Open Blog Weekend: Manuscript Appraisals
Finding the path to writing a ‘publishable’ piece of fiction is a balancing act: it takes good prose, a well-crafted plot, good pace, an engaging narrative voice, interesting characters, well executed dialogue, a unique or well-written premise…
Often, after years of writing, writers find it hard to determine whether they have achieved all of the above…or none at all! In every writing journey there comes a time to relinquish your baby, let them out into the world to be viewed and shaped by others. No writer writes in isolation and the best writers know this. Writing is an art form. It is the ability to constantly adapt, grow, learn and evolve. And sometimes to do this, we need to expose ourselves (or our writing) to external influences.
Some writers seek professional advice after having written one draft only, while others spend years drafting and redrafting before deciding the time is right. There is no ‘blanket’ right time. Writing is a deeply personal journey, and yet it is something that we need to share.
There are more writers now than ever before. More people want to get published, and the unfortunate truth is that there are fewer traditional publishing places available – and the ‘powers that be’ are less open-minded than they once were and much less likely to take a risk. There is also an expectation that writers should submit near-perfect, well-presented manuscripts.
But traditional publishing isn’t the only sphere to be plagued by fierce competition. Driven by a multitude of motivations, we are now seeing far more writers choosing self-publishing, which equates to more competition in this arena also. And the greater the competition, the more necessary it is to stand out – whether it’s with well-crafted prose, unique story concepts, or with a ‘sound package’ – the onus is on authors to market and sell their book, as well as build their own public author profiles.
It is this fierce competition across publishing that prompted the emergence of manuscript development services. Professionals like myself, recognised the frustration writers who simply wanted to share their voice and their story were experiencing. We saw the chance to work closely with writers to help them achieve their goal, using our industry expertise to help guide them on the road to success.
Manuscript appraisals are simply one of many development avenues available to authors, offering cost-effective, comprehensive feedback on manuscripts.
…but what exactly are they?
A manuscript appraisal, also known as a ‘critique’ or ‘assessment’, provides expert advice on your content and offers constructive, objective feedback on how to develop your manuscript so that it reaches its full potential.
As a leading provider of manuscript appraisal services, The Manuscript Agency (www.manuscriptagency.com.au) deal with authors from all walks of life, with varying degrees of writing experience. Below I have compiled some responses the questions we hear most frequently, hopefully this will give you a better sense of what appraisals could mean for you and your manuscript.
Why would an author seek an appraisal?
As an author it is difficult to see your work objectively, and it is often hard for friends and family to offer unbiased feedback that will help you to develop your content. It is for this reason that authors often seek a professional manuscript appraisal.
Competition for publisher’s attention and investment is fiercer than ever. Increasingly, manuscripts need to be at an advanced stage of development before a publisher will commit to it. So more than ever, aspiring writers are under huge pressure to develop their manuscripts to a very advanced level before they present it to a publisher.
For writers who decide to self-publish it offers an opportunity to seek feedback from an industry professional in order to publish the best possible version of your manuscript.
What should an author expect from an appraisal?
A written report providing an objective overview of your manuscript, looking at the narrative, writing style, voice, dialogue, character development, structure, reader involvement, general editorial workings of grammar/spelling/punctuation. It is not about whether a manuscript is ‘good’ or not; it is about helping the author see their manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses more clearly and helping them find the next pathway in their writing journey.
Does an appraisal replace the need for editing?
An appraisal is not necessarily a replacement for the valuable experience of working with an editor, however it is a good starting point. It also offers a financially sound option. An appraisal should provide enough scope for the author to rework their manuscript before approaching an editor or mentor to work with…page-by-page…line-by-line.
What’s the measure of a good appraisal? How do you assess the assessment?
A ‘good’ appraisal should offer objective and constructive feedback. It should be polite, respectful and diplomatic as well as insightful. An appraisal might make suggestions, or raise questions, but they should never tell a writer what to do. It should invite the writer to reflect, consider and interpret what the appraisal content in the way that is helpful and meaningful.
