What is a Reader’s Report?
A Reader’s Report is a tool used by literary agents and acquiring editors to neatly summarise a manuscript for those who haven’t read it. In agencies, reports are most often completed by assistants and interns for the benefit of the agents (who don’t always have time to do all of their own reading). In publishing houses, editors (or their assistants) will write a report if they have a manuscript that they would like to acquire. In publishing houses, you need approval to acquire a manuscript, and giving a reader’s report to the other editors is the first step.
- A tagline for the manuscript
- A brief breakdown of the sales handle (Title, genre, word count, author, and any important credentials the author has)
- 2-3 paragraph plot description
- 2-3 paragraph analysis of strengths and weaknesses
- Ultimate recommendation for or against representation/publication
The breakdown of the sales handle is pretty self-explanatory – the author or agent should have included all of that info in the query, but here are some tips about how to improve on the rest of the components.
1) The tagline: also called the hook. Not all reader’s reports require this, but it’s still a useful thing to practice. This should only be a sentence or two and should capture the tone and premise of the novel. For example: “A young woman–with the help of her fairy godmother–overcomes familial, societal, and socioeconomic hurtles to make her way from rags to riches.” And yes, I did just describe Cinderella.
The goal here is to make the book sound as interesting as possible. Even if the manuscript was awful and boring, try to make it sound interesting. Here’s how to do it:
- Hone in on the essence of the plot. Is it a sci-fi? Make that obvious. Fantasy? Be sure to include whatever magic or mythical creatures are involved (see Fairy Godmother). A non-fiction manuscript about paint-drying… at least include how it’s different from all of those other paint-drying manuscripts out there!
- Keep it short and uncomplicated. Really. Getting bogged down in descriptions and drawn out sentence structures can make an otherwise snappy tagline awkward and tedious.
- Practice with every book you read and check out the published tag lines (they’re usually on the back cover or the inside flap).
2) The plot description: And you thought only authors needed to write synopses. If only.
Fitting the plot of an entire manuscript into 2 or 3 paragraphs is grueling, and it’s something that gets easier with practice. It may take you a really long time when you’re just starting out, but here are some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t use any unnecessary words. No really. Adverbs are pretty much always useless in this situation, and adjectives should be used sparingly. Never use multiple words when you can use one.
- Don’t recount every little thing that happens in the manuscript. Some plots are incredibly complicated. Don’t bother describing unnecessary side-plots or every little scene between the hero and heroine. Your objective is to describe how the characters get from point A (the beginning) to point B (the ending) while conveying why the resolution is satisfactory. Capture the main plot arch and any important information that contributes to the resolution. Otherwise, leave it out.
- When you’re done drafting your synopsis, go over it again at least twice. You’ll find that there are words and entire sentences that you can delete. With synopses, the cleaner and more to the point, the better, so even if you’re under three paragraphs, chances are that you could improve the quality at least a little.
3) Analysis of strengths and weakness: There’s really only one tip for this, and that is to read every manuscript knowing what makes a good book good. If you go in thinking “books need good character development,” then you’re more likely to notice when the character development is bad (or when it’s particularly excellent). Here’s the basic criteria that I judge manuscript with:
- Characters–characterisation (is it developed well, and are the characters three-dimensional?), character arcs, ability to relate to characters or sympathize with them, believability of dialogue.
- Voice and Narration
- Pacing of the manuscript
- Plot–is it interesting? Is it seamless or are there plot holes?
When you’re reading, be sure to take notes so you remember what you liked and didn’t like. Then, when you’re writing your critique, you can structure things one of two ways. One, by topic: if there’s a lot that you want to say (both good at bad) about characterisation, you can devote an entire paragraph just to that. Two, divide the section between strengths and weaknesses.