The Theory of Evaluation

Writer Sophie McCook ,who runs a service that offers workshops and manuscript services for writers, looks at the process of assessing scripts and how writers can best prepare submissions.

Most writers will know that feeling of waiting; between posting unsolicited work to an agent and waiting for the response. This time-lag, where three months can seems like three years, is how long it takes many agencies to form an opinion of your writing. If you have submitted to a number of carefully chosen agents, you might find that practice varies. Some will simply return your manuscript to you unread. Maybe their lists are full, or perhaps you didn't pay full attention to the submission requirements. Some agencies work hard to read every submission they're given. This reader might be an agent, a producer, an unpaid intern or a junior staff member. Some manuscripts may be sent out to freelance services. If your work has fallen into the hands of someone who reads for a job, luck is on your side. Now it's just down to the taste of the reader. If he or she likes it, your proposal may well be sent for a report.

There are, in fact, two kinds of manuscript reports. The first is one that you, the writer commission for yourself. You send your work to a manuscript service and it will be returned to you with corrections, re-write suggestions and loaded with helpful advice. The second type of report is one commissioned by the potential buyer; an agent or publisher, to get feedback on a manuscript they've been sent. This report is a shorter, terser work; the feedback will be one or two pages long and to the point. In not so few words it will say 'Yes', 'No' or 'Maybe'.

Your manuscript has a rocky three months to face while it's out on the road so it's up to you to get your work in as good a shape as possible. A good way of doing this is to have your manuscript 'covered' or assessed by a professional reader. But before you have it covered, better first to pass it amongst your friends, family and ex-teachers. Give them a list of pointers to look out for and they will do much of the work of a manuscript service at no cost. Important pointers, by the way, include typos and grammar errors, inconsistencies in the plot and factual errors. Ask them to keep a watch-eye out for points where they felt confused, became bored or lost sympathy with the characters. Did the dialogue become unbelievable? How would they have said it? Circulate your manuscript as far and wide as possible. Post extracts on the internet if possible. No, they won't steal your work - that scenario is very, very rare. Any notes should be written by your readers on the manuscript and make sure you get them back. Remember, you don't have to agree with everything they say but if the same point comes up more than once, you should pay attention. After a re-write, think about paying for a report.

Manuscript-reading services are becoming common in the UK. Some, including my own service, are linked to agents or production companies who are able to pass interesting work 'up' to potential buyers. A full manuscript coverage may total a few hundred pounds but is money well spent - your feedback comes from a professional who has no set agenda except to get the best from your work. It is also a chance for you, the writer, to gain a little extraspection. [develop a wider perspective, or benefit from a wider perspective? See your work from a different angle ] Months of re-writing can leave you unable to see the story for the words; feedback opens your eyes to hidden details that now seem obvious. The kinks that are being ironed out are the same ones that would have been noticed later by the agency readers.

When I get a new work, I will firstly check it is bound well enough that it doesn't fall to pieces in my hand, then I feel the weight of the work and judge its length. Once open, I check that the writing on the manuscript is printed only on one side, all pages are numbered and the lines well-spaced. The font size should be twelve.

Now for the reading. The opening of a story must catch the reader - I will often read a first chapter and then take myself away for a cup of tea. Does the opener stay with me? Can I remember the details? Does it make me ask questions or give me expectations? I will spend more time of the opening scene that any other part of the manuscript. Hoping that this is a catchy story-line, I will speed through the reading, making notes as I go. If I find more than one typo per chapter or scene I start to grind my teeth. Grammatical mistakes are worse!

When you receive your report, it will have a 'log-line', a very short description of your story's theme. Then follows a synopsis; of course you know your story inside out but what I'm giving you is my account of your work. If any part of your book is confusing, this is where it will surface. The bulk of the report will discuss the mechanics. I will talk about the plot 'arc', which must feel satisfying - easily identifiable when it works, trickier to dissect when it doesn't. No one can tell you how to write a story but if the plot looked good in your head, try to replicate that on paper. An a) engaging opening and a b) emotional climax are very helpful. The trick of driving from a) to b) is up to you. I recommend a speedy journey, no matter how twisty the route. Arcs are also found in non-fiction. A good 'plot' in a factual book lifts it above the level of academic textbook; we have all come across examples of subjects that against all expectation, yield a great story. I also take into account the pace, characters and dialogue of your manuscript. Lastly, I will identify its genre and the expected audience. The report is summed up with directions for the revision of your manuscript. I have only once received a manuscript where there was no need for a re-write.

Your report may be nothing but praise, or it may bite to the bone. It will most likely fall somewhere in the middle. If it does bite, please don't become despondent. Highly critical feedback is often some of the most valuable, especially if the reader has put time and thought into it. If the reporter sounds as if he's actually annoyed, that's because part of your work gave him high expectations - he wants to see it shine.

Rules on Presenting your Work.

1) Find out what each individual agency's submission requirements are. They may ask for a few chapters in the first instance or just a simple, clear proposal. Agents often prefer emailed documents in place of paper. Although a trip to the Writer's Year Book is a first step, following through with a look at websites gives you more, vital information. Make a phone call, introducing yourself and warn that you are submitting work. The person at the end of the line should give you helpful directions. Double check agent's names and their specialities. Knowing your audience is helpful but knowing your agent is essential.

2) Bind your work securely, so it doesn't fall to pieces but not so tightly it can't be easily photo-copied. Two bound holes are enough - no wire binding, that stuff is dangerous! For email submissions, make sure you have discovered whether the agent is happy with attachments or would prefer a proposal in the body of the email.

3) If you set up a relationship with me, the reader, we both don't want to waste time trying to find each page from a description of a plot point, "No, no, it was AFTER Tabitha took her bath!" Please number each page.

4) A clear plain font in size twelve is standard - trying to cheat with smaller sized font or tinkering with the margins makes a reader suspicious. A manuscript must be typed in double or one and a half spacing. Any closer and the person you're trying to impress is being given a migraine.

5) If you have had no reply within three months, make a short polite phone call and enquire about the status of your work. If you receive a rejection, remember it's not personal. Just dust your work off and try again!

Sophie McCook began her writing career in 2003 by producing drama for Radio 4. She moved on to visual drama and had her first full-length original film-script optioned in 2005. She has now written a wide variety of original work for stage, TV and film. Her latest feature, 'Faith' goes into production Autumn 2009. She runs her own company, Last Time Productions which makes high quality short films with young film-makers.