Self-Assessing Your Manuscript
Manuscript assessments aren't just for "finished" manuscripts.
In fact, if you find yourself getting stuck in your writing process and stacking up unfinished projects, assessing those manuscripts may help you get back in the rhythm and help you reach the finish.
Assessment. Critique. Evaluation. It's all the same when you're looking to move your manuscript forward, but you're not really sure what that should look like, or where to start.
First, let me say that this post was born from facing my own unfinished zero-draft of a manuscript recently, which I started back in July and have tentatively been touching since. It's not because I'm no longer interested in the project, or because I'm no longer inspired by it. In fact, the exact opposite.
Considering my stack of unfinished manuscripts, I'm determined to finish this novella by any means necessary. This got me thinking about all of my fellow writers out there with unfinished manuscripts haunting them in the middle of the night and I thought I'd lend my two cents on how to finish the unfinished starting with a manuscript self-assessment.
First, there is a bit of a difference between the self-editing process and the self-assessing process.
When you're editing your manuscript, you're actively addressing the issues you know are there and refining the state of the manuscript. You're writing another draft implementing those changes you know you need to make to move the manuscript as close to refined and clean as can be.
The part that gets mislabeled as editing is the assessment of the manuscript.
It's the part the comes before editing and if done right (it takes a few times to get the "right" that works for you as with all things) it smoothes out your editing process and can even eliminate the need for so many revised drafts.
Self-assessing your manuscript is an evaluation of the manuscript in its current state and looking at it as a whole, even if it's not "finished" or complete. It's how you're going to determine what's going to need work and addressing in the editing and revision phase that follows.
It's the perfect place to set up an effective plan prior to going into revisions.
I feel like while a lot of us writers talk about entering into the editing and revision phase, it often jumps quickly from, "I started reading my manuscript..." and before the first read-through is done, to "I'm going to start editing this aspect, and then I'll read again and focus on this second aspect that needs addressing..."
Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with this method. If layering in changes works for you, that's fine. In fact, my workflow used to look a lot like this and it worked...just too slowly for my liking and then resulted in unfinished works because I ran out of patience and desire to keep reading the story so many damn times -- it made it hard for me to see straight.
This is why I started working on refining the process so that gap between the idea and the finished product can close a little bit faster with the goal of lessening the number of drafts it'll take from start to finish.
A Little Bit Of Distance
As with any other time you have to settle in for reading through a draft of your work, it helps to create a certain amount of distance first. Usually, the best way to do this (if your deadline allows) is to take some time away from the work so you can approach it with a clear mind, fresh eyes, and some emotional distance from your darlings.
You know, the parts you loved writing so much but might need to let go? Yea, that part hurts less if you give it some space first.
Though we like to think that as writers we'll never forget what we put on the page and in a sense, that's true, it's also true that writing the thing and reading the thing are very different experiences.
With the right distance and time away from the project first, you'll objectively be able to identify what elements are working just as clearly as you'll see what elements are not working. The more distance you create between yourself and the project from the creative standpoint, the better you'll be able to wear your self-editing hat and the clearer your editing glasses will be.
Clear the Air
Something that can help ease that first read-through anxiousness is to clear the air between you and your project before you start reading it. An easy way to do this is to take a moment to jot down everything you know or believe is going to need changing.
If you want to change the tense of the whole story -- make a note.
Need to re-write certain chapters or sections? Make a note.
Things you want to include or remove during the revisions? Make the note.
Clearing the air between you and your manuscript before you start reading is going to help you set those thoughts aside and truly look at your story freshly. You may even find yourself crossing things off the list during the read-through and that's okay.
Clearing the air means giving yourself the chance to look at your manuscript as a whole while reading and not hunting for the mistakes you already know are there, giving you the opportunity to see beyond them.
Take Notes, Not Action
An important, and I feel often overlooked, part of assessing your manuscript is to read it through without making any changes.
Read that again so that your inner editor understands that no means no.
As a writer, it can be easy to fall into the trap of editing the manuscript while you read it because you wrote it and you know what comes next. Except you wrote it, and you don't remember all the details that come next, so you run the risk of editing yourself into a bigger corner than you're already in.
One way to avoid this is to take notes of the things you notice as you go. Add to the list you started prior to the read-through all the things you notice that will need to be addressed as you're reading. List all the things you want to change. List any inconsistent details you find.
But remember, don't start making any changes.
Let these notes help you build a new outline for your manuscript as you're reading it. Yes, even if you wrote it with an outline because if you're stuck, there was something in your outline that wasn't working in your favor, the only way to find it is to ...well, find it. Which is 100% easier when you outline the parts that actually made it into the manuscript.
To be honest this is something I recommend doing at some point in the process because an outline of your manuscript can come in handy for yourself and your editor in the developmental phase.
If your inner editor needs to scratch that itch, grab a highlighter -- your favorite colored one -- and highlight only the parts you like the most and want to keep. In fact, highlight all of the positive things you find in your manuscript that you love before you reach for that Red Pen.
Some important things to take note of
Characters - their arc, goal, motivations, relationships to each other
Main plot v. subplot
Those Notes = Editing Plan
Once you've done your read-through and have all of your notes, it's time to use those notes to your advantage before you dive in and start the actual editing process.
Assessing the assessment of your manuscript, aka reading through the notes you made on the manuscript, is going to help you put together an editing plan that can help you be most effective in your next steps -- whatever that has to be.
There are a lot of ways to turn those notes into a plan, or road map, that help you create a cleaner draft of your manuscript.
One of my favorite ways to recommend is to turn those notes into a new outline to work from. Of course, keep in mind that an outline should only be as detailed as you need it to be to work for your own process, but this outline should specifically be highlighting the parts that need addressing throughout each section or chapter.
You can also use this to your advantage if you prefer to layer in your changes.
One way is by ranking the order of what needs to be addressed and still dealing with one problem at a time. The difference between doing this with an assessment vs without one is the number of problems you're going to create down the line because, with an assessment, you're able to layer in the changes with more intention, and most importantly you'll have a map of where to layer those changes in without (hopefully) running into another wall.
Let me know down below if you think any of this advice is useful. What does your editing process look like? Do you have any hacks that help you type "The End"?