How Much Should Agents Edit?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Before I became an agent, I’d been editing and writing books for years, so I naturally approached agenting from an editorial perspective. I look for excellence in the craft of writing, and I also use my editorial skills to help polish a proposal or a manuscript before we send it out to publishers. Because I was confident of my ability to do this, I started off more likely to take on books that were “not quite there” and try to edit them into perfection.

However, this quickly became overwhelming. I realized I was giving away thousands of dollars worth of editorial expertise, with no guarantee of ever recouping it. (I don’t charge clients for editing.) I also believe it’s important for potential publishers to see the writer’s true work as much as possible, and when I did too much editing, this wasn’t going to happen.

red pens I finally realized there’s a limit to how much editing an agent should do. I can’t get out there and sell books if I’m spending most of my time editing. Bottom line, it’s the author’s job to come to the agent with a publishable book. As much as I want to help everybody get there, I simply can’t do the deep editing work that is sometimes needed to get a manuscript and proposal to a publishable level.

I’ve found a good balance, and it looks something like this:

For most clients…

I’ll make suggestions for improvement in a manuscript or proposal, sometimes a significant amount. I’ll also go through and generally polish the prose—fix formatting, do a little line editing and typo corrections. But nothing so deep as a full developmental edit or line edit, each of which can take 20 to 40 hours of work.

For a few clients…

I’ll spend more time. These are writers in whom I see tremendous potential and I’m super excited about, and I know their proposal or manuscript needs just a bit more work than usual to whip it into shape. I’m occasionally willing to take the risk, spend extra time on the editing process, and see if we can get their manuscript to a publishable level, because I I’d like to partner with them for the long haul. I’m banking on my experience, my instinct and my editing skills. It may or may not pay off. But since it takes so much time, I limit how much I do this.

For the most part…

If I see projects I really like but feel they need too much work before being publishable, I won’t offer representation. Instead, I’ll give some direction for revisions, and suggest the writer work to improve the book and then resubmit.

This has been an interesting learning curve for me… a predictable one, I guess, considering I was a full-time editor before. It’s extremely hard for me to say no to writers in whom I see potential, so if I can’t represent them immediately, I always hope they’ll come back around when their writing has progressed.

Do you have expectations of an agent about editing? Have you even thought about it?

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14 Responses

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  1. Great post, Rachelle, and I think you’ve clearly delineated what an agent really can and cannot do. (Though I do have to admit that the title of the post brought to mind this – How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?)
    * To me, the agent’s editing responsibilities are those broad-brush efforts that bridge the gap between ‘publishable’ and ‘marketable’. My putative agent is the one with the ‘boots on the ground’ knowledge of the market and of the cultures of the various publishing houses. She knows what she can effectively market, and it’s my job to heed her advice. (Such as, “This character is very unsympathetic, and should meet a horrific end by the conclusion of the second chapter, if not before. He should NOT get the lass at the end.”)
    * I would certainly not expect line edits, if she felt that they were necessary, I would expect to be directed to a professional editor to correct that which I slept through in seventh-grade English.
    * Have I thought about it? Yes, actually, I have. More thought recently, inspired by personal circumstance; I am coming to realize with every day the preciousness of every moment, and would be loath to steal, through my own indolence, even a small part of another’s day.

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    Rachelle, what would promote an author into the “few client” category? A winsome personality when you met at a conference? A killer plot? A theme that fires your jets? Or does it have to be an author you are already representing so you already have the professional/emotional commitment?
    *Do you see other agents applying the same criteria you do?

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Carol, in answer to your first question, I suppose what puts a client into that “few client” category is a combination of things… my confidence that I can sell the book to a publisher; my ability to quickly identify things that need fixing and point them out; my overall excitement about the book.

      As far as other agents, I know that there is a wide spectrum of how various agents approach editing. Some agents do zero editing. Many, like those at Books & Such, put a great deal of work into proposals and manuscripts before submitting to publishers. All of us struggle with the question of “how much work?” We have to make good business decisions, and it’s not always easy.

  3. I had similar thoughts, Rachelle, as a member of a critique group. Is it my role to fix all the mismatched verb tenses? Or do I just circle the first couple with a note “watch your verbs”?
    * Yes, it depended on how much I liked the story and the writer — and how much competition there was on my to-do list.
    * But the biggest motivator was the writer’s reaction. If the next chapter I reviewed reflected attention to previous problems, I continued. If not, I was done too. In Andrew’s words, I wasn’t going to let that person continue to steal part of my day.

  4. Fair enough! I’m finishing my first book, but I am a trained writer & editor in the short form. I can follow directions. I can shift to a different style book. I crave feedback & constructive criticism. But I understand the agent’s role. Good point that that publisher needs to see the writer’s work, not yours. Thanks!

  5. Yeah, when I first started submitting to agents I specifically looked for ones who’d been editors because I really wanted that final polish of my story. Now, I’m seeing that I must continue to grow and learn those skills myself. I’ve had an agent tell me exactly what you’re talking about “I love your writing, but I can’t take this on. Send it back after you fix everything.” It is frustrating but does push you to learn new skills and so I am learning.

  6. Rachelle, your perspective makes sense. As an agent, your job is to pitch those projects you feel are marketable. Having an agent with editorial skills is always a plus for clients, but as you mentioned, editing work shouldn’t be an agent’s primary focus.
    *I think offering suggestions for making the manuscript publishable is generous of you, in light of the time you have available to do your work.

  7. Rachelle, I’ve been fortunate enough to observe this metamorphosis first hand, since you took me on as a client. True, if you spent the time and effort to edit every manuscript a client submitted to you, you’d never have enough time left in your day to do what we want an agent to do–let publishers know about our work. Thanks for your efforts.

  8. I would never expect an agent to edit my work. Any help in that area would be icing on the cake. I’ve always just assumed they would help guide me. I’ve always felt it was my job to ready myself …. When I started writing articles, I’d always check to see what my editor repaired, so that I’d know how to do things better next time. My goal has always been to present my work in such a way that nothing has to be repaired. I inch toward that goal. But I always tell my girls regarding writing that they have to want to be good, want to be better. It’s an internal motivation.

  9. Katie Powner says:

    I guess my expectations have always been that an agent would provide general guidance on the more major things, like POV issues or plot holes. I would expect comments like “So-and-so’s POV needs to be deeper at times, you should work on that” or “We never find out what happened to so-and-so’s dog, you need to resolve that.” I would never expect a line or developmental edit, but Carol asks an interesting question: Do you find other agents applying the same criteria?

  10. Shelli said exactly what I was thinking. It never crossed my mind to expect my agent to edit my work. I envisioned more suggestions and bigger-picture help. However, any help in the editing dept would be greatly welcomed! I long to learn and grow and hearing from others in that way is a great way to do that. But I wouldn’t go in expecting it from my agent.

  11. Interesting perspective. As an editor, I find it extremely difficult to read something, see errors, and not fix them. I’m not sure I could be an agent for that reason (and about a thousand others. Y’all have a skill set I wasn’t blessed with.) I can imagine how quickly you could get pulled into hours of work that was supposed to be a tweak here and there. You must have to sit on your hands while you read sometimes.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      To be clear, I will never, ever, see true errors and not fix them, if I’m intending to send it to a publisher. If I’m sending it out, it will be as perfect as we (the author and I) can get it.

    • Iola says:

      Robyn, I agree. I think this is why I do most of my pleasure reading on the Kindle – it forces me to read, whereas I get distracted by errors when reading on paper or on screen (especially on screen).