Assess what?

Sunday, August 24, 2014
Shivaun Plozza

Planning next month’s Manuscript Assessor Conference (the first of its kind in Australia) has got me thinking about what is still an emergent field.

The first I heard of manuscript assessing was from a writerly friend of mine who told me not to bother getting one for the novel I’d just finished. Waste of money, she told me.

Cut forward a few years and I’m now a freelance manuscript assessor myself and I’ve got a pretty good idea about the misconceptions that still prevail.

More and more authors and editors are supplementing their incomes by doing manuscript assessments, but it remains one of the few unregulated areas of the literary sector.

I usually get two reactions from people when I tell them what I do: the first is huh? You do what now? and the second is Oh, well let me tell you about my friend / cousin / hairdresser / guy I met once who had their manuscript assessed …

A lot of confusion still exists about what a manuscript assessment is (and what it isn’t) and why it’s an important part of preparing a book for publication.

Sometimes called a ‘structural’ or ‘substantive’ edit, manuscript assessments look at the overall structure, content and style of a manuscript. This could include plot, character, point-of-view or pace, writing style, narrative or dialogue. It could also look at how the work is presented, how long it is, how well it’s been researched, as well as touching on its potential readership, marketing or publishing possibilities.

People often think that working with a manuscript assessor is the same as asking for a copy editor or proofreader. But while they’re all an important part of a manuscript’s journey, they’re all very different services – each with their own time and place.

A proof or copy edit will look in detail at the accuracy of your spelling, grammar and punctuation, but a manuscript assessment will give you a professional perspective on the big picture – and may lead to some much bigger changes.

It’s great when I hear glowing stories of manuscript assessment experiences – like bestselling author Jennifer Scoullar (one of the keynote speakers at our conference) whose work was assessed and went on to publication.

It can be nerve-wracking for a new author to hand their ‘baby’ over to an assessor, particularly as it may come back to them looking a bit different.

Melbourne assessor Clare Allan-Kamil (also one of the keynote speakers at our conference) says that she and her colleagues do treat their manuscripts like children – carrying them round for six weeks, keeping them close while taking the time to get to know them property, and helping them grow into the best little manuscripts that they can be.

In my experience, most writers welcome the different perspective that a set of professional eyes can bring. But it can be a tricky balance to strike and not everyone’s friend / cousin / hairdresser / guy they met once has had a good experience …

Manuscript assessors don’t have a professional association like Editors Victoria. There are no agreed guidelines on what constitutes a good assessment, or what qualities or experience a manuscript assessor should have in order to deliver such a service.

At the moment, anyone can set themselves up as a manuscript assessor – which is one of the conversations we’re hoping to facilitate at the conference, to ensure writers know what to expect and how they can find an assessor with the skills and expertise that they need. Manuscript assessing is an important field and one that is growing. Hopefully, events like this conference will help it grow in the right direction.

About Shivaun Plozza

Shivaun Plozza is a writer, freelance editor and manuscript assessor, and convener of the Manuscript Assessor Conference to be held at Writers Victoria on 2-3 September 2014.

On this website, you can read our interview with Shivaun about how to use early drafts as a springboard, her thoughts on her Glenfern Fellowship, or her advice on how to be ruthless.