Agenting & Editing – Part Deux

Last week I explained that it’s not considered ethical for literary agents to benefit financially from the editing of their clients’ books. (Agents should not profit from their clients in any way except for selling the rights to their books.) As part of my mission to clear up some misconceptions about how WordServe operates, I wrote to the Preditors & Editors website, which had WordServe listed with an “Editing Advisory” in red next to our name. I explained the same things I wrote in my blog post and asked them to verify our legitimacy by looking at our website where we list some of our authors and recent sales.

I’m VERY happy to report that the editor of Preditors & Editors was extremely gracious and after verifying our agency’s record, he removed the advisory from our listing. You can see our P&E listing here… scroll down the page. (Note how many “agencies” are not recommended or don’t have the $ symbol that indicates verified sales to royalty paying publishers.)

In any case, I wanted to take the editing discussion a little further today, and talk to you about the editing of your project. Who does it? And when?

Once you have an agent, there are two times your book will be up for possible editing: Before it’s submitted to publishers, and after you get a contract. Please note that all agents are different; some edit, some don’t. I’ll tell you how I handle things.

When I agree to represent a client, the first thing I do is work closely with them on their proposal and manuscript. Obviously my goal is to increase the saleability of the project. The editing of the proposal might be quite intense, because this document is so important (more for non-fiction). The editing of the manuscript itself is not quite so intense because I know the publishing house is going to edit according to their own preferences. The goal at this stage is to increase the perceived quality of the writing where necessary, make sure those first few pages really grab the reader, and eliminate any obvious reasons for a publisher to reject the book.

This back-and-forth with the author sometimes takes only a few days, but sometimes takes a few weeks. (On my end, it can take eight hours or more to do a complete edit of a novel.) I usually edit right in the manuscript itself, using Track Changes and Comments for the author. I also write an Editorial Memo for the author, giving an overview of my thoughts.

Right now I’m in this editing stage with several authors, and with first-timers I’m always a little worried how they’re going to take it. If you’ve never worked with an editor before, it can be shocking and distressing to have someone looking at your baby and saying, “Change this, this, and this.” On the upside, I hope that by working with me on the pre-submission edit, authors are more ready for what might come later when the publisher starts editing their work. In any case, I always keep reminding my authors… even if this seems like A LOT of revisions, please know I’m only doing this because I believe in you as an author, I love your book, and I want to help you sell it. Heavy editing doesn’t equal bad book! It means good book with the potential to be even better.

After your book is sold, the agent is completely out of the editing picture. You’ll go through the publisher’s editorial process, which is different at every house, ranging from very intense to very light or even hands-off. In the most comprehensive editing process, it looks something like this:

1. Substantive edit or developmental edit (sometimes called a macro edit). This is the big-picture editing. In fiction: story structure, character development, scene structure, plot, pacing, dialogue, and general fiction technique. In non-fiction: structure, clarity of ideas, logical flow, continuity, readability, transitions, repetition, author voice, and general appeal.

2. Line edit: Polishing the writer’s style, correcting awkward grammar, suggesting improved word choices, restructuring paragraphs and sentences where necessary, refining the author’s voice and tone, and generally making the prose shine.

3. Copyedit: Corrects grammar, punctuation, capitalization, clarity, consistency, and conformity to style. Also might include fact-checking, verification of sources and footnotes, and verification of permissions received.

Depending on what publisher you’re with, these stages might be condensed and handled by one person, or you might go through three separate stages and three editors.

Hope that helps explain the editing process. If you were under the illusion that once you finish writing your book, it’s “finished,” I hope you start to get disillusioned right now!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Toplinks on December 11, 2011 at 2:04 AM


    Fantastic blog post, saw on…

  2. Joseph John on June 6, 2008 at 5:26 PM

    >Very informative post. Thank you for the advice. I’m close to finishing a rough draft of my novel. After I finish rewriting and revising, I plan on hiring a professional editor to give it a thorough scrub before I send it off to my list of agents.

    I did a little write-up of my own on the importance of editing on my blog and linked back to you of course.

    Thanks again for the great advice and a wonderful blog.

  3. Anonymous on May 26, 2008 at 10:34 PM

    >The first time i got my manuscript back from my agent with red i wanted to cry!

    But he cared as much about its success and I did and a valuable lesson was learned.

    Unless its a major content correction, hit accept change and smile!!

    Added bonus: you get a reputation for being a super easy AUTHOR to work with!

  4. Yvonne on May 26, 2008 at 7:00 PM

    >Thank you for teaching us about the process of being published.

    I know that my writing will face an editor. One part of me dreads that day, but I know it will make my book stronger and better, so I also look forward to it.

  5. Rachelle on May 26, 2008 at 2:24 PM

    >“…when a writer sends in a query, what does an agent/editor think if there’s a sentence like, ‘I would welcome any comment or suggestions to make this project the best it can be.’ or something to that effect?”

    I would not think negatively of it, but I probably wouldn’t respond to it either.

    Read this post.

    And this one.

