Endless Tinkering

Here is a typical email I receive from writers who’ve submitted a partial for consideration, or clients whose proposals are about to be sent to publishers:Dear Rachelle,I’m SO sorry to bother you and I hope it’s not too late. I was looking over my manuscript and I found a typo on page 3. I left the “e” off the word “the” in the fourth line of the second paragraph. Additionally, I realized I began chapter 1 four inches down the page and I think it needs to be only three inches. May I send you an updated and revised manuscript?Signed, Anxious AuthorOkay, I exaggerated this a tiny bit to get the point across. But I have to smile every time I get one of these. On the one hand, making sure your manuscript is impeccable is a good thing. On the other hand, you will drive yourself, your agent (and probably your spouse and kids) crazy stressing over every little typo! Editors and agents (having just a teeny bit of experience in this) are capable of evaluating a manuscript without being distracted by a few small mistakes.I realize what’s happening is that you’ve spent months or years writing that baby of yours, and trying to make everything perfect, and going over it a thousand times. So it drives you crazy to find a mistake after all that. You’ve also probably sat in workshops and read books (and blogs) and you’ve had that whole perfection-thing hammered into your head. You’re desperate to avoid being labeled an amateur and you’re terrified somebody will look at your spacing or your margins or your misuse of the word “infer” and begin spewing epithets as they hurl your pages across the room.But listen. There is a time to let go of all that paranoia and relax. Once you’ve submitted your manuscript—unless you’re going to pull it back and do a total rewrite—stop wasting precious brainspace worrying about the small stuff! For now, it’s done.If your agent is about to send your MS to publishers, it’s okay to send a quick email saying, “I found a couple of typos on pages xx, we might want to fix them before submitting.” But other than that, don’t stress.The best advice I can give is that once you’ve put your manuscript into someone else’s hands, this is a great time to put it away and avoid looking at it for awhile. Going over and over it will only make you crazy. Wait for a response before you tinker… and do your tinkering based on feedback, not on your own non-objective view of your own writing.I’ve also had situations where authors have sent me their manuscript for a final read-through prior to publisher submission, and I’m going through it and line-editing as I read. (Not all agents do this.) Imagine my frustration when, a few days later after I’ve line-edited 100 pages, the author says, “Hey, I went back through my MS and made a few more changes. Here’s the updated version.” Aarrgghh. Again, once you place it in someone else’s hands, don’t keep making changes unless that has already been discussed and agreed upon.But don’t worry. None of this is make-it-or-break-it stuff. I won’t like you any less if any of these things happen. I won’t label you an amateur and I certainly won’t make any judgments about you or your writing. I just thought you might like to see how things look from my side of the desk.Hand it over, and give yourself a break.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

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. Wordlist on December 11, 2011 at 2:14 AM


    Wonderful blog post, saw on…

  2. Kaci on August 6, 2008 at 9:35 AM

    >I’m a weird editor/writer mix (and by editor I don’t mean in the professional sense), so I do tweak. But I can usually hold off and not touch until I get my draft back.

    Hey, everything’s a draft. The key is deciding you’re done.


  3. Rosslyn Elliott on August 5, 2008 at 11:32 PM

    >That’s a great indicator, Timothy. That ability to read my novel for pleasure happened to me in stages, one chapter at a time. Some of the later chapters were almost in final form* as soon as I wrote them; the earlier ones required more TLC.

    *Well, “final form” for me. I defer to the eventual judgment of editors, but, as Rachelle has so sagely counseled, I’ll think about that when the time comes. Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof. 🙂

  4. Camille Cannon (Eide) on August 5, 2008 at 11:31 PM

    >LOL, Doc Mabry.

    Thanks so much for the encouraging words, Rachelle. I’m afraid some of us ocd perfectionists will need to be physically restrained, but don’t worry; that’s doable.

    I can relate to what anita mae said about looking back and seeing growth. I am constantly growing as a writer—I crave growth. I want to purse excellence for as long as I am able. I want to play my drum for Him (pa rum pum pum pum) and play my best for Him (ok, you get it). I don’t want to take this gift for granted, it’s not for me and it’s not to squander. So I’ve set my own bar so high I’ll never touch it. I just like to keep reaching. Kinda makes my arms look funny, though.

  5. Timothy Fish on August 5, 2008 at 10:32 PM

    >There are always mistakes, that is human, but Courtney asks a good question. For me, when I finish one more pass of editing and I turn back to page one, not because I think it needs another pass but because I want to read the story for the enjoyment of it, that is when I’m done.

  6. Courtney Walsh on August 5, 2008 at 10:18 PM

    >Ah, I was just asking a friend “When do you know your manuscript is really DONE?” I’m in the middle of a rewrite, so every sentence I re-read I want to ‘tinker’ with and change. It is absolutely maddening!!

    After this re-write (and maybe ONE more for good measure) then I’ll have to do as you say… the alternative is to pull my hair out and drive myself batty! (And I really wouldn’t look good bald!)

