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Editorial Assessments: Finding Music in the Noise

by | Aug 8, 2016

By Rebecca Faith Heyman

One of the biggest mistakes I see authors make is jumping into line editing and proofreading of manuscript drafts that still have room for developmental growth. Don’t get me wrong—a book can be transformed in important ways during editing focused on language choices, sentence structure, grammar and punctuation. But that kind of work is sophisticated, the fine-tuning of an instrument already producing beautiful music. Too often, I see authors paying for line-level edits when their manuscripts are still more cacophony than symphony.

So if authors shouldn’t focus on line editing, what should they focus on? The most valuable editorial intervention for authors—novice and professional alike—is an Editorial Assessment. The Assessment (aka Manuscript Critique) evaluates the core elements of your novel:

  • premise
  • plot
  • setting
  • characterization
  • conflicts
  • pacing
  • tension
  • diction
  • world-building
  • other fundamentals of cohesive story production

An Assessment can provide high-level feedback on nuanced issues like the treatment of time in a manuscript, or touch on more foundational elements like authentic character-building and plot continuity.

Before I elaborate on what an Editorial Assessment is, when it’s most useful, and how much it will likely cost, I want to clarify what the Assessment is not. A good Editorial Assessment from a trained professional editor is NOT a beta read. Beta readers provide feedback based on their personal experience relating to your book; an Editorial Assessment is an in-depth analysis of your manuscript from someone who’s made a serious study of the art of writing and storytelling, and can understand not only what your story is in its current form, but what it aspires to be—what it can become. Both forms of feedback can be valuable, but the Editorial Assessment has the edge when it comes to high-level, objective critique.

A Tough-Love Letter

At its heart, the Editorial Assessment is a love letter from editor to author. Let me rephrase: The Editorial Assessment is a tough love letter from editor to author.

It all starts with a close reading of your manuscript—meaning:

  • an editor actively takes notes
  • analyzes text
  • assesses content as she reads

There’s no right or wrong way for an editor to approach this phase, as long as the process leads to her pervasive understanding of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses.

With the insight she’s gained from the close reading, your editor constructs a report or “edit letter” detailing her findings. This is where that “tough love” idea comes into play. Like all professional critiques, Editorial Assessments should never be rude, snarky, sarcastic or dismissive—but they should lay bare the problems in your manuscript, even if that means dismantling your core premise or recommending the ruthless killing-off of a beloved darling. The thoughtfulness, creativity and careful attention an editor brings to your manuscript is its own kind of love—a sometimes harsh, but always constructive kind.

When, Why and Who

When is the best time to seek out an Editorial Assessment? The easy answer is…it’s complicated.

Scott Pack, a fellow Reedsy editor and one of the site’s top providers of Editorial Assessments, notes how universally useful this kind of feedback can be:

“Some authors want reassurance after an early draft that they aren’t barking up the wrong tree,” he told me. “Others may be on a third or fourth draft and are a bit stuck and want some guidance. Still others are pretty much ready to submit but want the security of an industry professional’s approval before sending to agents or publishers.”

For authors working with early drafts, the feedback in an Editorial Assessment might lead to a total rewrite; for more polished drafts, an Assessment might focus on high-level insights about thematic development or character dimensionality. In either case, the editor should offer clarity about what your manuscript is doing well, where there’s room for improvement, and how you might go about making changes.

A caveat: Not every manuscript—or author—is ready for this kind of critique. Even an early draft must be somewhat solid. Before seeking out an editor, make sure your manuscript demonstrates coherent grammar, structure, diction and plot. Authors still finding their way in the fundamental craft of writing are better served by intensive programs of reading good-quality literature, and taking advantage of the many free online resources available to help writers build basic skills.


Reedsy recently published an analysis of the costs associated with self-publishing, which revealed an average Editorial Assessment price of $900 USD for 80,000-word manuscripts. That might seem steep for an editorial service that doesn’t include line-level corrections, but consider this: Hiring an editor to proofread a manuscript that has inherent developmental problems is a waste of time and money. I recently consulted with an author who had spent thousands on line-level edits…only to have me tell him that his YA novel was actually Middle Grade. Once he realized the truth of that revelation, he was faced with the task of cutting about 40,000 words from his manuscript—40,000 words he’d already paid to have proofread.

Though you’ll encounter a range of prices on Reedsy and other freelancer marketplaces, expect to pay between $10-12 USD per 1,000 words for an Editorial Assessment. In exchange, you should receive a fairly lengthy edit letter. Scott Pack and I average 3,500-5,000 words for Assessments (that’s 7-10 single-spaced pages, or 14-20 double-spaced). Both of us also include a post-critique conference in the cost of the Assessment, which is sometimes the most valuable aspect of the collaboration. Via phone or Skype, my authors and I discuss:

  • the feedback
  • brainstorm revisions
  • address questions and concerns
  • strategize how to proceed toward the author’s publishing goals

Not every editor includes this kind of conferencing in their contract, but at the very least you should have an opportunity to ask questions via email. You can also request a Skype or phone conference at the freelancer’s hourly consultation rate if a conference isn’t included in the original scope of work.

Be Choosy

Think you’re ready for an Editorial Assessment? Narrowing the field can be tricky. Experienced editors should be able to provide you with a sample edit letter for your review, which should help you find someone whose critique style and insight resonate with your sensibilities. Since most freelancers won’t take on projects without first reading a short sample of your work, you should also pay close attention to any early feedback the editor provides in her proposal.

  • What’s this person’s strategy?
  • How will she process your work?
  • How long will the editorial letter be?
  • How long will it take to produce?

Finally, don’t hesitate to ask for a reference; talk to authors the editor has worked with in the past if you’re unsure, and as always, voice your questions or concerns up-front so your editor knows what matters to you.

An Editorial Assessment can help you find the music amid the noise of an early draft, or fine-tune subtle harmonies in more polished manuscripts. Wherever you are in your work, consider the value of editing the big picture before you get bogged down in line-level concerns. Your manuscript—and your wallet—will thank you.

Rebecca Heyman head shot x125Rebecca Faith Heyman has spent the last decade as a freelance editor known for a no-nonsense, compassionate, creative style. She works with self- and traditionally published authors; her clients are represented by New Leaf Literary & Media, the Jennifer Lyons Agency, Miller & Browne, Donadio & Olson, Literary Arts Representatives, Triada and more, and have published with the Big Five as well as independent presses. Rebecca is the founder and director of The Work Conference, an annual boutique writers’ event in New York City. Connect with her via Twitter (@RFaithEditorial) or find her on Reedsy here.

Photo: pixabay.com

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