Four Options for a Fiction Manuscript Evaluation

POSTED ON Sep 30, 2015

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If you’re writing a novel, you may be looking ahead to getting feedback on your finished draft. We’ve written before about how to get feedback from beta readers. Another option is to hire a professional editor to give you a manuscript evaluation.

What does a manuscript evaluation involve? Actually, it can mean a few different things, based on the stage you’re at in your writing, what kind of feedback you’re hoping for, and—possibly most important to you—your budget. Every editor has his or her own process and method for evaluating a manuscript. What follows are just a few of the many options available.

Different Kinds of Evaluations

Manuscript evaluations can be grouped based on how much of your book the editor reads and the kind of feedback they provide. And as you’ll see, there are pros and cons to each kind.

Full Evaluation with Editorial Letter
In this kind of evaluation, the editor will read your entire manuscript and comment on elements like point of view, plot, character, voice, structure, pacing, themes, imagery, and more. Editors work from a checklist as they read, making notes in a template they’ve designed to guide the feedback process. It includes the elements mentioned above, with extra space for particular concerns or questions.

Usually, they won’t mark up your manuscript at this stage. Feedback comes in a formal, comprehensive editorial letter based on the template notes, and it might be as long as 15 to 20 pages. It’s basically an essay about your novel. Many editors use the format for evaluation recommended in Barbara Sjoholm’s book, An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors.

  • Pros
    For experienced writers and those who want comprehensive feedback on all aspects of their novel, the editorial letter is gold. It gives authors a well-organized document to refer back to as they work through revisions, and the depth of the editor’s observations and comments often helps authors see their work in a new way. Authors can only hope that readers will take as much time with their book as an editor does in this kind of analysis.
  • Cons
    As manuscript evaluations go, this is the most expensive. You are paying for the editor’s time and expertise. Reading a full manuscript takes time, of course, but crafting a thoughtful editorial letter is equally, if not more, demanding. As well, for new or inexperienced writers, this level of commentary can be overwhelming. It might be more information than a fledgling novelist can handle, especially if they’ve handed the editor a first draft. Other options might be more suitable at this stage.


Full Evaluation with a Focus on Tools
For this kind of evaluation, an editor will read your full manuscript and use revision and tracking tools to highlight important features. The tools themselves can speak volumes, and feedback also comes as notes and comments, which might be added to a spreadsheet, for example, if that’s the tracking tool in use. When the author has had a chance to review this feedback, the editor might follow up with a meeting on Skype or Google Hangouts.

Do you know what kind of learner you are? Sometimes seeing a visual representation can make all the difference in helping you understand a problem area in your fiction manuscript. For example, marking plot points on a graph gives you a true picture of rising and falling action. Using charts to track beats and other story elements gives you a snapshot of the big picture.

FourOptions Image 1

Charts like these can keep you organized as you write, but they can also help an editor quickly identify problems in your manuscript. For example, have a look at this close-up of the chapter page-count column in the chart below. It points to a possible structure and pacing issue in chapter 3:

FourOptions Image 2

Scrivener is also an excellent and versatile tool for manuscript evaluations. You can keep all your notes and research in one place, and your editor, too, can add notes and comments on Scrivener’s index cards and in document notes. And Scrivener has a comments feature, too. It also produces a helpful visual that highlights and colour-codes structure at a glance:

FourOptions Image 3

In Scrivener, you can also use the Scrivenings feature to sort the different narrative threads (in this case, past and present) as needed. It’s a great organizational tool.

Self-editing macros can provide helpful feedback to authors, too. Learn how macros can help you improve your writing here. Here’s a shot of a macro highlighting telling words (pink) and needless words (blue):

FourOptions Image 4

  • Pros
    Tools provide a “show, don’t tell” evaluation format. They combine visual feedback with written comments, and often, the visuals can trigger an “aha” moment for the writer, who sees his or her work in an entirely new way. Further, they do so without tone or malice. It’s the tools doing the talking, not the editor. This kind of evaluation can be economical, too, if the author wants to do the work of completing beat sheets and templates and running macros. Then, in a conversation, the author and editor can discuss ways of solving the issues the tools have identified.
  • Cons
    If you prefer a written document to refer to, if you aren’t interested in using digital tools or if you’ve tried but found they’re not for you, then this format might not be the best fit. The tools-based evaluation also works best as a collaboration between author and editor.There’s a learning curve involved, too—especially for using Scrivener and macros effectively—and accordingly, you have to invest time (and a little bit of money) to reap the rewards.

