Writing: Critiquing Mayborne Manuscripts

I’m in the middle of critiquing book manuscripts for the Mayborn Conference on Literary Non-fiction (it has some long official name that I can never remember) which is in Dallas weekend after this one.

The writer-in-residence and also doer of anything remotely related to the conference, George Getschow, asked me to come up with guidelines for critiquing.  He already had one set of evaluation guidelines for essays in place, so I worked off that and adapted it for book manuscripts. 

Thought it might be interested for everyone to have a look at.  Bear in mind that this is designed specifically for book-length literary non-fiction.  Here you go:

1.  Does the first chapter–the opening of the book–draw you in by teasing your interest, creating a mystery, a puzzle or a question that in some way grabs you and holds your attention?  Does the opening immediately present a conflict?  Or do you get the impression that the author is just warming up?

2.  Does the story deliver sufficient proof to make it credible?  Does the story demonstrate that the writer has done his/her research?  Does it contain telling details, facts, statistics, quotes and other material from a variety of primary and secondary sources to validate the main themes and sub-themes of the story?  Does the manuscript provide historical context?

3.  Does the story have a beginning, middle and end?  Does the manuscript have a clear overall structure?  Are you able to identify a narrative arc for the story?  Does it start in one place and end in another, with logical steps in between?

4.  Is the story presented in scene (showing) or does the writer rely solely on exposition (telling)? Does each scene accomplish a purpose? Does each scene contribute to the whole? Do the scenes, taken together, have a cause and effect flow that adds up to a plot?

5.  Are the people in the story well presented?  Do they come across as multi-dimensional characters or talking heads?  Do they come across as human beings that think, feel, laugh, and cry? Do the characters have an arc?  Do they change and grow over the course of the story?  Is the protagonist clearly identified?

6.  Does the writer use specific, concrete detail and facts that are fresh and relevant, or resort to vague/abstract generalities?

7.  Does the writer employ metaphor, scenes, dialog, and other storytelling devices to make the story more vivid and help it to come alive on the page?

8.  Does the story possess a lyrical quality?  That is, does the story give the impression that the writer has considered the tone of the story, the sound of the language, the rhythm, the rhyme, and the pacing of the prose?

9.  Is there enough material to sustain the story over 300 pages?  Does the story being told warrant a book, or is it better told in an essay?

That’s it!  Pretty extensive, huh? 

Now I better go actually read some of the manuscripts.  In truth, I’ve looked through all 10 submissions to the workshop I’ll be leading and I’m very excited.  The work at the Mayborn is generally at a very high level, and this year looks no different.

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