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Ask the editor 8: How I assess a manuscript


How I assess a manuscript

Assessing a manuscript for editing is a skill all of its own. Individual editors may have different routines for assessing a text but we are all aiming for the same goal; a realistic grasp of the work that's required to bring a book up to a professional finish. In this article, I'll explain how I go about assessing editing jobs, and why.

When a manuscript arrives in my inbox for assessment I open it and make sure that my spelling and grammar check is enabled. I don't rely on the software particularly, but it's a good initial indication of the state of the manuscript; if I see lots of red and green underlining then I know that the text contains a significant number of errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. If, on the other hand, the text is relatively free of red and green stripes, I can be reasonably confident that the manuscript is fairly clean.

The condition of the manuscript tends to influence an editor's assessment and, more to the point, it influences estimates of fees. If I know I have to spend a lot of time and effort fixing basic errors, that time will be reflected in the price. On the other hand, if I'm looking at a clean text, I know I can move on to a more advanced reading. I feel like I'm dealing with a more professional writer.

Next, I scan the entire document. This gives me a good idea of the consistency of the text: the formatting, font, heading styles and so on. Once I have a good idea of the general health of the manuscript, I can zoom in and look at the fine detail.

I usually read the opening of the book fairly closely. Most authors, quite rightly, put a lot of effort into the opening sequence; thus I can get a good feel for the tone and style that the author is aiming for. I pay similarly close attention to the closing sequence, for similar reasons.

Depending on the length of the manuscript (and to some extent the impression I've garnered from my initial check) I then zoom in on two or three sections chosen at random. At least one of them will be close to the middle of the document. Most editors work on the assumption that writers are on their best behaviour at the start and finish of a book; if there are dips in consistency, they usually appear in between these points.

These close readings form the meat of the assessment. I usually make two or three passes over each section; on each pass I read at a different level. First, I carry out a more intensive version of the spell and grammar check. I'm looking for characteristic errors and quirks, and honing my estimate of the time required to fix them. I also look at word and phrase choice; that tells me a lot about the author's writing skills and the care they have invested in the book.

In recent years I have added another task at this stage; I check if the author has used autocorrect software and, if so, how heavily they have relied on it. Most of the software out there is still relatively crude and, if it's used without appropriate caution, introduces some specific errors. Because writing and editing software uses statistical probability to suggest corrections, it tends to offer the most popular option; most of the time that works fine but occasionally it produces a particular species of howler, which in the trade is known as a literal. A literal is a legitimate word - it passes the spell check - but it's not the correct word in the context. Such errors can be fiendishly difficult to spot and they make an editor's life more complicated.

On the next pass I look at sentence structure, continuity and English usage. A sentence can be grammatically correct and yet fail to convey what the author intends. It may be longer and less direct than it needs to be (I tend to think of this as loose or baggy writing). Sometimes a sentence stands out because it has a different tone than the text around it. All of these issues will need attention when it comes to the edit.

Continuity is a little tricky to check but it's worth doing. If the protagonist enters a restaurant wearing a blue dress and sits down to eat wearing a red one, you know there's a problem. Lapses in continuity interfere with the reading experience in a particular way; they often stop the reader in their tracks, and make the story less plausible. For an editor, they are an indication that the author may not have paid enough attention at the planning stage.

English usage is a term that covers a multitude of sins. I can usually tell quite quickly if an author is a native English speaker and, if not, how good a command of the language they have. Many people who speak a second language fluently still have difficulty in writing in that language; English in particular requires a very different approach when you are writing as opposed to speaking. And native speakers occasionally have a similar difficulty; even a good storyteller may have to make some adjustments when they convert their oral skills to writing.

The final pass allows me to look at the text at a higher level; at this point I'm working on intuition as much as logic. I look for consistency - and more to the point quality - of style and tone. If the text is fiction I look for the ratio of show to tell. I consider if the language of the text is appropriate to the theme; a thriller that reads like an auditor's report on a failing company is unlikely to be a bestseller.

Perhaps most importantly of all, I check that the author has oriented the text towards the reader. That may sound rather nebulous and vague but it's vital to the success of a book. A writer's primary task is to communicate to the reader; if the reader doesn't feel involved, engaged, they may not have enough sympathy for the book to continue reading.

As a writer, you want the best possible editing for your book. A thorough assessment lets you know where you stand and, more importantly, gives you the best return on your investment.


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When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?

Ask the Editor 2: the submission letter

Ask the Editor 3: Writing a synopsis

Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor 5: Non-fiction submissions

Ask the Editor 6: Writing non-fiction

Ask the Editor 7: Researching for a book

Ask the editor 9: Why do I need a report?

Ask the Editor 10: Writing your blurb or cover copy

Ask the Editor 11: English language editing

Ask the Editor 12: The limitations of editing software

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