However, whether an appraisal is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends on the interpretation the client places on it. Sometimes it is the appraisals that the writer did not expect or hope for that can be the most powerful in driving improvement. Often the best results come from a client who initially feels inclined to reject the appraisal they’ve received.
It is important to remember also that there is no such thing as a definitive view. An appraisal is always an opinion – albeit a considered, and hopefully, objective one.
Will the manuscript appraisal be subjective?
It’s true that there is an element of subjectivity in any appraisal, after all it is an opinion on a piece of work and this is always informed by our own prejudices and experiences. However, the subjectivity imbued in the appraisals is mitigated by the appraisers professional experience in the writing and publishing industry. And, at the end of the day, even an agent or publisher’s reading of the work is, to some extent, a subjective read.
You may not always agree with the appraisal, but at the end of the day it is represents a professional read and will offer you an insight into one way your work might be read by a more general audience – if one reader is noting something in your work, then the chances are that others will see or feel this also.
What role does an appraisal serve in terms of self-publishing?
One of the potential pitfalls of self-publishing is that there are no built-in checks along the way to ensure a professional standard of content. If a client is looking to self-publish, an appraisal is going to give them a critical eye on the content they have produced, and valuable guidance as to how and where to improve that content and bring it to a professional standard – as would be the case for ‘signed’ authors at traditional publishing houses.
One of the responsibilities of the traditional print publisher has always been to maintain quality control over the content. With self-publishing all of this falls back onto the writer. Like it or not, the writer becomes the quality control person, and not all writers find this easy. That’s where an external appraisal can be particularly helpful. An appraisal helps reveal what is required to make the work the best it can be.
If I decide to pursue a ‘publishing deal’ with a traditional publisher could an appraisal play a role in their decision to publish?
A manuscript appraisal is not a letter of introduction, nor will it be influential the publisher’s acquisition decision. Every publisher will make their own decisions about the manuscripts they wish to acquire. However, what an appraisal might say to a publisher is that you have a willingness to work with professionals develop your manuscript. It can demonstrate that you have been prepared to ask for an opinion and listen to constructive feedback – and perhaps revisit the manuscript with that advice. This has the potential to show a willingness and an ability to ‘be edited’ and to be able to ‘self-edit’ – which is an important trait for any author to possess.
Are all appraisal agencies the same?
No. Every manuscript is different, every appraisal is different and every agency has a different focus in the appraisals they offer. In the case of The MAA, we offer the author an appraisal from a ‘publishing perspective’. We want to help the author ‘get inside the publisher’s head’ and offer them an insight as to the possibility of why their manuscript is, or is not, attractive to a publisher. It is not our position, however, to tell our clients that their work is ‘publishable’ or not. We can only guide the author towards a more solid manuscript (in terms of writing strength and development) and ‘pitch package’ (cover letter, synopsis, presentation).
We pride ourselves in keeping the bigger picture in mind. Our appraisers look at every aspect of the work (the story, the narrative, the writing style, voice, dialogue, character development, structure, accessibility, reader involvement) and they also keep the end result in mind: the work’s commercial publishing appeal. We look at the market placement of the manuscript, the genre parameters, the synopsis and pitch letter etc – this helps to provide the author a comprehensive view of where their manuscript is placed in the publishing sphere.
Why does it work to have an ‘anonymous’ appraisers working on my manuscript?
Anonymity gives the appraiser the space to express themselves without fear or favour, albeit always with the objective of benefiting the client and the work under review. We want the appraiser to come to the manuscript fresh and unencumbered by relations with the author – an independent reader and interpreter of the work (we don’t even allow our appraisers to read the cover letter and synopsis before reading the manuscript!). This way the appraiser can focus completely on the manuscript and its potential, without any influence from the writer – exactly as it would be if it landed on a publisher’s desk.
We feel that anonymity is a vehicle for objectivity.
The book market is changing at an amazing and unprecedented rate. How books are created, marketed and sold is undergoing continuous change. What hasn’t changed though is the reader’s desire to read good books; this includes the story idea, its originality and how well it is written. With so much content out there now (including competing with free content on the internet), you want to give readers a reason to read your book – whether they be publishers, or the general public – and offer them the best version of your manuscript.