How to do an initial manuscript assessment

Initial Manuscript Assessment

Before you agree to do an edit, you need to review the ms to help set expectations. If the ms will take more than one round of editing to develop—that is, it has more big-picture problems than you can reasonably address and the author can reasonably revise in one round—then you need to know that, and state it, upfront.

Take into consideration both the state of the ms and the author’s experience. A mss that’s in rough shape written by a beginning author will probably need at least two rounds of development. One that needs a bit of work but has an experienced author behind it can probably be edited in one round.

This initial ms assessment is a useful tool for helping determine how a particular edit is likely to go. Don’t spend more than half an hour or so on it, and don’t share a lot of details with the author/client—this is for your purposes, not theirs.

What to look for in an initial ms assessment:

  • Look for things like a lot of unnecessary exposition (information meant to explain everything about how the character got to the point where the story begins), especially in the early scenes;
  • slow scenes in the middle of the book that don’t seem to do much to move the action forward;
  • endings that seem rushed;
  • lack of concrete world-building/setting (characters could be anywhere, or seem to be interacting on a cloud);
  • characters doing things because the plot needs them to and not because they would naturally do those things under the circumstances;
  • any type of misunderstanding of genre—the signs that say “there’s a lot of work to do here.”

Now, the author may not have the budget for two or more rounds of dev. That means you need to state what you can realistically accomplish in the edit. Or maybe you can do a first round that consists of a revision letter (no actual edits) and a second, more intensive edit once the first revision is done. Or, maybe a coaching approach would work better because the payment could be spread out over time.

As you can see, I expect to review a full ms before I begin an edit. Many editors schedule edits far in advance, so authors who haven’t finished their mss will book an edit in January to take place in June, when they expect the ms to be complete.

But this approach creates big problems for editors: What happens when the author doesn’t finish the ms in time? That’s typical of the writing process. It’s not making widgets. Not to mention, authors have families, day jobs—endless piles of their own obligations that can affect a writing schedule.

The result? The author ends up turning in an unfinished ms, so as not to lose her down payment. Or she asks the editor to reschedule, and now the editor has two weeks with nothing to do and nothing to bill. The editor can penalize the author by keeping the down payment, which is fair enough in the abstract but does that really create warm fuzzies in one’s clientele?

Even if the author rushes to finish the ms by the appointed time, it’s likely to come in with excuses: “I know X and Y need to be fixed.” Well, if the author knows these problems need to be fixed, why is this ms on my desk?

Even if you disregard those sets of problems, how can you quote a fair project fee if you don’t know what the project entails? If you haven’t seen the full ms, you don’t know what’s wrong with it. You end up quoting all projects by length—but ms length is only one very small factor in how long a good dev edit will take to do.

It’s possible for this approach to work when dealing with publishers who have a gatekeeper winnowing out the worst of the mss, or if you’ve worked with a certain indie author before and know s/he’ll hit the deadline and deliver a ms in reasonably good shape, but otherwise it’s a challenge to run an editing business effectively if you don’t know what kind of work you’ll be dealing with before you’ve already agreed to edit it.

Even if you decide to quote per-word fees, knowing how to do a quick manuscript assessment will help you schedule your time effectively.

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