I had one New Year’s resolution for 2018, and only one: finish this series by the end of January! And here it is, the end of January, and here’s my final post on manuscript assessment, which as I noted way back when is all about style and use of language.
When I’m assessing a manuscript, style and language use are elements I look at on both the large and the small scale simultaneously, if that makes any sense. In reading through a manuscript, I’m always alert in a low-key sort of way to stylistic quirks, and recurring patterns and issues that pull my attention away from the content; at the same time, when I’m looking at any particular scene, I’m paying close attention to the author’s style and how they’re using language at this particular point, and whether it helps to create the effects they want, or accidentally undermines it.
Every author should have a voice of their own—an identifiable style. This sounds obvious, and easy to do—just write like yourself!—but it’s harder than it sounds, in part because we learn to write (both fiction and non-fiction) by imitating other authors whose work we admire, or at least are saturated in. It’s embarrassing how much some of my early academic papers are very obviously trying to sound like they were written by Brian Attebery…
When I’m assessing a manuscript, therefore, one of the things I look for is the factors that make it sound unique and self-coherent. Is this turn of phrase a bit too obviously modelled on David Eddings? Does this one chapter feel less like the rest of the book and more like an escapee from one by Diana Wynne Jones? Do all of the parts of the book not just hang together in a way that makes sense, but feel like they were written by the same person at the same time period—even if they weren’t? Are there any habits, quirks or stylistic elements that detract from that cohesion—excessive repetition, every author’s and editor’s bugbear, or habitual turns of phrase, or consistently misused words? What passage work, and show that voice and style so clearly that the author can use them as a model when they’re editing the passages that don’t work?
Style is always hard to identify, and in some notorious cases has been more of an editorial imposition than an authorial invention (thank goodness the era of the heroic editor is over!). But if you give your manuscript a good long rest and work on something else for a while, and then come back to it with a fresh eye, it can make it easier to spot some of these things yourself, before it gets anywhere near a manucript assessor.
Use of language
Use of language is tied closely to style, but it’s more micro: how are the words on the page working, at this particular point, to achieve the effect the author wants to create? What tools are they using, and are they appropriate/effective? Are there other tools they could use that would have more impact?
I look for things like uses of synonyms and antonyms to avoid repetition and staleness, use of contrasting terms (the technical term is antithesis) for rhetorical effect, repetition that works and repetition that doesn’t, different registers of formality for different situations, colloquialisms and whether they’re understandable (or their meanings guessable, which is slightly different) to the reader from context, use of metaphors and similes, use of varying sentence lengths, avoidance or tactical use of clichés…
The thing is, every single one of the things I’ve just listed can be both a good thing and a bad thing in a piece of writing: it’s all a question of context. Sometimes you need close, exact repetition to create a specific effect; sometimes close, exact repetition will take all the impact out of a moment and leave it dead and stupid on the page. Sometimes metaphors are appropriate; sometimes they stick out like an overly poetic sore thumb. Sometimes the cliché really is the nut or bolt you need from the toolbox of communication (with thanks to Sir Pterry for the phrasing); sometimes it will only convey a fraction of the meaning you want, so you need to search for more, and more specific words.
And again, taking a break from a manuscript and coming back to it with fresh eyes can help you to start identifying these issues yourself. Once you’re seeing what’s on the page, rather than what’s in your memory, it’s easier to spot patterns and figure out how to deal with them if they’re problems, or build on them if they work. But you’ve still got to be ready to kill your darlings, because I can guarantee that at some point, that turn of phrase or image or metaphor that you love more than anything you’ve ever written will come up for review…and you’ll find that it doesn’t really do the job. When it does, take a moment to grieve for it, then cut and paste it into a new file and keep working. Telling yourself that you can put it back in later if you really must will help you to get past the sticking point and go on to the next thing.
And that’s it! The last phase of a manuscript assessment; the last thing to look at with a clear eye when you’re revising your own work.
As I’ve said before, getting a professional manuscript assessment isn’t a sure route to publication, any more than getting a professional structural edit or copy-edit is—I wish we could be that confident, but we can’t: too much of the process is beyond our ability to affect. What it is, is a great tool for developing your manuscript and your writing ability, for finding a way forward when you feel stuck, and for getting a clear, expert eye on your work when you’re too deeply engaged with it to be able to supply that yourself – not to mention one that’s usually cheaper than editing. So think about it…