evaluation of a story as a whole. It points out the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript to help the author find problem areas at an early stage in the writing and polishing process. The assessment looks at several areas that contribute to the overall construction and success of a story and offers ways to improve.
When should an author get a manuscript assessment?
Typically after the second or third draft when the author has cleaned up the first draft and tightened up the story a bit. It’s usually when the author wants to know if the story has promise and can no longer see objectively where to improve the story or is at a loss about how to fix certain elements. An editor with a fresh unbiased perspective will read the story and offer an honest critique of where to improve and how to do it.
But what specifically should an author expect from an assessment? This can vary from one editor to the next, but most assessments will check the following elements of the manuscript. Please keep in mind this list is not all-inclusive.
The assessment will answer such questions such as: Is there a plot or enough of one to carry the story? Is the story plot driven or character driven? And is there enough conflict to drive the story forward? Most fiction revolves around the story of what happens to characters as they move toward the impending climax. Most conflict is either man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, or man vs. society. An assessment will evaluate the plot, conflict, and later climax and resolution for the strengths and weaknesses. If a story climaxes too soon, everything that follows the resolution (especially if the resolution is too long) feels tacked on and unnecessary. If a story climaxes too late and has little time for a satisfying resolution or ends in a cliffhanger, the reader is left unsatisfied and feels cheated.
Other factors come into play here as well, such as the reasons for the conflict and the motivations of the characters involved and how they react; whether the conflict is serious enough to affect a change in the characters; do the characters rise to the occasion; is the antagonist a worthy opponent, etc. An assessment will point out those areas that need improvement and those elements that work.
Oftentimes setting is called world building. This is because in some stories—such as science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian—the setting is everything. If the world where a story is set in does not make sense or does not address the fundamental questions of how things work, readers may not engage. A book with a great setting is one where the world makes sense within the universe and era and complements the story without taking over. World building is still important even in stories that don’t have complicated settings. The setting is the backdrop of the story. If it doesn’t make sense or fit the characters circumstances, the reader will not feel connected or will fail to identify with it. An assessment will find issues with setting, whether big or small, and offer ways to improve.
Pacing can be used to drive the emotion of the scene for the reader. The quicker the pace, the more exciting the scene. The pacing of a story is one of the reasons the reader continues to turn the pages instead of putting down the book. If the pacing is too slow or never varies, the reader will get bored. If it’s too fast, the reader may feel lost and fail to connect with the characters.
Different genres have different pacing as well. One of my favorite genres is the thriller, typically spy or espionage. One of the reasons I enjoy this genre is because of the fast pace and what feels like non-stop action. I don’t want to put the book down. But I also like historical novels, which tend to move slower. As a reader, I expect a different pace from the different genres. But regardless of the book, I expect the pace to speed up and slow down throughout the story. Why? Because non-stop action tires out the reader and feels redundant if the reader does not get a break. Just as a slower paced novel that never speeds up will lose a reader’s interest if nothing is happening. A well-paced novel will fit the genre in which it is written and will speed up and slow down throughout the story to create variety and interest. An assessment will check the pacing and offer suggestions to improve if necessary.
This is one of those areas that can really make or break a story. Why? Because if readers fail to care for or connect with the characters, the readers won’t care enough to finish the book or it will leave them wanting. An assessment will look at the characters and discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly and suggest ways to improve. The editor may ask what drives a character, what their hopes and fears are, and if these affect behavior. Characters that are multifaceted and flawed are successful because readers can identify with them and the circumstances of the story. An assessment will pinpoint those traits and behaviors that work and those that need further development.
Voice and Tone
The voice of a story is something that is uniquely the author’s. This is where the author’s personality shines through. The voice can set the author’s books apart from others because it can be a direct reflection of the author’s personality and makes those books identifiable works of that particular author. Once an author has “found their voice,” he or she needs to work on developing it to stand out from the crowd, infusing the writing with a unique personality so these books have a voice that is distinctly their own.
The tone of the writing can be technical, funny, sad, bittersweet, formal, angry, funny, satirical, scientific, dark, warm, etc. Tone is the general mood or overall feel of a piece of writing. This can vary from book to book, depending on the subject and genre. An editor assessing an author’s writing can help identify the author’s voice and tone of the story and offer guidance through word choice, sentence construction, story presentation, etc. to improve without changing the author’s voice.
In addition to these elements, some editors might offer advice on a variety of elements such as structural integrity, persistent grammar and punctuation issues, redundancies, mundane detail, incorrect use of literary elements, etc.
What should an author not expect from a manuscript assessment?
A manuscript assessment is not a developmental edit, content edit, copy edit, proofread, or line edit. Those types of edits come later. A manuscript assessment looks at the big picture.
Manuscript assessments are designed to help authors improve their stories and their writing craft. So, consider hiring an editor (* cough * Write Divas * cough *) to assess your next manuscript.