A colleague of mine recently asked me some hard questions about how to handle a manuscript critique for a book that doesn’t quite meet the standards of a publication-quality work. My colleague points out that often, “developmental edits tend to take highly flawed books to the next level — maybe even two or three levels up — but it isn’t enough. The resulting work still reads like it needs a new developmental edit. Certain elements still need a lot of help.”
My colleague is doing a critique for this kind of work. “The manuscript has a number of flaws. The critique points them out, explains why they’re problematic, and offers some suggestions for how to fix them. The author will give the rewrites his all, improving things here and there, but he won’t have mastered the new techniques he’s learning, so there will be a need for further refinement. He’s talented enough to improve his work a great deal. He’ll probably make new mistakes in the process. Further, his vast improvement of the elements outlined in the critique will make other flaws more obvious… things the critique missed.”
My colleague says, “My question is, do I warn him about this? I don’t want to mislead him through silence into believing that the next draft is going to be perfect. He’s already going to be disheartened about the vast amount of rewriting he’ll need to do just for the next draft. Also, telling him this may make it sound like I’m just trying to drum up new business for myself. Which I’m not sure if I should do anyway. I’d be happy to keep working with him on this, but maybe he’d benefit more from a fresh pair of eyes.”
There is no easy way to let an author down. However, I believe that honesty is essential, for my own sense of integrity, for the general quality of published work, and for the author’s sake. A critique that points out the strengths AND weaknesses of a piece of writing helps the writer improve.
The Mercenary Writer’s Critique
- Start with praising what is good about the work. What does the writer do well?
- Include specific, actionable suggestions to improve the writing, offering examples from the writing. I use a Grammar Rx to diagnose issues in the writing and prescribe treatment.
- Provide solid resources to guide the writer towards those improvements, including local writing classes, writing groups, online professional development for writers, and books about writing, grammar and style.
- Help the writer identify where the work falls in the spectrum from conception through revision to completion.
- Offer encouragement for the long journey.
- Suggest a second opinion.
General Recommendations for Writers
Additionally, I have several general recommendations for writers who are passionate about their work, committed to getting published, but haven’t quite gotten there. It’s true that there is a great deal of subjectivity involved in appreciation of the literary arts, but there are also many elements involved in meeting a minimum standard of quality. It is possible to learn the craft of writing. Like any art or science, practice is essential.
I like to refer to the concept of 10,000 hours of practice to attain mastery, as discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers. He contends that people don’t become “masters” at complex things until they have accrued 10,000 hours of practice. Writing is a complex skill that demands complex practice.
There are thousands of opportunities for continued education in the art of writing. Community colleges often have hidden treasures for a writer. Ask around. You’ll start to hear the same names come up when you ask, “Who is the best writing teacher?” Take classes from those writing teachers. Distant education means that you can find a great writing teacher from afar.
Reading and Self-Study
A writer reads. Read books about the writing process. Read books in your genre to see what works. Read critically to improve your craft, and read for fun.
Naturally, most writers are eager to get published. The long and convoluted timelines involved in publishing (one to two years to final release after being taken up by a traditional publisher) make authors anxious to get started as soon as possible. I can’t blame them; I’m guilty of this, myself!
There is one essential process that many writers are too impatient, or perhaps too timid, to invest in: gathering feedback from informed readers. Writers MUST get feedback on their work at several stages in the process from creation to publication.
The First Reader
I recommend that writers do their best work, and get to a point where they feel comfortable sharing the manuscript with a First Reader. The First Reader is a very special person, with a number of important qualities.
- The First Reader cares for the author, and wants the best for him and for the book project.
- He knows how to be gentle and honest.
- He can offer insightful, useful suggestions for improvement.
The writer brings the manuscript to the First Reader accompanied by a specific list of questions about what the manuscript does right, and what could be improved. After receiving the First Reader’s feedback, the writer often has great deal of work to do. Enormous revisions can take place after the First Reader has responded to the manuscript.
After this major revision phase, the author brings the manuscript to his or her writer’s group for a second round of feedback. A writer’s group can be formal or informal. Paid editors can offer valuable critiques at this stage, or the writer can join a committed group of writers who take turns offering feedback on each other’s work. Again, specific questions and guidelines for the readers are necessary in order to get the most valuable, precise suggestions to improve the work.
The writer’s group will provide a great deal of fodder for the author’s next revision phase. There is no way around it. Writing for publication requires careful revision. A high quality book may go through nine or ten revision stages before reaching its audience.
After significant revision, the author may receive encouragement from his readers to take the manuscript to the next step. This nearly-final draft needs to get into the hands of a good editor to polish the text, point out inconsistencies, and otherwise whip the work into place.
A good editor will provide feedback that might result in yet another (!) revision phase. That’s okay. That is NORMAL. That is expected. That is helpful. That makes the book better.
Submission to Agents and Editors
Eventually, a book with a committed author can get to the point where it’s ready to submit for consideration by agents and editors. The author would do well to consider any feedback from these professionals for yes… sigh… MORE revision.
An author can expect to encounter rejection. Maybe repeated rejection. Some rejection letters are general, while some offer golden advice. If an agent or editor rejects the work but takes the time to offer helpful feedback, the author is fortunate and a gesture of gratitude is appropriate. This is yet another opportunity to make the work the best it can be. But it’s not a reason to give up entirely.
There are often several more steps involved in the process, and I won’t elaborate. You get the picture.
- Acceptance for Representation
- Acceptance for Publication
- And finally… PUBLICATION
So. My short answer to my colleague’s inquiry is this: Be gentle, honest, and helpful. Guide your client to some resources to improve his work. Suggest writing books, grammar books, style guides, writing classes, writing groups and exercises particular to your client’s needs. Emphasize the importance of repeated revision. Offer encouragement for the long process ahead. Suggest a second opinion. Sometimes we need to hear difficult advice from a variety of voices before it sinks in.
See the Resources page for books and web sites to suggest to your clients.
YOUR TURN: A Call for Comments
Editors, writing teachers, writing group participants: What is your take on the issue? What is the best advice you can offer to a writer in this situation? What is your best advice for other critical readers to help such writers?