Express Evaluation
An express evaluation can be an excellent choice if you’re an inexperienced writer or if you’ve completed a few chapters and you need guidance or feedback. Typically, an editor will read about 50 pages of your manuscript, including the first chapter, and will use Word’s Track Changes or a comments sheet to highlight problems that stand out. They might also offer a Skype or Google Hangouts session.

Issues with the story, like too many characters or shifting point of view (head hopping), or more general concerns, such as weak writing and awkward punctuation, can be flagged in the early stages of the novel. Authors are encouraged to submit supporting materials—a character list and character summaries, a family tree, a beat sheet—anything that will help the editor see the bigger picture.

  • Pros
    If you’re just starting out—either with your novel or with your career as a writer—the express option can save you time, money and grief. You may not be aware of some of the many hazards that can cause havoc in a story, and as a result, you might be heading off in the wrong direction. Editors can suggest ways to improve writing weaknesses and resources for understanding writer’s craft. They also might suggest workshops or courses authors can attend to master writing skills.
  • Cons
    Because this is a review of a portion of your manuscript, it won’t (and can’t) identify problems that occur later in the story. Some editors don’t like doing an express evaluation for this reason—a lot can go wrong after chapter 3! Readers will want to read to a satisfying end. Indeed, often it’s the last 20 percent that makes or breaks a novel. An express evaluation won’t be able to assess the success of your ending.

Writing Coach
Coaching is a flexible alternative to a manuscript evaluation, and it can take almost any form the author and editor agree on. Usually, the author will submit a chapter or two on a regular basis—once or twice a month—and the editor will review it using Word’s Track Changes for suggestions and comments. Some authors don’t ask for written feedback, and opt instead for a monthly Skype or phone conversation. Writing coaches usually charge by the hour.

  • Pros
    Hiring a writing coach is a great, low-risk way to test whether you have a good author-editor fit. It’s also economical, since you’re able to control the cost by requesting a fixed number of coaching hours. Some authors especially like this approach because it keeps them working toward a regular submission deadline.

  • Cons
    If you hit a productive writing jag and produce 100 or more pages, your editor may not be able to keep up with you. As well, it’s hard for the editor to give you big-picture feedback on a novel when they are receiving it in installments.


Tips for a Successful Manuscript Evaluation

Of course, an editor may use a combination of these formats to evaluate your manuscript. These tips will help you get what’s most helpful to you:

  • Think about what kind of learner you are. If there’s a particular format you’d find helpful, ask if it’s available.
  • Don’t hesitate to let the editor know your budget. Most editors are flexible and can suggest something that fits with what you need and can afford.
  • Remember, you are buying the editor’s time. Reading a 100,000-word novel and producing a 15-page analysis is going to take some time. But it will be thorough.
  • Be sure to find out in advance what form the editor’s feedback will take. If you want detailed written comments, do speak up!
  • Ask the editor what stage of writing is best for the evaluation you’re considering. First chapters for an express evaluation? A finished and polished final draft for a full evaluation with an editorial letter?
  • Ask in advance how many passes the editor will make on what you submit. For example, you may want to follow some of their suggestions in your revisions and then have them look at it again. Find out if this is an option.
  • Give your editor all the information you can about your novel—if you’ve kept a style sheet, character charts or beat sheets, submit them with your draft.


    If you’re looking for a manuscript evaluation, there really is something for everyone. Shop around at several editors’ websites and find out what’s on offer. And finally, ask, ask, and ask. Most editors welcome your questions and are pleased to answer them. After all, they want a happy ending as much as you do.


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