Manuscript assessments - Kirstie Innes-Will

15 April 2013 / 3 comments

If you are serious about your manuscript, I highly recommend commissioning a professional manuscript assessment. I have had two manuscript assessments done and each time I have received 5 or 6 pages of carefully considered notes that have made me think more deeply about my own work. Friends and family make fantastic readers, but once you get your manuscript to a certain point it is worth engaging a professional to help you take it to the next level. I asked manuscript assessor Kirstie Innes-Will more about commissioning a professional manuscript appraisal ...

At what stage should a writer commission a manuscript assessment on their book?
The best time to do so is when the writer has taken the work to a stage where they are reasonably satisfied with it but where they wish to get feedback on how it comes across to a 'fresh' reader. Alternatively, it may be that the writer is aware that some elements of the work are not working as well as they might but lacks the confidence or skill to push it to that next level - this is also an appropriate time to get a manuscript assessment, as it can often help the writer move from the fuzzy 'something still feels off' feeling to a specific 'ah! what I need to do is XXX' stage of revision.

Many writers seek manuscript assessments prior to putting their work forward to an agent or publisher. One of the reasons for this is that it is rarer these days for publishers to take on new works that require extensive substantive editing. An effective manuscript assessment should give an author some concrete feedback with which to initiate their own structural edit on the work and thus improve its appeal to potential publishers.

Self-publishing writers also greatly benefit from manuscript assessments. As well as offering the usual feedback, a manuscript assessment for a self-publisher can include an appraisal of how much copyediting or proofreading of the work would normally (professionally) be done and what could be successfully achieved within their budget (if applicable).

What sort of feedback do you give to writers on their work?
Manuscript assessments can be very flexible, depending on the work in question and the publishing objectives. I personally always begin by asking writers where they themselves feel the piece needs work - what is niggling at them? Where do they lack confidence? Often writers know in advance where their weak spots are - either because they have already received general feedback that, for instance, their plotting, pace or narrative voice needs works, or because their 'spider' senses tingle and tell them something isn't working ideally yet. In making my assessment, I then make sure to address these points - often writers are spot on, other times they may be unaware of other issues that in fact overshadow their primary concerns.

A good manuscript assessment should focus on specifics. These may have to do with plot, pace, narrative, character motivation and development, dialogue, description, consistency, voice, tone, point of view, use of research and so on. I usually give an overview of my reactions to the work and how effective I feel it is as a whole and then point out specific areas that I feel need work. If I think a piece is structurally unsound and would most benefit substantial reworking, I will say so, as my professional opinion is being paid for. However, I will also gauge how willing or not the writer is to do this and will not spend undue time labouring a point if it's clear that a writer has (rightly or wrongly!) ruled out a certain option. At the end of the day, the work is in the author's hands and my job is to give them feedback that will help them produce their best possible version of it.

Manuscript assessments are not edits or proofreads - and it's important that writers are clear about this. However, if I see a recurring technical issue (incorrect use of semi-colons or repeated misspellings) I will often point it out. Likewise, with self-publishing authors, I will comment on layout and typography if this is being self-managed. In the case of non-fiction works, writers often need assistance with understanding technical aspects such as commissioning illustrations or indexing and I can offer this advice as part of the service if necessary.

What are the benefits of having a manuscript assessment done?
I believe the primary benefit is one of holding up a mirror so the writer can see how their work is received by an intelligent, thoughtful reader. One of the hardest things about writing is being so close to your own work that you cannot see it objectively any more - gaining constructive feedback is invaluable. A manuscript assessment gives a writer a specific focus list of things to work on in order to improve a work.

Twitter: @kirstieaiw


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