There’s something I’d like to clear up about working with a literary agent: their job is to sell your already-polished work to a publisher. Their job isn’t to help you develop a half-baked idea or to provide free editorial services.
Granted, when I was an agent, I loved the editorial process of working with a manuscript. It said that right in my bio on the agency website. That’s why I started my own editorial agency — so I could focus on the work I enjoy the most.
But when agents say, “I love to do editorial work with clients!” it opens up an ugly Pandora’s box. When certain unprofessional writers see an agent’s passion for editorial work, they think it’s okay to query with statements like:
I know this needs a lot of work but I’m fed up with it. I need professional help because, if I ever have to look at this manuscript again, so help me God…
I never done written nothin’ befor so I need sumone to healp mak this teh best book evar…
Together we can develop this into a bestseller bigger than Twilight and Harry Potter combined…
My idea is so great, and if you could only write it for me…
Working with a Literary Agent: What it Entails
An agent makes money by doing one thing: selling books. Not by developing projects (though that’s a huge part of the work they do every day…for clients), not by taking on the role of a freelance editor, not by ghostwriting, not by playing critique partner for free (advice for finding critique partners here). That’s not an agent’s job, and is essentially wasting time on something that, most likely, will never amount to anything.
When I was an agent and I said that I loved doing editorial work with my clients, that didn’t mean that I had the ability or desire to rehabilitate every querier’s Ugly Ducking Manuscript into The Next Bella Swan. It didn’t mean I wanted to fix your hot mess. It meant that I was hands on and loved to give guidance to the clients I signed.
The Most Important Thing to Remember
The clients I took on already had manuscripts that were 95% ready for editors to see them. That meant I took the best of the best and made sure it was irresistible to publishers. If I saw promise and potential and, ahem, professionalism and craft, I worked with a writer until the ends of the Earth. If a writer begged for me to fix their thing for free, I shook my head and chuckled. Impatience, as you can see from the comments in It’s Easy to Get Published, is one of the biggest mental hurdles writers have.
The point is, if you can’t bear to look at your manuscript one more time, hire a freelance editor. If you’ve never written anything before in your life and you want to know whether you’re doing it right, keep writing because you’re probably not. If you want free guidance from another reader, join a critique group. If you want someone to develop a project with you, try to get a co-writer who will agree to work for free and take a risk on you.
However, if, and only if, you want someone to take your nearly-editor-ready, sparkling, beautiful manuscript and sell it, then working with a literary agent makes sense, because that is what an agent does.
The Diamond in the Rough
I know a lot of people will think “But what if something really is a diamond in the rough and working with a literary agent is what it needs to be the next Harry Potter?” I’m sure this has happened. But you know what? When I was an agent, I tried doing that with a few writers. I really saw promise…or convinced myself I did. There were glimmers of hope. I spent hours giving extensive literary agent notes.
But the problem with people who have promising yet unpracticed writing is that the writer doesn’t have as many revision skills as people who have been writing and honing their craft for a while. Every single one of the “diamond in the rough” projects I tried to rehab fell apart in the revision phase and I pretty thoroughly learned my lesson. If some writer were to come to me and say “Here, please fix my urchin of a manuscript and, oh yeah, I’ve invented a machine that’ll give you 24 more hours in every day”…then I might’ve given it a second thought, but not before. 🙂
I’m no longer a literary agent, but I love providing editorial services to writers of all skill levels who need help polishing their work.