In praise of appraisals

by Paul

We all experience turning points. Those epiphanies that change the way we look at the world, at other people, at ourselves. Afterwards, nothing is ever quite the same again. It can’t be.

Of course, epiphanies can become addictive. There’s little to compare with that moment of blinding light and heightened awareness and the new sense of direction they provide, but sometimes they can leave us feeling as if we’ve been ground into the dust, and it can take a while to stand up, brush ourselves down and start crawling forward again. So it’s with a blend of embarrassment, humiliation and gratitude that I recall one of the most illuminating epiphanies I’ve had since deciding to write fiction.

Maybe I’d had my eyes closed previously, but, eight years ago, around the turn of the millennium, it seemed as though editorial and manuscript appraisal services sprang into vogue. Overnight, they were advertising everywhere. Or it may be that I began noticing them then because, after receiving too many rejection slips from agents and publishers, I knew something about my writing had to change ... even if I wasn’t sure what that something was.

All the same, having selected a business to entrust my manuscript with, I was still half-hoping to get the quickest response from them:

Your novel is fantastic, it’s as polished as can be, and we hope you don’t mind but we’ve forwarded it to one of our contacts in a publishing house who’d like you to phone them please.

Instead, I took an absolute hammering. The report I paid for was fourteen pages long and pulled no punches. It examined every aspect of the way I’d written my novel and highlighted every flaw. Under a series of headings and sub-headings (Style/Approach, Structure and Plot, Setting, Themes, Character, Grammar and punctuation, etc) it identified what I was doing wrong, with ample examples, and the approaches I needed to consider taking instead. Reading this appraisal was like taking one king hit after another. Fourteen rounds. I was gutted. And I was resistant to some of its truths at first. However, eight years later, I can’t fault the honesty, accuracy and fairness of this report. It was one of the best services I’ve ever bought with my hard-earned cash.

For eighteen months, I didn’t think about approaching publishers or agents, but worked at changing the way I wrote until I felt I’d addressed the criticisms. The report became my guide. After completing two different manuscripts since then, I've approached appraisal services both times before proceeding towards agents and publishers, and both these new appraisals have proved the value of learning from that first response.

Appraisals aren’t cheap, and that’s probably not a bad thing: there’s less chance we’ll ignore quality advice if we’ve paid good dosh for it. There can be no blinding light if our eyes remain screwed shut.


Swubird said...


That was absolutely a fantastic write up in praise of appraisals. Very informative, and well written.

It must take a barrel of guts to submit your work to such a service knowing they will chew it up and literally spit it back out. You want to publish that? It's total junk! You must be made of stone.

But as you say, it helped you to take another look at your writing, and then to work hard to develop some new muscles. My hat's definitely off to you.

Very good post. Have a nice day.

Mike French said...


"That was absolutely a fantastic write up in praise of appraisals."

I totally agree Mark. The article was the first from new writer for the magazine, Paul Burman, who is very talented, and not I'm afraid by me. (Although I wish it was!)

Paul Burman said...

Cheers, Swubird and Mike. I don't think it's always true that there's no gain without pain, but it was certainly true on this occasion. Or maybe it's a matter of wanting to achieve something badly enough that you're prepared to keep re-examining how you approach it until you begin to get it right.

Jon Haylett said...

Great article, Paul, and it's good to see such a talented author reaching for a wider readership. Having used appraisal services I have to agree with most of what you say. I found them honest, informative and thought-provoking. However, while I made changes in response to just criticism, in the end I stuck with what I wanted to write, the way I wanted to write it, on the arrogant basis that there were two possibilities for my writing: either I could change it, or the World's tastes in literature could change to appreciate it. After all, did great writers like Dickens use an appraisal service?

Paul Burman said...

You're spot on, Jon. Some things are non-negotiable, and with confidence we learn what those are. I agreed with most of the comments in response to an early draft of 'The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore' but disagreed strongly about changing the title. The appraiser didn't like the title, but I knew I was going to keep it ... and that's certainly proved to be a sound decision based on people's responses thus far.

gary davison said...

I'm 100% behind you on this article, Paul. It was about the same time as me you started using appraisal services, maybe a bit sooner, but in the end, after living my writing life by them (I agreed with so much of what was said), the turning point came for me when I had enough confidence to disagree with them. To say, cheers for that, but no thanks.

The biggest disagreement I had was when the person giving out the appraisal, said the book was in the same vein as the Catcher in the Rye. My writing was that good. AS IF!!! I complained, asked for another appraisal from someone else, because this gentleman didn't know what he was on about. Nor could he remember the correct names of any of the characters.

When the next appraisal came back, it was much more constructive. Plenty fors and against, and it was making the changes suggested that got me the book deal. Still, in future, I'll always use an appraisal service, except it best be decent or a'll be on the blower complaining!

Paul Burman said...

