Evaluating Manuscripts: The Bellwether Score
By Evan Braun
For the last twenty years, I’ve been involved in evaluating manuscripts for Word Alive Press, both as part of my role behind the scenes of the Braun Book Awards each spring and as part of my everyday editorial duties.
If you’ve ever received an evaluation from us, you’ll know that we look at a broad range of categories. We try to look at each manuscript that comes in as holistically as possible. That’s why we grade each book according to its research and dialogue and structure and plot and all sorts of other ingredients that go into good writing.
But there is one scoring category that, more than any other, serves as a reliable bellwether for whether a book is going to be effective and successful. It would be tempting to conclude that we give this category a greater weight than all the others, but that wouldn’t be true at all. All the categories, in fact, get more or less equal consideration in the final analysis.
However, this one category happens to be highly predictive. That’s what the term bellwether means.
Let me give you an example. In U.S. presidential elections, each of the fifty states declares its own winner—and when the electoral votes get added up, we find out who won the overall election. Did you know that the state of Ohio has voted for the eventual winner every single time since 1803 except for in three elections? This means that the result in Ohio reliably predicts the winner in the whole country more than ninety percent of the time.
That’s why Ohio is often called the bellwether state.
But of course I still haven’t revealed what the bellwether category is on our evaluation forms. Do you enjoy being kept in suspense? (Keeping people in suspense is what all good writers strive to do!)
I’m talking about the “Mechanics” score. In the context of the Braun Book Awards, scoring highly in mechanics probably quadruples your overall chances of getting shortlisted.
Again, it’s not that we’re grading on a curve. We’re not looking at mechanics more closely than dialogue or structure or relevance. But if you’re great in mechanics, that almost always predicts that you’re also going to be great in enough other categories to put you over the top.
It’s not just the Braun Book Awards, by the way.
Fifteen years ago, I was at a writing conference where the speaker, an editor for a major New York publisher, was giving me and my fellow attendees a reality check on just how brutally competitive the publishing industry can be.
“At any given time, there are probably a thousand manuscripts sitting on my desk, vying for my attention,” she said. “It’s very hard to get to the top of the pile. A lot of books never get seen at all.”
That sounded like bad news! But there was some good news that day, too.
She explained that most publishers have a team of assistant editors, and assistant assistant editors, who weed through the submissions long before anything gets to the senior editor’s desk. Their job is to ensure that only the cream of the crop gets filtered through.
Here’s the thing: although it’s true that only two or three books in a hundred will make it past those pre-screeners, the best-written books almost always do. And if you’ve formatted your book properly, know where to put a comma and a quotation mark, and in general have good mechanics, you are almost certain to make it through the first few rounds of sifting.
That’s because the vast majority of submissions contain really subpar mechanics. So if you even get the basics right, you’re probably at least on par. Which means you probably will be successful at “beating the odds” and getting an editor’s eyeballs on your work.
After twenty years doing this kind of work for Word Alive Press, I can confirm that this is true. When I go through all the award submissions, the books with high mechanics score almost always work their way to the top of the pile.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I’ve seen very few exceptions to this one. Of course, you can have a great mechanics score and still fall short. After all, every year we only have one winner. But don’t you want to give yourself the best possible shot?
This is why mechanics is so important.
So take heart! Master mechanics and significantly improve your odds of taking that next step in your publishing career. Good writing does rise to the top.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.