How Do I Know When To Stop Editing?

16th September 2020
5 min read
25th January 2021

In this extract from Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent — a quick-fire introduction to the process of gaining literary agent representation — James Rennoldson looks at a common problem that writers can face: knowing when to stop editing..

Guide to How to Hook an Agent

This is a tricky one for you to answer, especially if you’re a perfectionist by nature. Writers can have a tendency to get too close to their book, obsessing over individual sentences but remaining blind to wider structural issues. And this endless tinkering can also cause a project to become too dense and over-engineered. Perhaps heeding the advice of many an agent and getting to the end before stepping away from your manuscript for (at least) a couple of weeks could be the way to go? A new perspective comes from returning to a book with fresh eyes, and it's a simple technique anyone can apply to help unmask flaws. Are there sections where the writing is really good but other parts where it’s quite flat? Are there easy typos you can fix? These are all things to sort out ahead of an agent reading through your work.

This points us towards an absolute golden rule of the submission process: never even contemplate sending out a first draft. Or if you do, know that no justifiable argument can be made for your manuscript actually being ready. The first draft is about you getting to know your narrative, meaning there are definitely areas that could be improved. An agent doesn’t want to see this version. They’re working on the basis that the minimum expectation an author has in submitting their work is that they take it seriously. They therefore assume the version of the manuscript they’re reading is one that’s the result of the author pushing themselves to capacity. Which is not to say they’re looking for perfection, just definitely not a file containing some of the very-fixable flaws of which first drafts are often guilty. Allow yourself the chance to tighten dialogue, improve descriptions and interrogate how the whole thing hangs together.

Another way to understand the parts of your book that work (or not) is to get feedback from readers. Are there people you know that you can trust to give you firm but fair thoughts? Were there plot points they didn’t quite follow? How did they feel towards your main character? Being able to listen to constructive criticism is essential, and these sorts of considerations could prove invaluable ahead of submitting to an industry professional.

And you are going to have to do this, eventually. After re-drafting, taking time away and taking on board the comments of beta readers (people who read an early draft of an author’s manuscript and offers their thoughts on it), you’ve done as much as you can for the good of your manuscript. So even if you think there are still areas that aren’t quite right, as long as your readers haven’t found these sections to be an issue, it’s time to take the plunge..

Written in Q&A format, the Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent is an introduction to the process of submitting a manuscript to literary agents, and is directly inspired by popular questions asked by writers that have attended our long-running series of events of the same name. If you're looking for a literary agent to represent your manuscript order your copy here, or to find out about our latest events click here.

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