Thursday, February 28, 2013

Be not "precious"

In the business side of my life I am offering three main services, although sometimes the boundaries between them can become blurred. These services are: manuscript assessment, copy editing and proofreading. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the most sensitive and difficult of these tasks (although not necessarily the most time-consuming) is manuscript assessment.

Manuscript assessment is similar to reviewing, except that it is much more in depth and provides a much more detailed critique. It is also the area into which the greatest proportion of subjectivity and opinion enters. There is a large degree of objectivity about grammar, spelling and punctuation, and although the process of proofreading is time-consuming, it is less taxing. Copy editing demands a little more subjectivity, but it still essentially deals with the nuts and bolts of the manuscript. Manuscript assessment, on the other hand, goes to the very heart of the creative process. It examines plot, character development, writing style and story structure. These are not “incidentals”. These are areas of enormous sensitivity. They are at what most would consider to be the heart of the story.

It is not too difficult for a writer to accept the correction of a spelling mistake here, or of a sentence there. But to be confronted with a critique of the very story itself, of some valued character, or of a cherished passage, is much more difficult. Of course, a critique is not only about criticism; but it will inevitably involve some criticism, even if given constructively. As the one providing the critique or assessment I am also, of course, acutely aware that in many cases I can only offer an opinion. There is certainly some room for objectivity; but this usually occurs where assessment overlaps with editing. For example, there is little subjectivity involved when pointing out a plot inconsistency. However, if I suggest that a particular character requires further development, or that a plot element doesn’t really “work”, this sounds (and probably is) more in the realm of opinion than fact. Nevertheless I try to back these claims with evidence from the text; I provide suggestions for how to move on. As the author it is important not to be too “precious” about this; and not to take it too personally.

It is an enormous advantage for both the author and the assessor that they do not know each other. While it is never my intention as the assessor to be unkind, sometimes it is necessary to be uncomfortably honest. I do not see the disappointment on the author’s face. I do not have to face them the next day. They can swear and curse about me as much as they desire. Hopefully, at the end of the day, what I am able to provide will help them to move forward and produce a better novel or story. Hopefully.

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