Manuscript Evaluations: What They Are and What to Expect

Image: pencil writing the question "Why?" on paper
Photo credit: e-magic on Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND

Today’s guest post is by freelance editor Sarah Chauncey (@SarahChauncey).

Whether you’re writing a novel, memoir or how-to book, a manuscript evaluation can be an economical opportunity to have your work reviewed by a professional editor before you begin querying and submitting. It ideally happens only when you’ve taken your manuscript as far as you can—since it’s not going to do you much good if your feedback consists of comments about revisions you already know you have to make.

A manuscript evaluation is a high-level analysis of your manuscript through multiple lenses:

  • Structure. Does the story advance appropriately? How are characters introduced and developed? How is the pacing?
  • Story. Are the stakes high enough? Is the story goal clear? Is the voice or perspective clear or strong? Does it earn each plot development? Does it require more suspense (or sensuality, or action)?
  • Mechanics. Are there recurring grammatical issues? How effective are your word choices, including adjectives and adverbs?
  • Genre. For genre fiction, does the manuscript follow the accepted conventions?

A Manuscript Evaluation Is Not Developmental Editing

A manuscript evaluation is much less detailed than a developmental edit and therefore will almost always be less expensive. Developmental editing is a deep-dive edit that takes significantly more hours than a manuscript evaluation. For example, during a developmental edit, I do multiple deep reads (and then look away and come back). I often make hundreds of comments. I might rewrite lines or paragraphs to show the author what X technique looks like. And I pose lots of questions, asking the author to be more specific, go deeper, or show how they might develop a given idea in an earlier chapter. (One editorial letter I wrote was 30+ pages—one client called it a personalized writing handbook.) So, it’s far more comprehensive than a manuscript evaluation; however, it’s also proportionately more expensive.

If a developmental edit involves asking the author multiple questions, a manuscript evaluation gives you a high-level overview of what works and what doesn’t. In an evaluation, I might refer to books, blogs and other resources that explain a given concept in depth.

If you have tons of notes or chapter drafts, or if you’re not yet clear what story you’re telling, or if you don’t have a cohesive manuscript yet, developmental editing is probably more appropriate for you.

A manuscript evaluation letter typically runs a few pages, usually no more than 10 pages. Some editors (not all) include light markup as well because the editorial letter can often seem abstract. The markup makes the concepts more concrete and directly relevant. For example, I might show where the author has successfully used a strong metaphor, or written great dialogue. I also comment on passages or single lines that can help the author connect the abstract, overarching comments in the editorial letter to specific moments in their work.

Below are other types of editing you might hear about. The variety of names used for each level of editing can be confusing; when in doubt, ask the editor to explain their definition:

  • Structural editing. A structural editor helps you to find the right structure for your manuscript. This is a big-picture edit, more creative than technical.
  • Content editing. Also called substantive editing, comprehensive editing or heavy editing. This is a macro-to-micro edit that blends structural and line editing.
  • Line editing. Also called stylistic editing (Canada), this type of edit focuses on making sure the writing is clear and tight, as well as improving the flow of your manuscript.
  • Copyediting. A detailed, technical edit to make sure the writing is as tight and complete as possible. Copyeditors check grammar, correct usage, spelling and punctuation.
  • Proofreading. A final word-by-word review and polish for punctuation and spelling.

A manuscript evaluation may touch on any of the above areas if it poses a problem for getting your work accepted or published. For example, if you consistently punctuate dialogue incorrectly, an evaluation will mention it, but not correct it for you.

Partial Manuscript Evaluations and First Pages

If you’re seeking feedback on specific areas you’re unsure about, some editors offer a partial manuscript evaluation. And some will review your first 10 or 50 pages. In most cases, editors can spot recurring writing issues in a 5,000-word sample, from passive voice to flat dialogue. We can probably glean enough to know whether the writing flows, and to address storytelling skills, use of dialogue and exposition, among many other stylistic issues.

However, there are many things editors can’t address with a short excerpt: overall structure and plot, character development, arcs, themes, and other full-manuscript expressions of story. An editor simply doesn’t have enough information to offer useful feedback in these areas.

What You Can Expect to Pay

Most reputable editors who offer manuscript evaluations charge in the same ballpark: $300 to $500 for a partial manuscript evaluation (typically 20-25 double-spaced pages), $1200 to $1500 for a full manuscript up to 60,000 words. Most of us will evaluate longer manuscripts and either bill a small per-word amount after the initial 60,000, or a stepped increase, like $250 for each additional 10,000 words. Beware of too-good-to-be-true prices. A manuscript evaluation, properly done, takes quite a bit of time, energy and knowledge.

Depending on how you file taxes, the expense of a manuscript evaluation (and other editing/publication expenses) may be deductible. Check with your accountant.

Finding the Right Editor

Hiring an editor can be a surprisingly difficult decision. As human beings, we have different worldviews and life experiences, different personalities and communication styles. Many of the new clients I’ve worked with looked at several editors before making their decision.

Ask writers in the same genre as you for recommendations. Read editors’ blogs and see whether their style resonates with you. If you’re writing an academic book, look for editors experienced in your field, if possible. Also, some freelance editors will make available on their site (or by request) a sample editorial letter from a past project. That way you can see the editor’s communication style and what type of feedback you can expect.

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