How tempting it would have been to accept the flattery as genuine and not challenge it, Gary. That takes guts, and I take my hat off to you.

The first appraisal did have its flaws inasmuch as the MS was farmed out to someone with less experience than the ad led me to believe, and this person couldn't hack the task so quit half-way through (I thought it might have been because my writing was so bad and torturous to read!). I wasn't impressed by this or the consequent delays, but the agency offered a discount without being asked, which was fine, except the final report was then addressed to one of my characters ...

Sounds like a litany of problems, but my overall feeling is that it was well worth it.

kathleenmaher said...

I, too, must tip my hat to you, Paul: a litany of problems, indeed.
When a professional reader confuses me with one of my characters, often a man, which the reader dislikes, I admit to losing heart.
Still, I try to remain open to that epiphany. What's sadder than missing the truth?

Paul Burman said...

Thanks, Kathleen. Sounds like we've all been there at one time or another, and there's comfort in that. Although a little worrying too, as this possibly suggests there are too many charlatans amongst the professional appraisers and agents. Perhaps the best way for us to publicise those that are professional and avoid those that aren't is to look for online testimonials and warnings issued under 'Writer Beware'.

Mike French said...


Or of course there is our very own partner Cornerstones!

I used them a few years ago - two reports and a workshop - I found them friendly, helpful and with their help cut my overinflated novel (120 thou) down to size!

When I started out, I read advice about getting your script into shape before sending it to agents, but in my haste ignored that advice

- I wanted that deal NOW and I wanted it badly. I expected agents to ring me up within days wanting to make a deal with me - What a wally!

The rashness of a new writer - I am wiser now - most things of any worth on this little globe of ours takes time - I may have had the natural talent (I hope!) but to assume that somehow writing was different and I didn't need to learn the craft was foolishness.

O and Cornerstones isn't just a UK thing - they have worked with overseas writers and succesfully placed some of the best of those with agents.

Paul Burman said...

And within minutes up pops an online testimonial! On cue. Like magic. Nice one, Mike.

Oh, and that impatience with the latest pride and joy: definitely. I've made that mistake a time or two myself.

kathleenmaher said...

It's excellent to spread the word about any beneficial writing/publishing experience, and horribly tempting to warn others away from agents who may have treated you with no or little regard.

My hesitancy comes up, though, because the business is so difficult. Someone who misleads me might lead another writer to success. One never knows.

A personal and common example: on occasion, I'll open a book the press and my few friends rave about only to find it bores me silly. As a rule, I try it again one to two years later. More often than not, that once boring book sings to me; you can't pry it from my hands.

Mike French said...

I think the safe and professional path to tread Kathleen, is to praise the good agents and publishers but not mention by name in a public arena the companies who perhaps we have had a negative encounter with.

Paul Burman said...

Fair comments, Kathleen and Mike. I imagine we're talking about quite different degrees of unprofessionalism and lack of integrity, and I agree with your comments about respecting differences of opinion. However, there are unscrupulous agencies which have very little to do with actually getting books to publishers and which are designed simply to lure unsuspecting writers into forking out cash. They specify that they're not charging a fee, but simply asking for a contribution (a couple of hundred dollars or more) towards the costs of printing out a number of manuscripts for distribution, along with the postage costs. This is a fee, and no agency with any integrity would do this. As you can probably tell, I had a close encounter with one such online agency a few years back, and if it wasn't for a Writer Beware site might have got burned. The Writer Beware site alerted me that a number of writers had fallen foul of this company, who were really little more than con artists, and who, apart from self-publishing a text or two of their own, had never obtained a legitimate publishing representation for a single author.

kathleenmaher said...

Not only are they unscrupulous, Paul, but my guess is: not too smart. Don't the best thieves target people with money? Those few hundred dollars are candy allowance to rich folk, few of whom write novels, of if they do, tend to have a nice, tight deal set-up. So I suppose.

Mike French said...

Paul: Yep when you are talking on that scale : i.e Scammers then people could try Preditors & Editorsto check out a company first if they are at all unsure - they list the bad guys.

And I was nearly burned to : an agent wanted to take me on - but he wanted to charge me an upfront fee - £200 for admin costs - I took advice and walked.

That advice?

NEVER EVER (however desperate you are) PAY AN AGENT TO REPRESENT YOU.

There you go I think that was clear!

Novice Writer said...

I am yet to have an experience using appraisal service..
Great post, Paul.And very informative comments too..

Paul Burman said...

You're right, Kathleen, emerging writers aren't always the wealthiest targets, but the market can be so diufficult to break into that we may be a tad susceptible, which is why sites like 'Preditors and Editors' are invaluable. Nice link, Mike.

N.W. it's wonderful to see you back in blogdom---you've been quiet recently---and I'm delighted that you've visited The View From Here. I hope you like it enough to return.