Why do you need a manuscript evaluation?

Because you’re a writer. Every writer needs honest feedback from a serious fellow craftsman. At a certain point in your work—and you’ll know when you’re there—you need to step back and hand it over to someone who will take the time to go through your hard-earned pages with a red pencil and tell you what works and what doesn’t, what is already strong and what could be improved.

If you’re interested in moving your work from your computer to the bookstore shelves, you need a professional to give it careful scrutiny. Long gone are the days when a writer could present an agent with a boxload of unorganized pages and hope that the agent would recognize the genius therein. Agents expect writers to hand them publication-ready manuscripts, professional down to the last detail. Writing programs and workshops now do much of the work that agents once did. I strongly advise you to participate in writing workshops if you haven’t already, but the fact remains that not all workshops give you the candid, one-on-one attention your manuscript will need before it’s ready to be sent out. If you already have an MFA, you still might find it beneficial to run your work past a professional outside the world of academia—think of it as post-graduate training. I worked with a writer after my degree, and it definitely helped.

Why should you hire me?

No other consultant has my combination of training and expertise with fiction and nonfiction. I bring 30 years of experience in the writing and publishing fields. I have published two historical novels (with Other Press, a Random House client), authored or co-authored more than a dozen nonfiction books (for National Geographic), and published numerous short stories and articles (in Smithsonian, the Washington Post, Islands, Louisiana Literature, and many others).

My background: I earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas, where I taught a wide variety of writing classes. I also worked for five years as a researcher and editor with National Geographic Traveler. And I have given scores of talks about my work at such venues as the National Book Festival, the Southern Festival of Books, the Virginia Festival of the Book, and the Decatur Book Festival. My agent, Ellen Levine, represents authors who have written international best-sellers and won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards. Here is some of the recognition my books have earned: Indie Best Pick, SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) Okra Pick, Southern Indie Bestseller, finalist for the Library of Virginia’s People’s Choice Awards, nominee for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction.

By bringing a scrupulous rigor to every piece I read, I have helped many writers move their manuscripts from pretty good to excellent. To compete in today’s marketplace, every manuscript you send out for publication must be excellent. As my agent says, “We have to put our best foot forward.”

What do my clients say about me?

“John Thompson is a brilliant and perceptive writer, but he is also a great editor, who understands narrative pace, character, dialogue, and all the other elements of a compelling tale. His deft, unerring touch can improve almost any manuscript.” – Stefan Bechtel, author


“It was great working with John on Among Giants: A Life with Whales. He was a big help getting my story in print and keeping it in my voice. His sharp editorial eye gave my book the finished feel it needed before publication. I look forward to working with him again.” – Flip Nicklin, world-renowned whale photographer


“John has given me excellent advice on book proposals, early drafts, and a complete manuscript. With his suggestions we took my material to the next level, which helped me achieve my writing goals.” – Alex Webb, author


“John knows his stuff. His suggestions helped me get control of my raw material, shape it into a coherent and compelling tale, and, in the end, find a market for the story. A certifiably nice guy, he was able to deliver both the good and bad news with honesty, humor, and sympathy. It kept me going.” – Ted Corcoran, MFA


What length manuscripts do I read?

Any length. Send me the first 15,000 words (double-spaced). I’ll read and critique your sample, and then, if you have more you want to show me, we both can decide whether to continue. The 15,000 words can be book chapters, a nonfiction book proposal (or part thereof), a long story, or more than one story.

How long will it take me to read your manuscript?

Generally from one to three weeks. It could be less, but rarely more.

In what ways will I evaluate your writing?

Let’s start with fiction. I read for three basic elements: storyline, writing style, and texture. A compelling storyline is probably the hardest thing to achieve (even for trained writers), and it’s the thing that most often makes or breaks a manuscript on its way to publication. So, first of all, I’ll be looking at how well the story flows from page to page, scene to scene. Like all readers I want to be moved, entertained, enlightened. If things never quite get off the ground successfully, it could be you’ve started in the wrong place, or that you’ve misjudged the strength or credibility of your plotline. If you’ve started well, but things are slowing down in the wrong places and the story isn’t building narrative tension, I’ll pinpoint the reasons and suggest possible solutions. It could be your pacing is off and you need some dialogue instead of another paragraph of description; or maybe it’s time for background on a character. The ending ideally should resolve the conflicts you’ve set in motion, touch on the major themes, and feel both surprising and just right.

Along the way, and through re-reading, I’ll be paying careful attention to your style. How your sentences flow, the sound of the words, and your use of grammar, whether traditional or not, are all extremely important. This is true whether you’re writing a romance, a thriller, or a literary novel. Are you consistently using language that fits with your story and characters? If your tone is off here and there—perhaps funny when it should be serious, or vice versa—the whole story can veer off and readers’ attention and trust are compromised. As for grammar, I’m old-school in one big way: As my mossbacked old English teacher used to say, “Every sentence gotta make sense!”

Finally, your story or book is composed of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual details that give the work its texture. Do you have enough of the right ones? Have you done your research and gotten your facts straight? Sometimes there are too many details—for example, extraneous information in places that unnecessarily slows the story down.

For nonfiction I apply much of the same criteria I use for fiction. Good nonfiction has a strong narrative flow, with information and observation doled out in just the right places to amuse, amaze, and instruct. Whether you’re writing memoir or biography, travel stories or social commentary, I’ll be on the lookout for how you use facts to shape your story, and how you use that intangible thing called voice to create emotional effect.

What about editing and proofreading?

My critiques include editing and proofreading. For manuscripts that need only a professional edit, I might recommend the services of my wife, Margo Browning, who has more than 25 years of experience in copyediting, proofreading, and teaching. Her many years with National Geographic have given her a discerning eye for wayward text.

How do you send the manuscript and how do I deliver the critique?

It’s up to you. You can email me your writing, and I’ll track-edit it so that my corrections and suggestions show up in red. In addition, I’ll send you a detailed critique that, depending upon the length of your work, will run anywhere from one to six single-spaced pages. Or we can use snail mail (please include return postage). If you like, we can also discuss your work via phone or Skype.

Do I handle poetry and scripts?

No. I have a great fondness for these forms, but they’re not in my field.

Do I guarantee results?

I can’t guarantee publication. I can guarantee a thorough evaluation—what you do with my advice is then up to you. If you’re willing to use criticism to revise and polish your work, your odds of finding a good agent and ultimately a publisher will be vastly improved. I’m also happy to help with your pitch letters to agents and publishers. If you want to go the self-publishing route, I can advise you on how to get started and what pitfalls to avoid.

How much will it cost?

Because every project is unique, I work up a price after I’ve looked over your manuscript and we’ve agreed on what it needs.

How do we get started?

Email me your manuscript and/or questions: [email protected]. As soon as I receive your manuscript and PayPal payment or check, I will start reading.

What about ghostwriting?

Many people have great book ideas, but not enough time or expertise to put them into words. My ghostwriting basics: You and I have an initial meeting or meetings (in person or by phone) for several hours. I begin work on the first chapter (paid for in advance), which I then send to you for review. For the following chapters we’ll talk for an hour or two each week (and maintain email correspondence to make sure we’re on the same page). We proceed this way until the completion of the project, at which point I do a revision. I only ghostwrite nonfiction, which usually runs around 25,000-100,000 words and which will take me about 3-12 months to complete. Rates vary for each project. If you’re interested, send me a 500-word synopsis of your book idea, or email me with a list of questions.