– By Ink & Insights judge: Jessica de Bruyn
For all of the participants of this year’s contest, first I want to congratulate you on what you have accomplished so far. We as readers, editors and writers ourselves know that it is not easy to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and produce a full manuscript, let alone one that is ready for others to read and critique. By entering this contest, you have set yourself on the right path to getting published – one where you’re willing to welcome outside help and opinions about your work. But, once you do get your four scores, you might be wondering how to turn those into a better draft that might attract agents and publishers. Here are some tips to get you started:
Before Looking at Your Scores
If you have yet to open up the files with your scoresheets, these tips should help to get you into the right mind frame. If you have already read your scores, check out these tips before re-evaluating your judges’ suggestions.
Remember the core of your story. There are many different things that a story can be built on – a strong premise, an exciting protagonist, a touching theme – and before you start reading what other people think of where you’re story sits now, try to remember why you started writing this story in the first place. What is essential to the telling of this story? What makes this story unique and true to you and your writing? What message, feeling or question do you want readers to experience upon reading?
If you’re having trouble coming up with the answers to these questions, I suggest going back to or creating a logline for your story – one to two sentences that describe what the story is about. Pay attention to what you focus on. Is the action, characters, theme, style or something else?
Remember that this is a work in progress. Editing any book successfully is about finding the balance between holding firm on those elements that make your story yours and unique and knowing where to adjust to make your story more accessible and enjoyable to readers (and publishers). Once you have pinpointed the areas that you won’t budge on, keep an open mind about changing other details – even if this means turning what you thought would be a light edit into a huge restructuring project.
Remember that all of the judges want the best for you and your story. Every single judge at Ink & Insights does this because they love books and working with authors. If we offer criticism, it is because we want to help you to write the best story possible.
The last thing I recommend doing before reading your scoresheets is to read your entry again. Sometimes we think information is included in these first few chapters that actually isn’t there. Or, you might remember something that you’re especially proud of in these pages.
Time to Read Your Scoresheets
One of the best things about this contest is that the judges are a very diverse group of readers. They come from all over the world and have varying backgrounds, where some work in the publishing industry and others just have a love for reading. This means that you’re always going to find some variety in the comments, scores and recommendations that you get from your four judges (which is a good thing!).
Being a writer means that you need a thick skin – I likely don’t need to tell you that. Having your words out in the world can feel like opening up your innermost self to judgment and criticism in a way that few people will ever experience.
Don’t fixate on the numbers. The nature of this contest has us scoring each area of your entry with a numerical score. This is how we are able to evaluate hundreds of entries on an even keel and come out with one set of winners. But, when you’re thinking about edits, it is better to focus on the comments that go along with those numbers. This is where you will get real insight into our reading experience and can start to see what issues are brought up often and what suggestions are made for fixing them.
Try to leave emotion out of the reading of your scores and comments as much as possible. I know this can be easier said than done but there are some things that you might want to try if you are worried that you will get wrapped up in ego rather than concentrating on comments that could help to improve your work:
Organize the scores in a way that makes sense to you. Some people will absorb their critiques best if they start with their lowest score and work their way to the best one. Others might prefer the opposite, easing into people commenting on their work. You might also choose to read the scoresheets by sections instead of reading one full critique at a time.
Take notes about what you read. Rewrite judges’ comments that trigger you (either in a good or bad way) in your own words. This will allow your brain to start working to find solutions and help you to see connections between the four reviews. It is also a great tool to refer back to in a few days. See if you still feel that you interpreted all of the comments correctly and if there is more that you can pull from your critiques that would be helpful to you.
Know when to let go of a comment. This goes back to figuring out what the core of your story is and what is most important to you about your story. If someone doesn’t understand or believe in your main focus of storytelling, they are likely not the right reader for you. Don’t be afraid to throw out comments and suggestions that take you away from your core focus. But, be aware that they will represent a percentage of potential readers. If you find that you are not agreeing with the majority of judge’s comments, you might want to rethink your premise or accept that your story will have a niche market (not a bad thing!).
Look for commonalities. Make a list of things that were said more than once in your critiques, whether or not you agree with the comments. All of the judges reading your entry are familiar with and fans of the genre that you are writing into. Similar comments can give you some insight into what readers are expecting of this type of story. Comments that are repeated several times can also help you to know what to concentrate on in your next edits.
After looking through your critiques, I recommend putting them aside for at least a couple of days before using them to frame your next round of edits (or before choosing to throw them out, depending on your opinion of the comments and scores). Let the comments sink in and see what sticks and what opinions change over a couple of days.
Once you have taken a little bit of time to digest all of your critiques, it’s time to go back and see what you can use and learn from within them. If you’re reluctant to make a change that is mentioned often, try to figure out what your hesitation is. Are you attached to something that worked great in an early draft and now is out of place? Is a character not coming off as sympathetic because they are too in their head? This is the time to remember that sometimes you have to, as William Faulkner said, “kill your darlings”. But, with every problem, there is likely a wealth of solutions to fix it. And you, as the creator, are the best one to find these solutions!
Decide whether you need to make changes to these opening pages or to the whole story. If your judges are suggesting that you add a little more description here or set up one element of the story a little sooner, there is a good chance that you could tweak these early pages and then will be ready to create your synopsis and query letter to be sent to agents and editors.
If, however, your judges have some major concerns about core elements of your story, this issue might be present in the rest of your manuscript as well. If that is the case, you have two choices in how you proceed.
- Go through your manuscript and try to incorporate your chosen advice throughout the story (this might mean maybe structural edits).
- Enlist the services of a substantive editor to go through your entire manuscript.
Ink & Insights gives all judges the opportunity to post our contact information and services if we offer professional editing. If you had one judge who you really felt understood your story, you can check to see if they are on the Judges as Editors list. If not, there is a wealth of options of quality editors who would likely be willing to help.
Keep in mind, even if you do decide to go forward with your edits on your own, that acquisition editors today expect that a manuscript has been professionally edited before it arrives in their inbox. Most literary agents will suggest that you invest in this service if you have not already done so before signing with them.
Remember that your story is meant to grow and change with each edit. Don’t be afraid to throw out ideas and start fresh or to stick to your guns when there is an element of your writing that you love. This contest is meant to help you create the best possible story but it is up to you how you move forward after your scores have come in!