Marie Alafaci demystifies the manuscript assessment process.
Writing is a solitary endeavour. If you’re lucky enough to have supportive friends and family who are familiar with your genre or you’re part of a writing group, you may have received some constructive feedback. However, even if everyone loves your style and their comments are encouraging, you may still want a professional opinion. Perhaps you’re unsure if the story has a satisfying resolution, or maybe you’ve hit a creative wall. Perhaps you want to fine-tune the manuscript before submitting the work to a publisher. Whatever your reason for seeking a manuscript assessment, before you proceed, it’s a good idea to know what an assessment won’t do.
Misconception 1: An assessment will bring your first draft to a publishable standard
I’m not sure where this idea comes from – wishful thinking on the part of inexperienced writers or money-grubbing from unscrupulous operators – but an assessment is just a step towards publication (if this is what you are seeking). An assessment’s objective is to identify what work there is still to be done in the manuscript, and this usually involves substantial time and effort on the part of the author.
Issues that an assessor might pick up include plot problems, undeveloped characters and inconsistencies (of voice, style or tense, for example). They may also discuss more complex issues such as rewriting (or removing) scenes and chapters that aren’t working or even changing point of view. Assessors’ reports will, of course, include praise when it is warranted but you should expect constructive and robust feedback.
Any criticisms of the work are made to help an author identify what they need to do to improve the work and their craft. If you’re seeking effusive praise, perhaps an assessment is not for you. It’s rare for an assessor to receive a first draft of a manuscript that is ready for submission.
Misconception 2: An assessment will teach me how to correct errors in my writing
While some assessors are also creative writing teachers, an assessment isn’t a writing course. Assessors might comment on which scenes slow down the plot or when the text contains over-writing, but they won’t fix these issues for you, nor will they teach you how to overcome them. Their job is to highlight where your writing needs to improve and give you some guidance on how you might go about this, such as reading books which showcase the techniques you are trying to master, joining a writing group or attending workshops on specific writing techniques.
Misconception 3: An assessment will merely provide false praise in return for money
Most assessors know that their job is to read your work and make suggestions as to how it could be improved. They see their role as a great privilege – they get to read the early work of authors at all stages of their writing careers. Being able to recognise what authors are trying to do and know that they can help them achieve their goals is one of the joys of the job. No assessor wants to see their clients misled, or their own reputation trashed. Be wary of an assessor who only offers praise.
Misconception 4: A letter of recommendation from a manuscript assessor will fast-track your work to publication
Letters of recommendation rarely make a jot of difference in the acquisition process. Publishers relish the discovery of new voices, and for a manuscript to be offered a contract, the whole acquisition team needs to agree that it should be published. While the commissioning editor may champion a particular manuscript, the sales and marketing teams, among others, influence the final decision. Publishers are not charities; they need to make an overall profit so that they can publish the next book and the one after that.
Acquisition is always a commercial decision, so an external person’s opinion is largely irrelevant.
It is true that an assessment may help you to improve your work, perhaps making it more attractive to a publisher, but a letter of recommendation doesn’t guarantee publication and assessments are not marketing tools. In fact, some publishers find the inclusion of letters of recommendation irritating and feel there’s something presumptuous about an assessor telling them whose work they should publish. So, it’s best not to include them in your submission unless they are specifically mentioned in the publisher’s submission guidelines.
There’s always something you can learn from an assessment: stylistic idiosyncrasies you didn’t realise you had or techniques you hadn’t realised you could try. But perhaps the greatest benefit writers gain from an assessment is the permission to treat their work as a professional endeavour and to make connections with others who understand what it means to write. It won’t make writing any less solitary, but it can go some way towards minimising that feeling of isolation.
About Marie Alafaci
Marie Alafaci is an author, Writers Victoria tutor and manuscript assessor. She was a participant at the inaugural Manuscript Assessors Conference held at Writers Victoria in 2014 and has run a manuscript assessment business, Bedlam Books, for nearly twenty years with her business partner, Emma Hegarty.
For more information about manuscript assessments, click here.