Hand holding a red pin and pushing it into a black and white map. Other red-topped pins lie to the side.

What is a manuscript evaluation?

It’s hard to see the big picture from the ground floor.

When it comes to your own book, you sometimes reach a point where you’re not sure whether readers will be able to navigate it. Maybe something feels “off” that you can’t quite articulate. Maybe you know what’s missing, but you aren’t sure how to fix it. In a solitary pursuit like writing, this uncertainty can make you feel even more alone.

Trying to map major landmarks and engineer a smooth-running book can be daunting when you’ve been moving through everything on foot. You can only see story elements from the ground level when you really need to see how it all comes together. To create something comprehensible to the reader, you need to be able to see how all the building blocks come together, and what they look like from 10,000 feet. When you’ve been so absorbed with putting one foot, or one page, in front of the other for so long, your perspective may be a bit skewed.

That’s why it’s important to have a second pair of eyes—someone who can spot where your sidewalks abruptly end or where you have a dangerous and depressing cluster of abandoned buildings; someone to point out any gaping plot holes that might cause your readers to break their ankles (or at least their concentration). A manuscript evaluation is a deep dive into all the structures, components, and features that have to come together for a well-crafted and cohesive book.

A quick note: What I describe below is a full manuscript evaluation. Other options include partial evaluations, or lighter evaluations. Generally the following will be covered for a book of any length, with variation to the depth of these reviews.

Manuscript Evaluations for Fiction

Fiction is deeply personal, as writers become attached to their characters and ideas. While it can hurt to hand that over for someone to analyze, a good faith evaluation can turn your book into a place where readers will want to hang out for a while. It will probably even give you a renewed burst of writerly energy.

Plot, Structure, and Pacing

For readers to feel like they’re where they’re supposed to be within a book, (even if that book is full of surprises!) it has to be well structured. The evaluator will be able to give input on where their attention wanders away, parts of the book that don’t feel relevant to the overall plot, and places where an event or action seems out of step with the rest of the story. The right questions asked at the right points can spark your imagination and help you plug those plot holes. You can also get feedback on specific places in the narrative where you’re unsure of what readers’ reactions will be.

Genre conventions

If you’re attempting to write sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or romance, having an evaluator who knows about the conventions and reader expectations in those genres is a must. Also, it really helps if the evaluator is a true fan of the genre, otherwise their feedback may not reflect the experience of a reader who voluntarily seeks out books in your genre. If children’s books are your passion, be sure to find someone who is well-versed in them; they can really benefit from people with specialized knowledge.

Characters

Few things turn readers off like characters who don’t seem authentic. Even if they’re not from planet earth, readers want more than just stick figures who move from one plot point to the next. You may or may not know whether you have a problem with a character, but often the person evaluating your manuscript will have some ideas for how to give them deeper dimensions. This applies to heroes, antiheroes, villains, and side characters at all levels of likability and relatability.

Culture

If you have characters of races, ethnicities, genders, or orientations in your book that differ from yours (as you should!), an evaluator can point out where you need a little more realism. This is also true for stories set in places other than your home and in cultures other than yours. Sometimes an evaluator may refer you to a sensitivity reader if your story has major elements where different cultures come into play, and could do with an expert’s eyes.

Manuscript Evaluation for Nonfiction

While nonfiction manuscripts need some similar elements to fiction, there is an entirely new set of standards used to measure nonfiction books. The following specifically refers to the kinds of nonfiction books written to guide and teach the reader (memoir is a whole different animal).

Theses and Arguments

While your nonfiction book needs to have an overall thesis, it also needs to have a thesis for every chapter. Once these theses are established, the chapters and the book as a whole must deliver on their promises to demonstrate those theses. Naturally you can’t just state a thesis without supporting it properly. Your evaluator will check for unclear passages, arguments that don’t make sense, or theses that aren’t supported.

Pacing and Transitions

Your points need to be in order and logically build on one another; otherwise, readers won’t have the background information they need to understand what you are trying to argue or instruct. Someone evaluating your book, especially if they are not an expert in your subject, will be able to tell you if you aren’t introducing concepts in an order that makes sense. You can use their advice to rearrange sections and chapters and define terms and concepts at the proper times.

Voice and Style

Voice is, of course, part of what makes fiction attractive, but in nonfiction it’s just as important. Nonfiction books have fine lines to walk: you don’t want to sound like everyone else, but you also want to sound professional. You want your material to be cogent and approachable, but you want to offer information that actually gives the reader something they didn’t have before. Evaluators can point out where the text becomes too dry and make suggestions on how to identify, amplify, and stabilize.

Get Back on the Road

Once you’ve got your review in hand, what do you do? You get back to work on your book, that’s what! The difference is, now you’ve got a chart in your hand that will help you zero in on all the places that need to be refurbished, built out, or completely demolished. If you’d like a full evaluation of your manuscript, a comprehensive report, and a one-on-one consultation on how you can put the action items in that report to work, visit my services page, or reach out at emily(@)emilyeinolander.com.

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