An Editor’s Response to a First Manuscript Read-Through

editorAs a writer who is thinking about hiring an editor to help you with your manuscript, do you wonder what kind of response and advice you might get when the editor does an initial read-through of your manuscript? Following are excerpts from a response I made to one of my clients who was writing an autobiographical/memoir type manuscript. Each editor has a somewhat different way of working with clients, but this will give you an idea of some kinds of feedback you might expect from an editor’s initial reading of your manuscript. (I have left out a few details due to editor-client confidentiality)….


I have finished reading your manuscript. It was very interesting, and I agree with the people you mention who have told you to write! I do have a few suggestions for you as you decide whether to carry on with this project and as you think about hiring an editor to help you complete the editing process:

  • You mentioned your concern that there are “proofreading” issues (spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.),  but don’t worry too much about those at this point—after all, you’ll likely be doing quite a bit of rewriting and reworking of your manuscript, so leave the “proofread/polish” tasks until all the “content” work is done.
  • I notice in the manuscript you included quotations from several writers in an anthology, and some of them are quite lengthy. While one or two short quotations are acceptable (if you include the person’s name), you will need to get written permission from the editor of the anthology and the author’s of the different pieces if you plan to include several quotations and/or for any quotations that are more than a couple sentences in length. Also, if you want to include quotations of song lyrics or poetry that is not yet in the “public domain” you will need to get written permission to include those, too.
  • I noticed that your life story tends to jump around a lot throughout your life. One moment you’re talking about your childhood, then you’re in your life after your children are grown, then in your teens, then talking about your marriage, and then your children’s growing years. I found myself flipping back or forward through the pages sometimes, trying to figure out where some new piece of your story fit in. Perhaps you could reorganise the order of them to more reflect the chronology of your life. Or you could sort your story into “themes” and organise the stories according to which important theme they represent in your life. Or you might think of another way to organise your life story. We can discuss this together and come up with ways to make your manuscript flow better so that your readers don’t become confused.
  • When we spoke, you mentioned that you now realize you must change names and some identifying features of the story. I agree this is a wise decision, especially if you are thinking of writing it more as a memoir than as a straightforward autobiography. A memoir features “themes” from one’s life, and allows the writer to make some changes to protect people’s identities–and protect you from anger from people who don’t appreciate what you have written that includes them.
  • When I started reading the manuscript, I was quite mesmerized by the first page, as you “show” your life through “story.” Though you continue to do so from time to time as the manuscript continues, more and more I found you are “telling” or “explaining.” Your ability to “story-tell,” as evidenced on the first pages, is very strong. And it is effective. When I read it, I feel what you are feeling. I experience vicariously what you are experiencing. But later on, you move more and more away from story/narrative, and it begins to sound more and more like a factual, almost clinical description of your life. There are times in your story, of course, where a factual perspective is necessary—but perhaps you could do it in more of a story-type format. Instead, for example, of saying, “Dr. So-and-so said and did this,” you could write it as it happened: you sitting in his office, and he having a conversation/dialogue with you—and giving his professional (or in some cases, decidedly non-professional!) viewpoint. Dialogue, along with description and action is much more interesting than a simple factual “diagnosis,” and allows you to develop the characters and to create tension that a factual “telling” does not provide.
  • Related to what I just said, when you state (tell) “your opinion” of this person or that, it takes away from the power of your story. You are such a strong story-teller, as the first few pages demonstrate, that if you continue writing your memoir as “story,” you will not have to “explain” what a person was like (good, bad, or whatever). The story itself (the events, dialogue, setting, etc.) will “show” the reader, as they see, hear, feel, touch, smell, and taste through your eyes, ears, heart, body/skin, nose, and mouth. They will “sense” what you “sense.” You are very capable of strong description that puts the reader in your place. You do not need to “analyse” situations for the reader, as they will be able to join you in understanding the characters through your story telling.
