Inside the Literary Agent Revision Process

Last week, Christa asked the following question about literary agent revision (edited slightly):

What are revisions are usually like between agent and writer? Are there common mistakes you see with each client, or does it vary? What is most revised, usually, or is it all over the board? And what kind of turn around time do most agents appreciate (I’m sure it all depends on the amount of revision–but maybe an approximation or something) for the revisions to be completed?

literary agent revision, manuscript feedback
Someone just got his literary agent revision notes!

Great question. I love doing editorial work with clients and I think most agents feel similarly. A lot of writers also appreciate the manuscript feedback before going out on submission. My thought is… if we can strengthen a project and give it the best chance of attracting an editor, why the heck not?

General Outline of the Literary Agent Revision Process

The literary agent revision process really does depend on the manuscript. Here’s how it usually goes, though:

First Things First

I read your book, I love your book, I float a few literary agent revision ideas by you before offering representation, you like my thoughts and you sign up with me.

The Second Read and Giving Manuscript Feedback

I read your manuscript again. I do some light line-editing, honing in on small nitpicky details and areas where the writing or voice could be smoothed in the manuscript. More importantly, I look for character, plot, structure and pacing issues on a macro level. These are things that affect more than just a paragraph or a page. Do two similar best friend characters need to be combined into one? Is the tension of the subplot low throughout the piece? Can we strengthen a character’s relationship with her mother? Etc. etc. etc. These are the bigger changes that I think will make the manuscript stronger and help the storytelling become more compelling.

Genius at Work

The writer gets my manuscript feedback, crafts a voodoo doll in my image and eats some ice cream. Several days pass and they realize a) I’m on their team and b) I’m freaking brilliant (and humble!). If there are any questions or disagreements, I invite my client to talk to me, argue, discuss, vent. We brainstorm together and often surprise each other with unexpected solutions. Then the writer works on the literary agent revision process. These really do take as long as they take, and each project is different. I’ve seen them take a weekend, I’ve seen them take months. For me, I want them done in a timely manner but quality is much more important. My big pet peeve is seeing a revision that’s been expedited but is incomplete. Revision is a complicated process… you think, you stew, you gnash your teeth, you get ideas, you work and rework… revising your novel can’t be rushed.

My Turn Again, and a Decision

I read the revision ASAP. My challenge is to try and see it with fresh eyes, forget the last draft, and evaluate whether or not it’s “editor ready.” That last bit can be a difficult decision. Do I want to push the writer into another revision and make it perfect perfect, or is the potential clearly evident, even if I still see a few small tweaks that could be made? I’m a ruthless perfectionist. I find holes and opportunities in everything, even books that have been published and decorated with awards. I realize I can’t hold every manuscript to the standard that’s in my head. So at this point, it’s really my call whether or not to go back to the writer. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the manuscript looks great or only has a few tiny issues remaining, I go out on submission. If it needs another revision, it’s lather, rinse, repeat, only there should be much less work to do on the second pass.

There are all sorts of situations that can arise with literary agent revision, though. The writer can totally go off in a different direction and it turns out they’ve made the manuscript worse. This is a situation that’s happened to every agent and it is an icky, horrible one. Everyone has different skills when it comes to writing. Some people are good at revision, others aren’t. You never know how strong your client’s skills are in this department until you go through a round. Luckily, though, once writers are at the level where they’re working with an agent, they’re usually revision professionals.

Don’t Rush Through Revision

A lot of Christa’s questions can only be answered, unfortunately, with “It depends on the client and the manuscript.” However, I just want to hammer home that the most common revision mistake I see is rushing through the work. Some writers see notes and take them very literally. They only fix those notes — as if checking them off a To Do list — and spend no time thinking and imagining how else they might refine, finesse, deepen. They go through page by page but never stop to consider how to take their manuscript to the next level. My expectation is that there’s always some creative evolution, above and beyond the things I mention in my manuscript feedback. I can always tell when a writer has rushed through revision, because it comes back with changes that have only been made at the surface level.

But let me make one thing perfectly clear. I only sign a client and work on literary agent revision in-depth when I absolutely love the project and am confident I can sell it. Otherwise, it’s a disservice to me and the writer. I can’t pitch something I’m not crazy passionate about and every writer deserves nothing less in their advocate. So when I give manuscript feedback — even if they seem like a lot of work — it’s because I believe in the project and the author with all my heart. And there is very little that’s more satisfying and gratifying to me than reading a revision that has been absolutely, positively hit out of the ballpark.

Revising a book? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll challenge you to make your manuscript the best it can be before you send it off to agents.

25 Replies to “Inside the Literary Agent Revision Process”

  1. What strikes me as best here is the idea that this isn’t a demand from you, the agent, but more of a communication between the agent and the writer. It’s comforting to know that my perception of what would work best–communicating about how to strengthen the story, with both sides working communally–is also yours.

  2. I love the interactive editing process. On a recent short, I pinged back and forth w/ the editor about 30 times… sure, some of it was just simple line edits (and different interpretations of comma usage :)), but there was definitely lots of interplay about the evolution of the story… ended up going from 6,000 to 7,000k (didn’t really add any scenes, just motivation and atmosphere to help strengthen the product). Overall, a great experience.

