How to See the Potential in an Unpublished Manuscript

Sophie Playle

The other day, I was trying to work out the author’s meaning behind a particularly confusing sentence. This manuscript, I said to a friend, felt like a riddle wrapped in an enigma – and I was the codebreaker. It was a challenge – an exciting challenge.

‘I love that you can see the potential in these books,’ my friend replied.

The word struck me: potential.

It’s a loaded word. I hadn’t really thought about it, but she was right. I was excited by this manuscript because, even though some of the sentences were arguably too convoluted to understand, I was in love with the story and I could see genius behind the words.

I admit, this panicked me a little. The manuscript required a light touch in some places, a heavier more invasive edit in others. The last thing I want to do is damage an author’s voice and alter their style to match my own. But as an editor, I have a duty to the reader, too. It’s my job to act as mediator between the author’s intentions and the reader’s understanding. It can seem like an impossible task, but it isn’t. It simply requires a little depth of thought and a little discussion with the author.

If there’s a sentence I feel doesn’t express its message clearly enough, I edit it for clarity using the logical side of my brain while simultaneously using the creative side of my brain to listen to the nuance, rhythm and musicality of the sentence – the author’s voice. If I’ve changed the sentence significantly, I flag it up so the author can check I’ve retained their meaning.

Perhaps, then, I don’t feel so much like a codebreaker than I do an excavator. I carefully chisel away at sentences to more clearly reveal the treasure beneath, being as careful as possible not to chisel too hard or too much that I cause damage.

In this way editing is both a science and an art.

It’s a job I don’t take lightly. When an author hands me their manuscript, I always feel the weight of responsibility and trust they’ve placed in my hands.

I don’t see the potential in all manuscripts that make their way into my inbox. That’s not to say these manuscripts don’t have potential, just that I personally can’t see it.

I used to take on any manuscript that came my way. After all, if someone wanted to pay me to edit something, who was I to turn them away? Now, I’m of a different mindset. It’s incredibly unsatisfying to work on a manuscript you have no faith in. And it doesn’t seem fair to the author, either, to hand them back a manuscript with an empty ‘good luck’.

Sometimes I can see potential in a manuscript, but I feel sceptical about the author’s ability to get it to where it could be. Rarely do I feel the opposite; if an author has potential, they’ve always managed to impress me with their work on a manuscript that needed elevating.

What makes me think an author has potential?

Usually it’s a mixture of several things: a willingness to learn, a desire to improve, the grit to persevere, the imagination to inspire, and a natural flair for the written word. That last item is a little controversial. Yes, I believe that the mechanics of good writing can be taught, and I believe writers improve with practice. But a little talent can go a long way.

What makes me think a manuscript has potential?

More than anything, it has to have an interesting concept (not necessarily an interesting plot, because sometimes that can be moulded from the concept). The author has to be able to string a sentence together, too – not just in a way that makes sense, but in a way that shows flair, voice, style.

Style and concept. Those are the most important things. Everything else – plot, characterisation, narrative thrust – can be worked on, if the author has what it takes. If they have potential.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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