“Will you read my manuscript?”

- by Laura Resnick

No, I won’t.typewriter

I don’t read or critique manuscripts. And, no, it’s not because I’m mean. (I am mean; but that’s not the reason I don’t read manuscripts.)

My skill is writing, not editing. I haven’t the faintest idea how other writers can make their work “good.” I’m fully occupied with learning how to make my work “good.” So I just write. I don’t critique or edit.

When you ask a professional writer to read your manuscript, you’re wildly underestimating just how big a favor you’re requesting. Critiquing a manuscript is work and it’s very time-consuming; and critiquing it tactfully is exhausting. (Most writers, having been on the receiving end of vicious reviews and harsh editorial notes, try to make the medicine easier to swallow when commenting on an aspiring writer’s manuscript. This is perhaps misguided, though, since it doesn’t prepare you for enduring editors and agents, let alone critics.)

More to the point, though, the belief that my reading your manuscript will have any effect whatsoever on your fate is a complete misconception of how the publishing industry works.

Computer cuteUnlike the portrayals you see in the movies or the tales you hear from people who have no idea what they’re talking about, the reality of the professional publishing world is that even if I think you’ve written a life-altering novel of staggering genius, I cannot get it published for you. I don’t mean I won’t, I mean I can’t—in much the way that I can’t make you thin, either.

An editor has to think you’ve written a life-altering novel of staggering genius (or at least a commercially viable book) for you to get it published. I have no influence over what editors think, and editors DO NOT CARE what I think (about anything, actually). In fact, every editor I’ve ever known would be Very Annoyed with me for spending my time reading and lobbying for your work rather than focusing entirely on delivering my best possible work in the timeliest possible manner. (An under-contract writer can be rushed to the ER as the victim of a random shooting; or narrowly escape being eaten by cannibals; or have triplets unexpectedly; and the editor’s first words to the writer, upon getting such news, are always, “How’s the book coming?”)

Additionally, reading your manuscript puts me in a potentially dangerous position.red-dragon If I have very recently written, am currently writing, am planning to write, or ever happen to write anything that even faintly resembles some minor aspect of your manuscript, I’m opening myself to an expensive nuisance lawsuit from you by reading your manuscript, or at least to the stress of dealing with your false accusations. And I don’t want that monkey on my back.

Another risk is that you’ll be bitterly offended by my comments about your work. Or deeply hurt. I’ve nothing to gain by offending or hurting you, so I’d rather just avoid the whole thing. Most amateurs have a very different thickness of skin about their writing than professionals do. I often talk with professionals who are puzzled because a friend or colleague, whose request to read a manuscript the writer felt he or she couldn’t refuse, subsequently reports feeling “skinned alive” or “knocked flat” by the writer’s comments about the material… which comments the writer actually intended to be upbeat and kind. Moreover, almost any professional writer who’s read manuscripts for scant acquaintances or total strangers a few times has wound up having someone go ballistic on her because they felt bitterly hurt or deeply wounded by her comments. No, hysterical hate mail and vague threats aren’t the usual response to manuscript evaluation; but they happen just often enough to writers who open that door that I, for one, prefer to keep it closed.

Moreover, since I don’t even like most published books, the chances that I’ll like your book are slim. That’s just the law of averages. This isn’t because I’m brilliant and exacting; it’s because I’m the literary equivalent of an annoyingly fussy eater. (Whereas when it comes to food, there’s almost nothing I won’t eat!) Even my closest friends hesitate to recommend books to me, because my reading tastes are so excruciatingly specific. And there are any number of award-winning, critically acclaimed and/or bestselling novels that I try to read each year and dislike, toss aside, or even feel tempted to use as kindling. So clearly my opinion of your work is of no use to you, in any case.

(This is also, incidentally, why I’d make a lousy editor. An editor needs to be able to see and appreciate the qualities in a book that a wide audience will see and appreciate in it. I don’t have that range of vision when I read.)

As for the passionate, fervent, sometimes rabid conviction held by various aspiring writers that those of us who are published got here by convincing a professional writer to read our work back when we were aspiring (and now we’re being selfish ingrates by refusing to give you the same Secret Handshake)… That’s a myth. It’s right up there alongside other popular and wholly erroneous myths about the business, such as, “You need to know someone to get published” (no, you need a commercially viable manuscript that you submit in a professional manner to an editor who loves it and thinks it will be profitable for his/her house) and “editors will fix all the mistakes in your book for you” (no, and please see my previous blog, Who Writes The Book? for an explanation of what editors do and don’t do).

However, despite being too selfish a troll to read your manuscript for you, I do maintain and regularly update an extensive Writer’s Resource Page full of excellent information, links, resources, and recommendations. I also readily answer people’s questions about the publishing business and give advice when asked for it, which is often. (However, the most common questions–ex. “How do I get a manuscript published?” and “How do I get an agent?”–are such huge, vague questions that instead of answering, I’ll refer you to my Writer’s Resource Page, where you can begin the extensive self-education you need about such basic questions if you’re actually serious about writing professionally.) And I teach some writing workshops where I discuss various writing principles and possible ways to approach doing the work.

If you want feedback on your manuscript from a professional, the Writer’s Resource Page of my website also includes a list of reputable freelance editors who will read and comment on your work (for a professional fee). The page also contains links to essays by various other professional writers who explain why they don’t read manuscripts, either.

One comments

  1. I found your post looking on yahoo for just this information. I’m going to add you to favorites, I got alot from some of your other posts as well. Thanks!