Oct 18 2009

Why I Don’t Grade With Numbers

“On a scale of 1-10, could you tell me how good…”  Sorry, no.


1.  The results would probably depress you.  Fewer than 1% of scripts and manuscripts get published.  Maybe 5% of submissions are even in the running.  So most authors asking for a numerical grade would sink pretty deep into “not yet publishable” territory.


2. In most cases, a grade would make the review sound a lot more obnoxious and accusatory. Getting published is usually a long-term process that takes a lot of practice and revision, and I think something like “this is a 3!” is likely to make a prospective author feel bad for trying.  On the other hand, dishonestly saying it’s a 6 or a 7 when it actually strikes me as a 2 or 3 would mislead the author into thinking that there’s less work ahead than there actually will be.


3.  If I like a work, I will readily volunteer that. Asking me to grade your work is basically asking me how much I didn’t like it, which could be terribly depressing. “This is a 2 out of 10” is almost assuredly less helpful and encouraging than “Have you thought about tweaking [a list of things]?”


4.  Every time I have graded manuscripts with numbers, I have gotten complaints. For example, “But my friends/family/neighbors/teachers liked it more!” People that know you in real life tend to be unreliable reviewers. (They usually don’t know the industry, they’re unwilling to risk hurting your feelings, etc).


5. Instead of grading with numbers, I would be amenable to ranking problems in order of priority. I think that might help authors focus their efforts on the most serious problems. For example, “I think that the characterization could use the most work right now, followed by dialogue” would give you some ideas of what to work on without making you feel bad.  In contrast, “I would rate your characterization a 2 and your dialogue a 4” is almost assuredly a kick in the teeth.


6.  If you’re really looking for a number… I would venture to say that most of my fiction ranks around a 5 on a scale of 1-10: good enough that the editor will read a few pages, but not good enough to earn a personalized rejection letter.  So, if you think my work is better than yours, both of us probably have quite a ways to go before getting published.


7.  If you knew what my scale looked like, you probably wouldn’t want to be judged by it. Here’s my personal scale of publishability:

  • 10: Destined for a publishers’ auction and good enough that I would want to offer the author a publishing contract right now, or at least refer the author to a publisher that works with this material.  Extraordinarily rare.
  • 9: Good enough to get published somewhere.  Most major publishers reject more than 99.9% of their submissions, so this is still extremely rare.
  • 7-8: Not good enough to publish yet, but promising enough to earn personalized rejection letters.  Publishers get so many unsolicited submissions that assistant editors have the time to personally reject perhaps 1-2% of submissions.
  • 1-6: “Thank you for your submission but it’s not what we’re looking for right now.”

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