  3. Thanks for reading, everyone. The revision process and putting my editorial hat on are two of my favorite things about agenting. Look for some more posts on this subject a little later this month!

  4. Shelley — Believe me, I figured out the voodoo doll when my limbs started jerking every time I sat down to give revision notes! You writers are a clever bunch.

    Ann — “More of a compass than a map,” that’s a great analogy! I’ll have to use that someday. 🙂

  5. Great post. I’ve read quite a few blog posts where writers talk about the revision process with their agent, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to read about it from an agent’s point of view. Thank you.

  6. Ms. Kole, My greatest fear with revision is making it worse. Thank you for giving us an agent’s point on view. It’s uplifting to know that some agents actually enjoy the editing process!

  7. I want an agent for the obvious reason–to sell my book–but I also can’t wait to have someone as invested in improving my writing as I am. Until I read this post, I imagined agents didn’t do such intense revisions with their clients, but you’ve really opened my eyes.

  8. Marie — Thank you! Since I come from a writing background myself and have worked on the editorial side of publishing, editing is really important to me. Stay tuned. In a couple of weeks, I’ll talk a bit more about what it’s like to be an agent who edits. Do keep in mind, though, that I have heard agents say at conferences and to me personally: “If it doesn’t come in 100% ready to sell, I don’t bother.” That’s not a choice *I* would make, because one of the things that’s really important to a writer about having an agent is that the agent is the first “official” industry person to take a shine to their writing. That agent is supposed to know better about what’s selling and help get the novel to that point. How can a writer know what’s “editor ready” by themselves?

  9. It’s refreshing to know that you work with a writer and suggest revisions to the writer’s manuscript. I belong to two writers groups and find receiving other people’s opinions and suggested revisions very helpful. It often fires my imagination so that new ideas or directions evolve, and it always improves the quality of the manuscript.

    As a fiction writer as well as an agent, do you find a relationship between the amount of changes the editors for your clients make and the amount of time you spend with those clients in perfecting the manuscript? That is, do the editors for your clients make fewer major changes than editors who are working with other agents who do not spend the time working with their clients to improve the manuscripts? I’m not sure if this is an answerable question. It obviously depends on a knowledge of other agents, their clients, and their editors, but perhaps this is a matter common discussion among agents.

  10. Perfectionism and passion for editing are qualities I would appreciate and require in an agent. Finding an agent, who can take what you feel is your “ready” manuscript and turn it into an “editor ready” story seems to be such a gift. A second set of eyes to get you closer to publishing… Thanks for the inside look into the agent’s mind.

  11. I have to make multiple revision sweeps of my manuscript to avoid the dreaded surface sweep.

    First is the critique group comments sweep, where I make the valid changes that my critique group suggested and ignore the invalid ones.

    Second is the macro revision read, where I print the novel out and read it through as if it were a published novel and I’m critiquing its airplane-view flaws.

    Third is the read-aloud line revision, where I read the entire thrice-revised novel aloud to myself to see if the language flows well enough to be read aloud. It’s one thing for the words to make sense on paper. It’s another thing to make sense off the tongue.

  12. Denise — I’ll schedule a post about your question… but I’ve got stuff lined up through next month, so look for it then.

    Jonathan — Your tip about reading work aloud is a very valuable one. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Revision is the best part of writing. That’s where the real juices flow for me, weaving the story back in on itself and seeing the deeper patterns emerge. This is a writer’s work, and it has to become a whole cloth before the agent or editor can really take it on. You are right, Mary, to not jump in too soon.

  14. I loved this post, especially:

    “I’m a ruthless perfectionist. I find holes and opportunities in everything, even books that have been published and decorated with awards.”

    Same here. It’s like every story devised on earth waits for my analysis. In my head, I compose hypothetical, detailed letters to authors and screenwriters. I tell them why their award-winning novel isn’t quite there yet, what they could do to improve, why I don’t like their character. Might seem high-handed to some but in actuality, this is how I teach myself. And I also think up reasons why I love their character, why their pacing works etc. Clarification of craft devices is a very good thing.

    I find revision thrilling, because it’s where everything becomes *more*. I love the constant surprise.

  15. This post is a whole plate of awesome and one I hadn’t read before. Of the authors I hear/read about with agents, some take a month to get submission-to-pub ready and some take a year, so this helps clarify what’s going on. Thanks, Mary.

  16. This post was so interesting and useful for me – my co-author and I are going through the first revision process right now before we query and I always wonder how much an agent likes to tweak and/or contribute to the editing process. Our goal is to send the best manuscript we can (I LOVE EDITING!), but a fresh pair of eyes and a brain with different experience can see a range of things than we or our prereaders might miss. If an agent likes what we’ve written, it will be interesting to see what s/he suggests to improve the story.

    On an unrelated note, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy this site. It feels positive, helpful, supportive, and honest all at once. You really are a joy to follow on Twitter and here. Thank you for what you do.

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