Monday, December 14, 2009

Mentor Monday - Evaluating Your Manuscript

Many moons ago when I was a sophomore in high school, I had the opportunity to take a creative writing class. It was the first time I had ever had any instruction on writing for publication. On the first day, we received a handout titled, ‘Evaluating Your Manuscript.'

The purpose of the handout was to help us learn how to evaluate what we wrote, and how to tell when our work was ready to submit. I’ve had this handout tacked up on many walls throughout all my years of writing. It has faded and been retyped several times, and it is the only piece of paper I have never lost or misplaced.

Perhaps it can help you, too. Just answer the questions. You don’t have to write them down. Just answer them in your head and check off the questions you couldn’t answer. If the answers come readily, you’re on the right track. If not, there’s probably some work you still need to do, and you’ll know exactly what you have to work on - the questions you couldn’t answer. Not every question will apply to your story. If you’re not writing fantasy or a character-driven story, those questions obviously won’t apply. But most of the questions will.


Who is the protagonist?
What are the conflicts?
Are they physical, intellectual, moral or emotional?
Are they clearly defined good and evil, or more subtle and complex?

Does the plot have unity?
Are all scenes relevant to the total meaning or effect of the story?
Do they grow logically from preceding incidents and lead naturally to the next?
Is the ending happy, unhappy, or undetermined?
Is it achieved fairly?

Have you used chance and coincidence?
Do they initiate, complicate, or resolve the story?
How improbable are they?

How have you created suspense?
Is the interest in “what happens next” or are larger concerns involved?
Is there mystery? Dilemma?

What use does the story make of surprise?
Are surprises achieved fairly?
Do they serve a significant purpose? Or --
Do they divert attention away from weaknesses in the story?


How have you revealed character?
Are your characters sufficiently dramatized?
What use is made of contrasting characters?
Are your characters consistent in their actions?
Are they adequately motivated?
Are they believable?

Have you avoided stock characters?
Is each character developed enough to justify his role in the story?
Which characters are developing characters?
Are their changes large or small?
Are they believable changes?
Are they sufficiently motivated?
Has there been sufficient time for the change to occur?


Does the story have one?
What is it, in one sentence or less?
Is it implicit or explicit?
Does the theme reinforce or oppose popular beliefs?
Does it furnish new insights, or refresh or deepen old ones?

Point of View

Which POV have you used?
If shifts are made, are they justified?
What is the advantage of the POV you have chosen?
Does it furnish any clues to the purpose of the story?
Does the character’s POV have any limitations that affect his interpretation of events and people?
Does the chosen POV help to conceal or reveal events in the story?
Have you withheld any information known to your POV character?

Symbolism and Irony

Does your story make use of symbolism?
Do symbols carry the story or reinforce its meaning?
Does the story use irony?
Is it situational, dramatic, or verbal?
What function does the irony serve?

Emotion and Humor

Does the story aim for an emotional effect, or is emotion the by-product?
Is the emotion sufficiently dramatized?
Are you guilty of sentimentality?


Does the story use fantasy?
What is your initial fantastical assumption?
Does the story operate logically from that assumption?
Is the fantasy used for its own sake or to express some human truth?
If some truth, what is that truth?


Is the main interest of the story plot, character, theme or something else?
What contribution does the setting make?
Is the setting essential, or could your story happen anywhere?
What is your style?
Is it appropriate for this particular story?
Do all elements of the story work together to support a central purpose?
Is any part irrelevant?
What is the story’s central purpose?
Is it escapist or interpretive fiction?
How significant is the story’s purpose?
Does the story gain or lose upon a second reading?

That’s it! There are no right or wrong answers. The questions simply help you understand the story you want to tell, and to determine if you have actually written it. You can use them before you write to help determine if your idea is strong enough to merit a story. You can use them as you write and revise to keep you on track. And you can use them when you’ve finished to see if you’ve covered all the bases. Give it a try and see if it works for you!


Sally said...

This is a great summary - thanks to you, and to your long-ago teacher!

Diane said...

You got this in high school? I can't remember learning anything in high school except how to type!

Mur said...


I'm Jet . . . said...

This is fabulous, Barb! I'm going to print it out and never ever ever lose it.