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All about manuscript assessment

The following article was commissioned by Writing WA and written by John Harman.
© Writing WA Inc 2014

Congratulations! You have just completed the first draft of your novel or non-fiction book and you are probably feeling pretty pleased with yourself. And so you should. It’s no mean feat to write anywhere between 70,000 to 140,000 words in the hope of seeing them published. Now you may be contemplating sending your precious manuscript off for a professional manuscript assessment. Well … don’t even think about it.

Many emerging writers have their manuscript assessed far too early in the game; often on completion of their first draft. This means they find themselves paying a professional assessor good money to be told what they could have discovered for themselves if only they had worked on the manuscript to produce a second – perhaps even a third – draft. As a manuscript assessor, I frequently see manuscripts submitted too early; as a professional writer, as well as a teacher of creative writing, I both know and stress the importance of learning how to assess and edit your own manuscript.

Only when you have taken your manuscript (MS) as far as you think you can take it – assessed and analysed it against all the elements of narrative structure, honed your writing style through eagle-eyed and ruthless editing – should you think about submitting it for a manuscript assessment. Of course by that stage you may think your MS does not need a professional assessment – and you may be absolutely right.

Way back in the day, this process of self-assessment and editing their own work was the only option open to writers. Manuscript assessors are a new breed: well, relatively new: the last twenty years or so. The business of assessing manuscripts emerged with the increase in the number of keyboards, which, linked to the ubiquity of personal computers and cheap printers, prompted the notion in many people that now they had the means of production they should write a book.

Suddenly publishers were flooded. They had always been swamped by manuscript submissions; now their slush piles were the size of slag heaps.

So publishers ring-fenced their businesses and announced they would only take manuscripts from literary agents, who in turn found themselves drowning in the deluge of unsolicited manuscripts. As literary agents are basically a cottage industry and generally quite small, they couldn’t cope: prospective writers found themselves waiting months for a response to even a letter or email, which, when it came, was usually negative. Many agents also ring-fenced their businesses and duly announced they would not consider unsolicited manuscripts.

Hence, the rise of manuscript assessors who, apart from anything else, have become publishing’s unofficial outer ring fence, the entry-level gatekeepers. A favourable assessment from a qualified assessor may go some way in persuading an agent to take a look at your synopsis or even your whole manuscript.

There is, however, a fundamental difference with manuscript assessors – you pay them; a manuscript assessor provides a saleable service. You do not pay literary agents to read your MS – not legitimate ones anyway – and you don’t pay publishers, unless you are intent on self-publishing.

Because paying a manuscript assessor entitles you to rights and expectations, it’s important to realise that manuscript assessment is a cottage industry. There is no association of manuscript assessors; we do not meet in smoke-filled rooms to conspire against our customers (I’ve only ever met one other assessor) and, most importantly, there are no barriers to entry. Anyone can call themselves a manuscript assessor and as publishing has its fair share of villains and corner-creepers, you need to be aware of what you can legitimately expect from an assessment – how you may select a good assessor and how much you can expect to pay.

Firstly, the assessor will view everything in the light of your type of book or story – its genre. Do the events work and are the characters authentic within the world of the story? With that in mind, the assessor will slowly and methodically pick apart and analyse all the narrative strands in your manuscript.

How well does the plot or, in the case of a non-fiction book, the narrative arc, work? Does the plot or narrative arc have causality: is it plausible that one event triggers another? Is there believable conflict at more than one level? Are the obstacles facing the protagonists real and credible in the context of the narrative or are they contrived and inconsequential?

Are the characters three-dimensional and authentic? Do they stand out from one another? Is their motivation strong enough; are they up to the rigours of the plot? Do they grow and change so that, by the end of the story, they are different people?

What about the dialogue: are the personalities of the characters reflected in the way they speak? Do they speak differently to one another? Does the dialogue move the plot, provide backstory, reveal meaningful insight into character?

Is the story subtly told, with an adroit use of exposition in which important events are shown rather than told? Is the world of the story introduced progressively? What about the characters’ backstories … are they told through a lot of info-dump? Does the structure of the story work; if there are flashbacks do they provide more depth and dimension to the story? Can the chronology be altered or played with to give the tale more torque?

Does the point of view (POV) work? Would the story work better in first or third person?  Is the ‘voice’ of the narrator anonymous or not? Is it consistent and appropriate to the story?

What about the writing style? Is it appropriate to the genre? Can the writer use language well? Does the writing have inconsistencies in grammar or punctuation or word use? Does the writing flow?

These and many other elements are what the assessor analyses and reports on in a document that can run from eight to twenty pages. That report will identify the elements in the story that don’t work by referencing MS page numbers so that you, the assessee, can identify the problems. The manuscript itself is likely to have many pages heavily annotated with editorial comments and marks.

A good manuscript assessment will highlight holes in the story, deficiencies in its elements, and solecisms in the writing. It will pinpoint the glitches and inconsistencies that may prevent an editor or agent from taking an interest in the MS.

Though the assessment may be critical, it should also be constructively positive, not only outlining the areas where the story needs work but also recommending what needs to be done. And of course highlighting the places where the story really works and the writing sings.

