Manuscript Evaluations: What They Are and What to Expect

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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.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Sarah Chauncey is a creative nonfiction writer, editor and writing coach. She helps narrative nonfiction authors elevate their writing through techniques from literary nonfiction, journalism, theatre, long and short fiction, screenwriting for film and television, and digital media. Read her blog for more writing tips, or follow her on Facebook.

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Anne GreenMARIA T D'MARCOJane FriedmanLaurenSarah Chauncey Recent comment authors

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BK Jackson
BK Jackson

I do find all the editing terminology very confusing. How would you then make a distinction between “manuscript evaluation” and structural editing (big picture)?

Sarah Chauncey

I would say they’re two ends of the spectrum. Structural editing is a deep dive into narrative structure, and it usually happens well before a manuscript is ready for evaluation. A manuscript evaluation may include feedback about the structure, but because it’s not a hands-on edit, an editor won’t go into as much depth about structure as with a formal structural edit.

Lauren
Lauren

While there is some good information in the article, there are some blanket statements that I, a career professional editor, would like to dispute. In my view she gets into particular trouble when she says “most” or tries to nail down some definitions for the various levels of editing. What she is saying here is that these things are true for her … but I don’t believe she speaks for “most” editors. Example: “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… Read more »

Jane Friedman

I’ll jump in here and add (as both the site host and a freelance editor myself) that when it comes to making sample edits available, I do it only when I have permission from the client. I know Sarah does the same. It’s useful for prospective clients to see a sample letter or edit when they’ve never before hired an editor and because, as you well point out, definitions of editing are so varied. If one’s editing process doesn’t include an initial “try out” period with the client, I find that sample edit example quite a valuable tool. But in… Read more »

Sarah Chauncey

Thank you, Jane. I would never share an editorial letter without the client’s permission (I also offer to remove their name). I didn’t mention this in the article, but I also require a free 30-minute introductory call before I do a full evaluation. This gives the client an opportunity to ask questions, and it gives me a sense of the client’s goals and whether I’m a good fit for them. This is in addition to a 60-minute call post-feedback, plus they can ask me questions via email for a month after the call. Others may structure their offers slightly (or… Read more »

Lauren
Lauren

I’m not questioning your business practices, nor did I mean to imply that you’d share an editorial letter with the client’s permission, but you said “most freelance editors will make available on their site (or by request) a sample editorial letter from a past project.” I question your use of the word “most” there, because of the difficulty of getting permission from authors to share such info, and I say that it is not necessarily a red flag if an editor cannot supply a sample evaluations. I think it’s fine to write about what you do and how you do… Read more »

Jane Friedman

I’ll take the blame for that line, as I suggested that addition. It is my experience that such materials are or can be made available by freelancers who’ve been active for some time, but you’re right I have no data to support such a claim. I am sympathetic to how well-intentioned articles like this end up creating unrealistic expectations by author-clients (or can lead to a checklist of demands); e.g., I’ve been asked by potential clients to offer a list of authors I’ve worked with who’ve gone on to become bestsellers. At the very least, I’ll revise the language above,… Read more »

Lauren
Lauren

“I am sympathetic to how well-intentioned articles like this end up creating unrealistic expectations by author-clients (or can lead to a checklist of demands)”

Thanks for this, Jane. I think that’s exactly what I was trying to say. (Editor needs an editor.)

Sarah Chauncey

Lauren, I think that’s a fair point (there are multiple ways to evaluate an editor). I can be a little naive when it comes to what else is out there, and I understand your concern. I think all three of us are saying the same thing in different ways: Do your research, and know exactly what you’re getting. When in doubt, ask questions. (I apologize for my delayed response. )

BK Jackson
BK Jackson

Thanks not only for the article but the discussion that followed. As both a writer and one who edits just a little for others (and is looking to expand that), I learned from everything that is written here and appreciate hearing everyone’s insights. I am grateful for the clarification about the sample editorial letter because when I initially read that I was confused as to how that could be accomplished (i.e. the clarification of author permission) since by it’s very nature, an editorial letter would be highly personalized to the project. To that end, that is something I will have… Read more »

Sarah Chauncey

Thank you for being a part of the discussion, BK. I think it can be helpful to see how an editor communicates, though as others have mentioned, there are different ways to gauge whether an editor is a good fit.

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MARIA T D'MARCO

Nice article — and a difficult one to broach, as has been brought up already, since every fiction (I make that distinction purposely) editor will have their own take on what an evaluation might be. I use the term assessment, but only because it gets a more positive reaction from authors. Also, I feel ‘evaluation’ could have an air of judgement about it. My concern was more with the idea that an author should seek an evaluation once they’ve done all they can with their manuscript, and then the reader is advised that if they have tons of notes, etc.… Read more »

Anne Green

Excellent, informative article. I’m looking to have a manuscript assessment done in the near/foreseeable future of a fiction manuscript and I’m wondering whether Sarah’s remarks and the various types of edits discussed would apply equally to fiction (as I notice from Sarah’s website she only edits creative non-fiction and memoir). Having never used an professional editing service previously, it’s rather daunting to face the challenge of assessing various providers and judging whether they are likely to provide value for money.

Jane Friedman

Hi Anne: Yes, you’ll find the same standards apply to just about any narrative work, both memoirs and novels.