Literary agents on revision

Finishing a manuscript is an exciting moment—you started with a vision, you put in the long hours, and you've finally seen it through. It's tempting to think your creation is pretty much finished. You will no doubt have some tidying up to do, but after a proofread or two, your masterpiece is surely ready for the world. Right??

Unfortunately, your journey toward publication has only just begun. There is still a lot of work to do. You've laid the foundation for something great, but in order to succeed as an author, you need to accept that revision is (at least) half the battle.

Most writers don't spend enough time on revision before querying agents

 

Be absolutely certain the work is ready before you submit. Most people query before they’re truly ready. Lisa Grubka

You might be tempted to think that extensive revising is something that only budding novelists are required to do. Not so. In fact, many authors revise more and more as their careers progress. That being said, every project is different; each narrative comes with its own demands.

Take bestselling author John Green as an example. On his website, he says he deletes most of his first drafts, sometimes as much as 90%. Each time he makes a significant change to a work-in-progress, he saves a new file with a corresponding revision number. His final draft of An Abundance of Katherines was numbered 284, and his final for The Fault in our Stars was 192.

It is very clear when we receive a manuscript that is an early stage of drafting.Kerry D’Agostino

You will usually go through a few more rounds of revision with an agent. Then, when you land that sweet book deal, you will need to do more revisions for the publisher. However, agents are not interested in taking on work that still needs a big overhaul. They need to know that their clients have what it takes to put in the long hours, to keep pushing until their manuscript is as good as it can possibly be. For this reason, it's critical that most of the work is done before your query hits their inbox.

I see potential in almost every submission, but most projects I receive are at too early a stage for me to offer representation.Jennifer March Soloway

You only get one chance with an agent, so don't blow it by submitting your manuscript before it's truly ready.

Here are a few more quotes from our Book Broker interview series:

A lot of writers think that they should submit to agents once they have a solid first draft, but I tell writers that they should instead think of the manuscript as ready when they can’t do any more work on it. Do multiple drafts. Take some time away from it. Ask trusted friends to read it for you. Carrie Plitt

Take the time to edit your book: once you’ve finished it, put it away for a month, and then read it with a bit more distance.Juliet Mushens

Take your time. Truly. I’d rather wait and receive a manuscript that has been polished than something that’s been hastily submitted in order to get it to me sooner. Yes, I could fall in love with a story and request an R&R (request and resubmit), but reading that R&R loses the magic that could’ve happened on the first read.Karly Caserza

Make sure your work is ready.  Don't finish a draft and then send it out.  Let it sit for a while and reread, and ask other trusted readers to weigh in. I see many projects that have potential but they're not close enough to being marketable for me to take on.BJ Robbins

Workshop your manuscript, get feedback, revise. I would say most writers try too soon. They may have something great, it’s just not great yet.Betsy Lerner


David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

About the Darling Axe

Our editors are industry professionals and award-winning writers. We offer narrative development, editing, and coaching for every stage of your manuscript's journey to publication.



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2 comments

  • Thank you!

    Renee L Bakes
  • “I tell writers that they should instead think of the manuscript as ready when they can’t do any more work on it.” This agent has known a different brand authors than I have (or am). I have never known one that came to the point that they could find nothing to change. I could tinker forever and still find a ‘that’ I could take out or very possibly put back in or a sentence somewhere I could make more ‘graceful’ until I tinkered the heart right out of the work. There comes a point when an author simply has to say ‘stop’.

    JR Tomlin

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