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Be Your Own First Manuscript Evaluator

By Theodora O’Brien
Developmental copy editor / Manuscript evaluations-critiques

It’s true you can’t edit your own work, but you can be the first to evaluate your manuscript to find out if all the working parts are there.

If you’re like most writers, you’ve studied a dozen or more experts on what should and shouldn’t be in a story, and you’ve tried to apply all that knowledge to your manuscript, but until you’ve critiqued another’s work, it’s hard to put all that information to practical use. So, how about grabbing your favorite author’s novel off your shelf and figure out why that story (or more) works? Why you remember it? Why you loved the characters? Why you didn’t want to put it down, even at the end? Why you were stunned, or said, “Well, of course!” when the killer was revealed (but you hadn’t figured it out).

And, if you still have a copy of a book you thought stunk out loud (regardless of whether it was a national bestseller or not, something didn’t click for you), analyze that one, too.

In both cases, you should get copies from used bookstores so you can scribble in ’em, dog-ear the pages, yellow-highlight lines, and otherwise make a general mess of them.

There are different ways to tackle dismantling a book to see what made it tick, but you want to concentrate on finding certain elements. I suggest you make a list of subjects you want to look for and note when and where you find them as you reread the book, both in the book and on paper, but whatever system is best for you, use it.

Define the plot (this is why you use a familiar story; you’re not trying to figure it out; you’re taking it apart to see why you liked it. Or, conversely, why you didn’t) and then find where the conflict starts: the pinch points and inciting incidents and where they are; ditto that the key plot point breaks are at the quarter marks (or a bit earlier or later—some say the third marks). This does require some math. Did the book’s flow/pacing (should match the key plot point breaks) ever slip out of gear?

How did the opening draw you in? Did you “get” the first hook? Where are the characters’ backstories (everywhere? All at once? Missing?)? Are the protagonist and antagonist clearly drawn? Which scenes are the most memorable? Note particular lines of dialogue that stick out to you.

How’s the writing style? Zips along or is slowwww? Full of inconsistencies in word usage? Employs a lot of ly adverbs, or is crisp and clear? Author heavy on tell or weaves back story into the story? What about POVs? Did the author do a lot of head-hopping? If yes, was it distracting or didn’t you notice until you had to think about it?

It should come as no surprise that as you do this, you’ll mentally compare your manuscript to the one you’re critiquing. Are these basic elements in yours? Has something triggered your creative mind to say, “Oh! I could fix my character to do that.” That does not mean copy. It could mean something simple like talk about his past, which you the author didn’t realize you hadn’t had your character doing.

Or, “Agggh, I don’t even have a conflict in mine, do I?” Yes, that’s happened. Or, “Gosh, who is my antagonist?” Yes, that’s happened. Or, “I think I’ve got it!” Yes, that’s happened. A lot.

I’m not saying this is something you have to do, but I am all about finding confidence-builders for my authors, and this is one of them. I also can’t tell you how many times a writer has said to me, after I’ve sent back his notated manuscript (or we’ve chatted about it), “You know, I thought about that; I probably should have done . . . .”

How about beating the editor to the punch? Last time I checked, no one has made a law against grinning from ear-to-ear from receiving a good manuscript evaluation.


Theodora O’Brien is an editor who loves to get into the words and is not shy about it in the content-editing portion of the job.

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