Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

There is no question that writers who approach me for an objective assessment of their unpublished manuscripts are passionate about what they have written, whether it is a work of fiction or non-fiction. However, even though some writers have more ‘talent’ than others, many lose the ability to be objective; it takes courage to plunge into the icy, foreign waters in search of a professional to provide them with a critique of their writing. It takes even greater courage to read an appraisal written by a total stranger who will probably offer ideas for ‘improvement’: it may be suggested that a character needs fine-tuning, or even ‘murdering’, or that a chapter in a non-fiction manuscript diverges from the subject matter and halts the logical flow of material. Manuscript assessors mean well, even if they may seem mean or too critical; making a few changes that make sense before submitting your manuscript to a publisher or editor may avoid total disillusionment or, worse, rejection.

The acclaimed French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) was once asked in an interview what advice she had for aspiring writers. Her startling response was, “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his [or her] own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” In other words, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944) said in his lecture, ‘On Style’ (1914):  Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. American writer, William Faulkner (1897-1963), also chipped in: In writing, you must kill all your darlings. A journalist and fellow arts student offered this summation based on his personal experience: “In other, more mundane words, be hypercritical of anything you have written that you find particularly satisfying. It’s the toughest piece of advice on writing I have ever contemplated because it reveals the self-serving bias that lies at the heart of our capacity for cool judgment.”

The truth is that when we love someone or something, we lose all sense of objectivity. It’s also true that a writer who is developing a writing career must become less sensitive about objective criticism. Editors can unapologetically destroy a writer’s self-esteem by suggesting complete rewrites so it is a wise move to have your manuscript assessed before going down that slippery slope. Traditional avenues for publishing are diminishing and the selection process is becoming more and more ruthless. Accordingly, it is imperative that a well-crafted manuscript is submitted. I will not be covering supplementary submission material in this article such as the cover letter and synopsis, but it is paramount that these are not rushed or left to the last minute. Most publishers and agents will read the supplementary material first: if it doesn’t engage them immediately, or if they judge the writing to be sub-standard, then they may not read the accompanying sample material.

It often takes many years of blood, sweat and tears for a writer to craft and fine-tune a manuscript. The first draft will never be the last. Even writing these articles for my website, I am conscious of the fact that they aren’t edited or proofread by someone else. Ernest Hemingway’s voice is always in my head: The first draft of anything is shit. Consequently, without fail, I write my first draft then leave it for a few days before revisiting with a critical eye—but it’s quite possible that I still find mistakes when I re-read my writing weeks or months later!

As a manuscript assessor I provide a cost-effective, objective critique in the form of a comprehensive written report that comments on the structure, plot, characterisation, voice, point of view, readability, and the balance of dialogue and prose in fiction; and in non-fiction writing I focus on structure, tone, themes, content development, formatting, use of research, and overall suitability for the intended readership. Obvious grammar issues are commented on, and editing of the final draft is always recommended. In every manuscript there are strengths and weaknesses, which I am always eager to point out to the writer. Sometimes a rollicking narrative, or even an interesting memoir, stalls due to the insertion of a bland backstory: salting short slabs of backstory more deftly throughout the narrative ensures that the reader remains engaged and doesn’t get lost, or bored. Memoir requires savvy control of the regurgitation of the author’s reality, with voice an important tool in establishing credibility. I have assessed some wonderful memoirs written in the unique voice of the writer; I have also read sensationalised memoirs that would have distanced readers if published without the suggestion of a ‘cool down’. On many occasions a redraft is returned to me for editing and/or proofreading or I end up mentoring a client following a manuscript assessment!

Objective assessments bring fresh perspectives, which may not always be the only alternative or answer, but writers need an open mind, whether they are new writers or experienced authors. Keep in mind what so many seasoned and successful authors have advised: sometimes what you love most in your work is what you need to murder.

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” (Stephen King)

But I like Virginia Woolf’s gentle encouragement best:

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Writing is a challenging gig and the vulnerable writer needs to develop a tough hide. My role as a manuscript assessor is to provide respectful, constructive criticism and offer viable suggestions as to where there may be gaps or issues in the manuscript so the writer can redraft before approaching a publisher or editor. If you would rather self-publish then a manuscript appraisal will give you professional feedback so you can polish your work and publish with confidence. Why not take the plunge?

 

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘Erasmus of Rotterdam’, 1523, Le Louvre, Paris

 

If you’re ready to have your manuscript assessed, whether it is a complete manuscript or a work-in-progress, then please email me via my contact page with a brief overview of your project. A manuscript appraisal looks at the big picture and does not correct mistakes or make comments directly on the manuscript; this service is provided in the editing or proofreading process.

 

Featured painting: Vincent van Gogh, ‘The Novel Reader’, 1888, 92 x 73cm, private collection

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