Redact #2: Diagnosing a Manuscript’s Problems

Thirteen eager editors ranging from two years’ experience (yours truly) to over two decades’ experience sat down around a big table in the Oak Room to learn about manuscript assessment from the astute and articulate Nadine Davidoff.

We were here to learn how to turn that intuitive gut feeling about a piece of writing into a practical road map for authors. To do this, we played doctors.

Presenter Nadine Davidoff (3rd from right)

L-R: Catherine Norwood, Andrea Davison, Josiane Smith, presenter Nadine Davidoff, Kim Logan, Jessica Hoadley (Credit: Liz Steele)


Scenario: a manuscript presents with mysterious symptoms.

Do a first, unbiased read, to understand the scope of the story. Make little marks wherever you feel bored or lost, but don’t think further into it. You’re being a reader. Now have a break. Let it sit in your head.

Time to schedule a second appointment.

Come back a day or so later. What stays with you? Are there residues of characters, emotions? Can you succinctly state what the story is about?

Let’s diagnose.

Consult your medical checklist. What exactly is ailing this manuscript? Check the temperature, the blood pressure, the throat – the opening, plot, characterisation. Maybe it’s the lungs or the diet – narrative voice or pacing? Tap on the knees – ah ha, the point of view is head-hopping like you’re watching a grand slam tennis match. That’s why you felt disoriented and didn’t care much for either character.

Treatment time.

Now, you’re not a prescriptive doctor. You’re a kind, respectful and polite doctor, who can gently suggest treatments, but ultimately it’s the writer who has to understand their tendencies and take your suggestions on board.

That’s enough of that analogy. But it worked, and it was hugely helpful. We worked through templates of things to check when assessing fiction and nonfiction, and looked at examples of real first drafts, gaining tools and language for communicating with authors.

What I hadn’t counted on, and especially appreciated, were the candid side conversations that occurred organically throughout these sessions. As a junior in-house editor, with aspirations of a freelance career in the future, I valued hearing about the bad jobs, the warning signs, the breakdowns in communication. About disclaimers, about money up front and about reading fees. And especially about respecting ourselves enough to charge a reasonable fee for our professional, qualified work. Hearing that Nadine, and others in the group, can support themselves on a good salary and have steady work coming in – while being able to turn away jobs they don’t want to do – was very reassuring and inspirational. Thank you to the women and man in this group who all shared their experiences and insights so openly.

Some final takeaway lessons:

  • Never agree to copyedit anything until you’ve checked it is structurally sound.

  • Be the best friend of the work, not the writer.

  • You’re promising the writer to help take the work to the next level – to help it reach its potential. You’re not promising publication. The road to being published is subject to a lot of factors that none of us have control over.

Jessica Hoadley

Nadine Davidoff is a freelance book editor and writing/editing teacher with over 15 years' trade publishing experience. She can be contacted at