So how do you find a good manuscript assessor?

The Literati directory on this site is the first place you should visit.

A list of manuscript assessors throughout Australia is available at The Australian Writer’s Marketplace which you can subscribe to online.

How do you know which one to choose?  The only way to know is to ask questions. Some assessors list the genres in which they specialise, while those assessors who have been in the business long enough have assessed all genres. Even so, it may help you decide if you ask what genre the assessor prefers to work in.

You definitely need to ask what the assessment and report will cover in detail. You may also need to know how the MS should be laid out. The assessor should be willing to supply that information straight away. It doesn’t hurt to ask to see a typical page of a previous assessment report. It’s easy enough for the assessor to make this anonymous and it will allow you to see what you may be in for.

One of the most vital lines of enquiry is to establish the assessor’s experience. You need someone who has been around the publishing industry for a number of years, preferably as a published writer, although lengthy experience as an editor in a mainstream publishing house is also good. Editing experience in mainstream publishing is important because the editor knows the commercial pressures publishers are under (a writer already knows this). One of the most important considerations an assessor will apply to your MS is whether it is commercial: will it sell? Only considerable writing or editorial experience enables an assessor to know what works commercially and what doesn’t.

Another essential question should be: who is actually going to undertake the assessment? Some assessors run businesses that employ outside readers/assessors. You might wish to ask yourself whether you really want your manuscript to be assessed by an undergraduate in creative writing. The person who assesses your MS should be the person with the experience.

Some assessors call their business an ‘agency’. To my mind, that’s a marketing ploy and is overstating the role of the assessor. I think you are entitled to ask how the assessor intends to ‘agent’ you as a writer. A manuscript assessment is a service which may smooth the path of the emerging writer to a greater or lesser extent but there is no ‘agenting’ relationship as far as I can see.

What about cost? Well, an assessment isn’t cheap. A good, deeply analytical assessment will take a few hours a day over a period of weeks. The cost will vary depending on the length of your manuscript and the type assessment you are seeking.  As a guide to what you might expect to pay, an assessment of a manuscript of 70,000 words is likely to start at between $700 and $900 and increase depending on the level of input you seek; for a manuscript of 100,000 words, the range will start between $900 and $1,000.

So what, in the final analysis, do you get for your money? Three major benefits accrue from a manuscript assessment:

Firstly, it is just that – an assessment. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines assessment as ‘estimating the worth or extent of; (to) evaluate’. The word ‘appraisal’ has pretty much the same definition and hence the terms ‘manuscript assessment’ and ‘manuscript appraisal’ are often interchangeable. The word assessment has connotations of something being assessed in comparison to something else. The manuscript assessment compares the MS in all its aspects to the standard of storytelling and writing that an agent or editor will be looking for, which is much higher than most emerging writers realise. The assessment shows the height of the bar the writer must get over and what he or she needs to do to get over it.

Secondly, the assessment is objective. Getting your partner, Auntie Maud or Cousin George to read your MS is fraught with danger. You may think they’re typical readers but they are not typical agents or editors. And you are never going to know what they really think – not if they love you. Similarly, sending the MS to someone you know who once had something published is even more dangerous. If your MS is good they may get jealous and slate it; if it has deficiencies, they may break your heart by telling you everything that’s wrong with it.

A manuscript assessor is entirely objective. The assessor has no personal relationship with you (often you will never meet except via Skype or Facetime or email). The assessment is totally focused on the manuscript.

Finally, the assessment is completely honest. If you are a naturally good writer then the assessment may save you years of trial and error by pointing out what you do well and what you need to polish. If you are not naturally talented, then the assessment will show you how far you will have to go – how hard you will need to work – to achieve the standard that agents and editors expect. Some people do it; they go the distance because they badly want to write. One of my assessees claims that since my original assessment of his manuscript draft he has reworked it twenty-one times. My assessment was rigorous; the manuscript was lacking in almost everything. Now, three years later, that person is published and has an additional two-book contract from a major publisher.

Just as importantly, a tough, rigorous assessment may allow someone to realise that writing isn’t for them, that the work required is just too much. This realisation may save that person a lifetime of rejection by agents and editors without ever knowing why. Agents and editors are (usually) too busy to tell emerging writers what’s wrong with their work. A good assessment will do just that.

If the assessment is positive, the writer will want to mention it in an email or letter to an agent or editor. Some assessors will supply a short note of recommendation for the writer to send off or attach to the email. Unless the manuscript is a work of genius, the recommendation is unlikely to say that in the assessor’s opinion the MS should be published, as that’s a subjective opinion. It will say that the manuscript is worth reading by an agent or editor. That may not sound like much – not for all the hard work and effort you put in to writing your manuscript; for all the labour and anxiety you expended editing it; nor for the money you spent getting it assessed. But coming from a recognised assessor, believe me, it is. It happens only in about twenty per cent of cases.

A good manuscript assessment, coming at the right time in your career and the life of your manuscript, can be of inestimable benefit to you as a writer. It’s your opportunity to be told the absolute, unvarnished truth about your writing by someone who knows how to tell it.

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