Does Potential Matter?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Blog reader Sheri asked: How does an agent assess potential? Let’s say an agent reads some work from an unpublished author and loves the story; however, the writing is a little rough around the edges. I’ve heard that some agents sometimes work with authors (suggesting rewrites, etc.) because they see the potential. Is that accurate?


Let’s start with the hard truth. Most agents have their hands full—with authors whose writing is not rough around the edges. We also have so many writers submitting projects to us that we can be choosy. Why would we take on an author who’s not ready, when there are several more lined up behind her who are ready?

Unpolished gemstoneBut sometimes we do. Occasionally we see a project that’s a real gem, even though it’s unpolished. We might be willing to put in the extra work to help the author get the writing up a few notches to where it needs to be.

It depends on the particular agent’s interests and strengths. For me, it’s not so much of a stretch since I’ve spent years as an editor, so I don’t mind helping someone polish their rough stone into a shining diamond.

Of course, each agent has their own answer to this question. Some have client lists packed with bestselling authors, and may not be interested in representing someone who’s not quite ready.

Don’t count on an agent to smooth out your rough edges. You’ve got a lot of competition—writers whose edges aren’t rough. Assume those rough edges will be cause for an agent to say “no” even if it’s a disappointed or begrudging “no” because they really like aspects of your work. Make it the best it can be, before you submit. Sounds obvious, but I receive an amazing number of “first drafts” in my inbox.

If an agent agrees to represent you but says they’d like to work with you to smooth out your manuscript before submission, I recommend you jump on that! You’re being offered a valuable service from someone who probably knows what they’re doing.

Knowing that agents sometimes take on a writer based on potential rather than a polished manuscript—but it’s rare—should tell you two things:

1. You really should do everything you can to polish your manuscript and proposal until you believe it’s “publication ready.”

2. And when you believe you’ve done all you can on your manuscript, you’ve got to call it “done,” submit it, and trust that agents and editors will see past any flaws to recognize your potential.

How do you know when your manuscript or proposal is polished enough? Have you ever worried whether agents or editors would see your potential?



Does your submission have to be perfect, or will an agent represent you based on potential? Click to Tweet.

Occasionally agents take on a project that’s a gem, even if it’s unpolished. Click to Tweet.

Don’t count on an agent to smooth out your rough edges – polish that manuscript! Click to Tweet.


26 Responses

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  1. I go with French poet Paul Valery on this one. He said, “Poems are never finished, only abandoned.” I sort of feel this way about books. That’s why I never go back and look at my own books after they’re in final form for publication–there’s always something I wish I could change.

  2. lisa says:

    Worried about editors and agents seeing my potential. Yes! I think as an unpublished writer you experience a lot of daily doubt of whether you have what it takes.

    That being said, I just love writing. I’m going to keep working, polishing and learning all I can to move forward 🙂

  3. Jeanne T says:

    This is such a great reminder to make sure when I submit something, it’s a polished gemstone, not a diamond surround by coal. BTW, I like the geod picture–so perfect for this post.

    That being said, I think, I hope I’ll know when my ms is ready to publish. I plan to talk with my critique group in depth to glean their insights before I submit it.

    And, like Lisa said, YES. I worry about agents/editors seeing my potential too. I hope that when I submit, that potential will be visible. 🙂

  4. I have wondered about this exact question, Rachelle. Thanks for the detailed post.

  5. I think it’s really difficult for us to know whether our stuff is ready…but that’s what a great critique partner or group is for. I feel too incredibly close to my work, whereas others can give outside perspective on it.

    And yes, I think most writers (myself included) worry about how our projects look to agents and editors. But in the end, all we can do is our best. We should turn in our best work, but there has to come a point when we finally hit submit. Otherwise, we’ll forever be obsessing that it isn’t good enough.

  6. I’m with you, Lindsay. I have a hard time knowing exactly when a WIP is ready. But I do know that anything I submit has gone through multiple rounds of edits and received feedback from my critique group.

    More than worried about agents or editors seeing my potential, I’m concerned about a field flooded with so many good writers that there isn’t a way to accommodate them all.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      This is similar to the movie world. Lots of good actors, but not enough good movies to put them in. They have potential, but not opportunity. Same with talented screenwriters.

      Hopefully we writers have better options than actors and screenwriters LOL 🙂

  7. Dale Cramer says:

    A first book is a learning process. I spent three years on my first one and rewrote it six or seven times before I got tired of it and started looking for an agent. The key is, don’t submit it until you’re tired of looking at it.
    Janet’s blurb in the Agents Guide said her list was full and she wouldn’t consider a new writer unless she loved the writing. I sent a proposal anyway. She wrote back and said she loved the writing but there were pov problems, and if I could fix them she’d take another look.
    I got six books on pov and read them back to back, printed out a hard copy and went through it with a highlighter, then tore apart the manuscript, did a massive rewrite and turned it around in six weeks. Apparently I passed the test, because she took me on and I’ve been busy ever since.
    The thing is, all she said was “pov problems”. When an agent of Janet’s stature says “Here’s your problem,” you should listen. Then get busy. It’s entirely up to the writer to focus on the problem, understand it and fix it. The way to get published is to be a better writer.