  6. Anita Mae on May 26, 2008 at 2:06 PM

    >Hey Rachelle, you said: “…and with first-timers I’m always a little worried how they’re going to take it.”
    I guess this is the way critique partners (CPs) feel too, eh? I have 3 CPs checking out my wip. This time around, I tried to put a little more angst into my hero b/c the concensus of my last book was that the hero was too easy-going. Well, I must have done a good job because one of my CPs did not like this new hero.
    The funny think was, she kept saying things like ‘I really don’t like him…are you sure you want me to keep critiquing?’
    Well, yes…I need to know what effect this guy will have on the readers. I mean, if 1 out of 3 CPs is uncomfortable with him, then I’ve probably gone too far in the opposite direction and have to tone him back a bit.
    But if this CP is too worried to tell me about my hero, can I really trust her judgment with the rest of the story?
    Writers have to lay their defences down and be open to any criticism with the belief that any changes will only be for the good of the project.
    My question though, is that when a writer sends in a query, what does an agent/editor think if there’s a sentence like, ‘I would welcome any comment or suggestions to make this project the best it can be.’ or something to that effect?

  7. Timothy Fish on May 26, 2008 at 9:15 AM

    >I really hadn’t thought much about when a writer becomes an author until I noticed how I use the terms. I generally use the term author for writers of more significant work. (The writer of a magazine article is just a writer.) While publication is usually the point at which the rest of the world discovers that a writer is an author, it seems to me that the writer who has just begun chapter one of her first book is no less an author than an author with several published books, we just don’t know it yet.

  8. Rachelle on May 26, 2008 at 8:37 AM

    I’ll write a post on #1 this someday. But here’s are some quick answers:

    1. Remember that your editor has expertise plus a level of objectivity that you may not have. That said, it’s definitely a dialogue, and the key is to maintain open communication and find polite ways to express your disagreement backed up by GOOD REASONS. “That’s the way I’ve always envisioned it” is not a good reason. “That’s just my style” usually doesn’t work either. If you disagree with an edit, you need to make a good case for why your way is better. Try to separate your emotion from the process as much as possible.

    Most editorial changes are not “deal breakers” but I HAVE experienced at least two cases where the publisher needed certain changes, the author considered those changes unacceptable and “a hill to die on.” The publisher cancelled the contract.

    2. A macro edit is only done after contract. If an editor makes editing suggestions BEFORE contracting your book, be aware that you may do a lot of work to make your manuscript fit THEIR tastes and they still may not contract it.

    3. I believe “author” generally connotes a person with a published book, whereas a “writer” is anyone with a pencil or a computer. But the terms are often used interchangeably. Others may have stronger opinions than I do. Never thought much about it.

  9. Anne L.B. on May 26, 2008 at 8:24 AM


    Just curious regarding macro editing with publishers (if you have time to elaborate):

    1. Assuming dialogue occurs, can you give some tips on how an author/writer graciously approaches the process if differing perspectives emerge?

    2. Are macro edits more likely to be requested before or after a contract is offered (or are they a requirement of the contract)?

    (3. What’s the publishing standard for the words “author” and “writer,” and how serious is the faux pas if used incorrectly?)


  10. Katy McKenna on May 26, 2008 at 8:18 AM

    >To clarify: I meant to say that I’ve heard of too many reports of the 14-page editorial memo to be under an illusion that the same thing won’t happen to me, if I am so fortunate as to get a contract.

    Need more coffee!!!

  11. Katy McKenna on May 26, 2008 at 8:15 AM

    >A pastor friend of mine says, “You can’t be disillusioned unless you’ve first been under an illusion.” Love it!

    I have heard too many reports of the multi-pubbed receiving 14-page (single spaced) memos from their editors. I have not personally seen one of these letters, and I won’t say I don’t tremble a bit at the thought, but no illusions here….

    Thanks for disillusioning us and encouraging us, too!

  12. Inspire on May 26, 2008 at 7:56 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle, for clarifying what more an agent will do for clients. Recently I queried an agent in NY, who replied she loved my first few chapters and I should send the complete manuscript, of which I did. Turned out the genre wasn’t quite what she was looking for. However, she was so incredibly kind by reading the 500 plus pages I sent her and making comments in the margins, circling some grammar errors. Even though she sent me a rejection, she helped me polish my manuscript.

    I’m glad you shared this with us. I’ve always been nervous about sending my work, wondering if it is ‘perfect’.

  13. Timothy Fish on May 26, 2008 at 7:46 AM

    >In my day job, I am a software engineer. Novels are much smaller projects than software development projects, but I can’t help but notice the similarities and differences between software product evaluations and novel editing. In software we (are supposed to) begin much earlier in the process. If we applied the same approach to developing a novel, the editors would be involved before the author typed “chapter one” at the top of the page. The macro edit would occur with the development of the outline and future edits would verify the author is sticking with the outline. While this might cramp some authors’ creative style, I think most authors would be more willing to make changes in the early stages than when a change requires modifying several thousand words of a finished manuscript. But to be clear, I don’t expect us to see this happen much.

  14. Richard Mabry on May 26, 2008 at 7:30 AM

    >Not to sound like a broken record (you remember records, don’t you?), thanks again for an educational and helpful post.
    In addition to providing an insight into the process, you’ve helped dispel the notion that “if I get it all just right, I”ll get published.” Even “just right” probably won’t get past all the people involved in the publishing process without some other changes. Only Tom Clancy sends manuscripts in and has them published without any edits. (It’s supposedly in his contract–but maybe that’s just an urban legend).
    Anyway, from the edit I won in your “Yo Dawg” contest, I can attest that your editing style is kind but incisive, and should be appreciated by those fortunate enough to be represented by you.

  15. Jessica on May 26, 2008 at 6:31 AM

    >This is great to know. I personally would welcome every little bit of advice/revisions that I could get. I want my book to be awesome.
    Thanks for the post.