What Is a Manuscript Critique?

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You’ve written a book. You know it could benefit from feedback, but you’re not sure you need or want a full edit yet. Before you set aside the time and money for a thorough edit of every page, you’d like general feedback (ideally, for a smaller fee).

Enter the manuscript critique, also known as a manuscript analysis, edit letter, or editorial letter.

What Is a Manuscript Critique?

A manuscript critique is “big picture” feedback on your book, provided by an editor with expertise in storytelling, organization, and prose.

You won’t see a lot of Track Changes or red marks with this level of analysis; it’s not the nitty gritty page-by-page edit. Rather, your critique editor will read your book one or two times, then give you a thoughtful accounting of its major strengths and weaknesses. This report is called an edit letter.

Personally, I love creating edit letters for authors. I find critique to be a wonderful way for me and my authors to develop mutual rapport and trust before deciding if we want to work together in greater depth (and to what degree).

For example, in some cases a critique can lead to a more hands-on relationship than a developmental edit. Some authors may decide that they need a book doctor or ghostwriter to help them complete their books according to their visions. Time constraints and deadlines may also point to the need for more hands-on help.

The critique is a chance to explore possibilities. It allows the author and editor a low-risk opportunity to get to know each other and decide if this level of partnership benefits the project.

How Manuscript Critique Works

Here’s what my manuscript critique process looks like. I work mainly with nonfiction books: how-to, self-help, business books, and health books for general readers.

First, we agree to a flat fee based on the word count of the book. After receiving my deposit, the author emails, shares, or Drop Boxes the document to me and I begin work.

Second, I read the manuscript carefully, making a few select margin notes as I go (e.g., in Track Changes in Word, or comments in Google Docs).

Third, I write a 4 to 10 page edit letter that lists any major issues I find. For example, if I see major, consistent grammar issues, I will pick one or two examples to be representations of the issue, then I’ll show the author how to fix it. I divide the editor letter into 7 sections addressing different issues such as:

  • Structure: table of contents, organization of material, order of chapters, etc.
  • Voice: How is the quality of the prose? Is the way the author is talking to the reader appropriate and appealing? 
  • Mechanics – Is the author using grammar and punctuation properly?

Often, I include additional insights on other aspects like marketing hooks and feedback on sidebars, takeaways, case studies, or back matter (appendices, footnotes, etc.).

Every edit letter ends with a summary and next steps.

Finally, with this manuscript critique in hand, the author implements suggestions with which he or she agrees. The author always retains the right to accept or reject my suggestions.

Why should you get a manuscript critique?

The critique process can be immensely valuable for writers: you’re paying a highly-skilled beta reader to tell you how you stack up to other, similar books in your field or niche. This reader has an understanding of what’s out there on the market, and she knows how your book should look and sound if it’s going to be taken seriously.

But here’s the most important part: your critique editor is not your relative, spouse, child, or friend. She’s not your co-worker or colleague. She can be honest and objective in a way that others may not be.

Therein lies the chief value of a manuscript critique: actionable, unbiased feedback on what you’ve written. Editors want you to succeed on your own terms: to say what you intend to say in a style that your readers will want to read. Your manuscript critique will give you a detailed road map telling you how to get closer to achieving that goal.

Could your book benefit from a manuscript critique? Contact me to reserve a slot on my Winter schedule:

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When do you hire a developmental editor?

books in need of developmental editing

If you’ve read my previous three posts, you’ve learned the types of book editing and what kind of book editing you may need. Most of my nonfiction book editing and coaching clients retain me for developmental editing, which I described here.

Perhaps you’ve realized you need a developmental editor to help you start, finish, or improve your book. When do you hire her (me)?

Some writers engage an editor after drafting a complete manuscript. In many cases, the author may sense or know that their work needs significant retooling–a stronger outline or a different structure, for example, or the insertion of new chapters.

Others are at the beginning. They have a specific deadline and like to retain a developmental editor to work with them at set intervals as they write. For example, I’ve worked with authors who handed me fresh chapters about once every 4 to 8 weeks for up to a year. In that sense, the editing resembles a coaching relationship. The independent editor can nudge the writer for more work when new chapters become delinquent. Some people like and appreciate this combination of creative coach and deadline-driven accountability partner.

A content or developmental editor can be helpful at all phases, as a sounding board and a second set of eyes to look over what you have–and what you may need to bridge the gap between the work-in-progress and the finished product.

So the short answer to “When should I hire you to edit my book?” is “Any time.” If you feel stuck, need coaching, or know something in your manuscript needs fixing (even if you’re not sure what), a developmental editor can help you.

What Is a Developmental Editor?

editor's red pen

A developmental editor (sometimes called a content editor or substantive editor) is someone you can hire to help you create a well-organized, structurally sound, compelling, and engaging first draft of a book or document.

This person isn’t a ghostwriter; she edits only, and will not do any rewriting of your original work. But what she will do is guide you in your process, with a focus on pushing you to clarify your content so the meaning is clear to the reader. (This is a particularly important part of the job for nonfiction book editors.)

How Does a Developmental Editor Improve Your Book?

By clarifying your meaning. The goal of a developmental edit or content edit is to elevate the quality of your book on a fundamental level by asking a few key questions of your material:

1. Does it make sense?

2. Are you making your point as clearly as possible?

3. Is this book fulfilling your goal or mission? (Other ways to say this in other professional fields might be, “Is the content supporting the thesis?” or “Is the document executing on the brief?”)

If the answer to any of these questions is no:

  • What needs to be changed to make the book flow better?
  • Is there anything missing that would make your project clearer or more comprehensive?
  • Are your chapters in the right order, and do you have enough of them?
  • Are parts, chapters, and sections balanced for length?
  • Have you backed up your claims with research or case studies?
  • Are you connecting the dots for the reader?
  • Does this book have a sales hook that will make the reader say, “I need to own this”? (Hint: exercises, takeaways, and a useful Appendix and other back matter all help to sell nonfiction books.)

These are the types of big picture questions a nonfiction developmental book editor would ask herself while reading your manuscript.

How I Work

When editing a client’s book, I create margin notes in the document as I read. I also provide a summary overview letter to accompany these Track Changes. My client can refer to the letter as she or he combs through the manuscript in search of issues to fix.

Does your nonfiction book need a manuscript critique or developmental edit (content edit)? Contact me to discuss your goals:

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