  8. What if an agent sees your potential, requests a full ms, and you don’t send it immediately because you need to polish? There’s a fine line between rushing through the process so they don’t forget, and being thorough and intentional so you send in your very best work.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Jenni, I’ve heard people say take the time to polish it before you send it in. You want it to be good because you only get one chance to make a good first impression. I’m not sure the best thing to do it you’re a few months away from sending it, but I do know you want to send your very best work. 🙂

  9. Larry says:

    I suppose one of the problems with the e-book market is that a writer can find success with even a sub-par product, and it is that sub-par product which goes on to be what influences the genre.

    Not to say that doesn’t occur in traditional publishing, but it would be nice if that was one relic of a previous era left behind by the self-pubbed folks.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      I agree. Self-pubbed books really muddy the waters. Ultimately the readers become jaded, and IMO they project their views of self-pubbed books onto trad-pubbed books, saying they’re all “the same.”

      We know they’re not. There are differences in editing, standard of writing, etc, but in the end, we need the readers to buy the books they want to read so we can pay the bills LOL. Sure, there are gems among the self-pubbed authors, but very rate. I hesitate to step into the self-pub arena for those reasons.

      So now, I stand facing the inevitablity of my mss taking forever to get published, my having to query and wait, query and wait, query some more. Like I’m in the Marines or something — hurry up and wait. The looong process of getting into the trad-pub door is a time that can try a writer’s soul.

      My hubby said — just self-pub already and keep the 75% profit.

      • Larry says:

        Wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is a distinct difference in quality control of self-pubbed books versus traditionally published books (especially with editing itself seemingly becoming an “a la carte” profession, and not a salaried one, with fewer publishers and thus fewer traditional editor jobs), but I do agree that with such a new market, finding out how to sell product with so many other vendors offerring their own product can be daunting.

        And I like his idea: keeping the majority of sales for doing the majority of work, now if there is an idea traditional publishers should pick up, it is that one. 🙂

  10. Jan Thompson says:

    “1. You really should do everything you can to polish your manuscript and proposal until you believe it’s “publication ready.”

    Rachelle, that is the best advice I’ve heard thus far regarding getting published. You have said that before in your blogs, and I’m glad you said it again. I need to be reminded today that my mss should be ready to publish when I query.

    Second to that, the next best writing advice I heard today is what Dale Cramer wrote in his comments above: ” The way to get published is to be a better writer.”

    Thanks, guys!

  11. Keli Gwyn says:

    I’m living proof that it pays to listen to your agent. I was one of those clients who showed potential but whose story ended up needing work. Lots of work in my case, due to a plot weakness newbie writer me had been blind to. What did I do when I heard that I needed to ditch the final 3/4ths of my manuscript and start over? I said, “Thanks for the input” and dug in. A year and one massive rewrite later Rachelle sold that story. Am I ever glad I listened. 🙂

  12. Peter DeHaan says:

    I prefer to keep tweaking my words until I realize my changes aren’t making it any better, but are only making it different. Then I know it’s time to submit.

    Of course deadlines can make that decision for me.

    • Larry says:

      “I prefer to keep tweaking my words until I realize my changes aren’t making it any better, but are only making it different.”

      Indeed! The revising process is strange, how it sometimes seems like an entirely different story comes about. Realizing what needs to be changed, and what merely changes what the author wants to say, is one of the hardest parts of revising a story.

  13. Lisa Bogart says:

    Say the writing is tight, there is another aspect of potential: the business side of being a writer. Do you have a platform of some kind? Are you willing to grow that area? Are you willing to do speaking gigs?

    Do agents look at that as well?

  14. sjpowers1 says:

    I know it’s true that agents rarely take a book of short stories unless the writer also has a novel. But what if the writer is also working on a mixed media book of creative non-fiction and some micro-fictions? Any hope?

  15. donnie and doodle says:

    . . . I polish and shine donnie’s shoes – once a week – before he goes to church.

    Will that get me any extra points with an agent?

  16. Dr. Michelle Bengtson says:

    I think as we are in the writing process we have to remember to commit our work to the Lord, and He will direct our paths. If we are open to correction and teaching in all forms He may present them, then we can produce a better product for His glory.

  17. All very good points. Will bear them in mind.