  • In this same vein, be sure to use dialogue often. In the very first page, in the third paragraph, you have a small conversation with one of the very important people in your story–and it is so powerful! It expresses so much about what is going to happen in the rest of the story, and about your relationship with this person. In fact, in my opinion, the 3rd paragraph should be the first paragraph as it really grips/hooks the reader. Then you could use the first and second paragraphs to follow it. You have a real talent for using dialogue—and you should use it throughout.
  • The same goes with your ability to write descriptively, as in the second paragraph when you describe the sunshine in winter. (Oh how I relate to that in my own life! Your description arouses my own feelings about the gray winter and the early spring sun!). Use your ability to write descriptively. Tell us more about those fields in your childhood countryside. Describe your own clean, organised little home as a young child, in contrast to the neighbour’s dirty home. Show us more about the rooms in your home and how they affected you. Show us about the different places you have travelled to. Carry the reader into those places with you, letting us experience them through your memories and senses. And describe events: take us there and write about your experiences as if you are there right now and are allowing us to be there with you, seeing, hearing, etc.
  • I think when you first wrote this, you were mainly writing it for yourself, but at the same time, you hoped that someday someone might read it and not only be interested in it, but be helped by it. I think now that you feel ready to take your story to that next step: sharing it with others. As you edit and rewrite your manuscript, I have this suggestion: stop for a moment and think about who you want to write it for, who you hope will read it. Who is your ideal audience? Age? Gender? Educational level? Cultural background? Life experiences? For example, I am sure you are writing for those who have suffered through experiences similar to your own. Right? Well, that covers a lot of people. What else can you say about your audience? Can you think of one person (or maybe two or three people) you’ve met who you would like to have read your story? Why do you choose those people?
  • Another question to ask yourself while you go through this editing and rewriting process is your purpose. Are you writing to entertain, to help, to encourage, to warn, or? The reason to think about all this—about your audience and your purpose—is that when you write, you can write as if you are talking to them specifically, telling them your story, and telling it for the reason and in the way you would tell it to them if you were talking to them personally. This will make it easier to write—and will also make it powerful AND personal.
  • Because you originally wrote (I think) for personal reasons more than for others, there are things in your manuscript that maybe are too personal, or too much “your opinion,” or too “angry” or whatever. Not that you shouldn’t use your emotions in the story—you should, absolutely–but as you do, always try to think of why you are expressing those feelings, and how they are going to affect your readers and your purpose for writing.
  • Related to that, you might want to consider the question, “What is my theme?” What is the key thing you want to express through the book? Try and write down what you would write as the “blurb” on the back cover of the book—no more than 3 to 5 simple sentences that tell about the book in a way that will grab the attention of the person browsing the bookstore or library shelves, so that they want to give your book a read. (Of course, you will be careful not to “give away” the most interesting and climactic events. You just want to give the reader enough of a “taste” that they want to read the whole book to have the “whole meal”).
  • Once you have done that, try boiling it down to one sentence. And when you’ve got that, try reducing it to one word, or at most, one phrase. Then write that word or phrase in big letters where you’ll see it while you write (perhaps also with the name(s) of your “ideal reader(s).” And make sure that everything you write is directly connected to that. If you start writing something that isn’t directly connected, ask yourself if it is important enough that it needs to be included even though it’s a bit of a “rabbit hole.” (If you find this happening a lot, maybe you need to re-analyze what you really want the book to be about, and for whom you are writing it—and go through the “narrowing down” exercise again).
  • I am loaning you a copy of Writers Digest which features several articles on memoir writing, which I have found helpful. I’m also loaning you an issue which includes several articles on “Creative Non-fiction” which will help you with your memoir writing as well. Enjoy!
  • I hope this editor’s viewpoint of your manuscript has been helpful for you. If you would like me to carry on assisting with you as you go through your editing process, I would be happy to work with you. Let me know, and we can set up a contract and get started!

Best wishes!


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