  7. Anita Mae on August 5, 2008 at 5:06 PM

    >Hey Rachelle,

    Okay, I’ll admit – I’m an amateur and your post is very timely.

    I submitted a proposal for a 3 book series incl’g a partial of the first book. It’s been in the hands of an editor for almost a year.

    I haven’t been stagnating since I sent the proposal in – I’ve been learning everything I can about the craft as well as writing 2 more manuscripts.

    Wouldn’t you know it – a week ago I opened the ms for Book 1 in the series and realized how far I’ve come since I wrote it 2 yrs before. Wow, does it need tightening.

    If I read your post correctly, I should just ignore it, leave as is and hope that the editor finds out I’ve improved when I send in another ms to her slush pile.

    But my instinct tells me to ask for it back rather than leave a ms that isn’t my best effort ‘out there’.

  8. Why 2nd Cup of Coffee? on August 5, 2008 at 12:02 PM

    >I just found your site today through Sheep to the Right. I’m so glad I did; I plan to visit regularly. Thanks for being so approachable and sharing expertise that is intimidating to so many.

  9. Tiffany Stuart on August 5, 2008 at 10:50 AM

    >Yes, you are talking to many of us out there.

    I’ve tried both angles. Letting go and tinkering. Sometimes I’ve tinkered so much that I’ve wanted to trash the whole manuscript and sob. Without a doubt, I pick the peace of letting it go and waiting. But I will say, that’s not easy. I’m like many writers and want every sentence to be perfect! I’m learning I can’t look at my work after I’ve submitted it. Or else, I will go bonkers.

    This post was so encouraging and freeing. A great reminder for me–a recovering tinker!

  10. Laurie on August 5, 2008 at 9:39 AM

    >This posting was God sent for me, Rachelle. After I submitted my manuscript, I decided to take a break and read some books about plotting. Well…you can guess what happened. My mind has been whirling with ideas to improve the plot and tighten suspense! Now, after your advice, I’ll resist the urge to change the manuscript at this point. But–just to keep my creativity percolating–I may begin listing my ideas for improvements, to possibly discuss with an agent and/or editor later. Thanks, Rachelle. This advice arrived at the right moment for me.

  11. Wendy Melchior on August 5, 2008 at 9:24 AM

    >you may have a future in psychotherapy…agent and therapist all in one.

    I stopped looking at my words for the entire summer and decided to look at other people’s words. It was a great decision and I suspect that all the reading makes for better writing come autumn.

  12. JC on August 5, 2008 at 8:58 AM

    >Guilty as charged.

    I don’t think the sealing it in a box would work for me. I would rip it open so many times, reseal it, etc that it would be a waste of packaging tape.

  13. Kat on August 5, 2008 at 8:42 AM

    >Paranoid? Who’s paranoid?

    Oh, yeah…me.

    Guilty as charged. *grin*

    Rachelle, your blog is like cyber-Valium. Thanks for another dose of good advice!

  14. Chatty Kelly on August 5, 2008 at 7:48 AM

    >I see a light shinning in you that is so bright, it lights the path for the rest of us.


  15. Inspire on August 5, 2008 at 7:38 AM

    >I am a perfectionist. I am grateful for your post this morning, Rachelle. The topic of letting go has been in front of me for the last several days due to some unexpected circumstances. Not only am I a perfectionist when it comes to writing, but I am a worry wort. To hear from an agent that we need not be so paranoid and relax, everything will be okay, is a breath of fresh air.

  16. Lisa Jordan on August 5, 2008 at 7:25 AM

    >As an unpublished writer trying to break into the market, I will tinker and tinker with a manuscript to make sure it’s as perfect as I can get. Often I will allow my perfectionism to get in the way of my creativity.

    I entered the Genesis contest for feedback on a WIP. After entering the contest, I realized I made an error on page 10. I stressed about that tiny error for weeks and figured I’d get a judge who had medical knowledge and would recognize my goof right away. I didn’t final, which I knew would happen, but it had nothing to do with that little error. The novel needed more work.

    Rachelle, thank you for this blog. I’m learning so much about the agenting process.

  17. Richard Mabry on August 5, 2008 at 6:57 AM

    Your advice makes so much sense, are you sure you’re really an agent? Were you really an editor? Where’s the angst you’re supposed to create in us? Aren’t writers supposed to spend their lives in mortal fear of a misplaced punctuation mark? Or, worse still, using the tab key instead of appropriate autoformatting?

    No, since what you say is so encouraging, you must be an imposter and I have to ignore it. So, I’m going back to polish my manuscript. I know this is the twelfth revision I’ve sent, but I think I may have used an en dash instead of an em dash on page 547. I’ll call you later to let you know. : )

    Thanks, Rachelle, for your attitude, your encouragement, and your help.

  18. christa on August 5, 2008 at 6:49 AM

    >As always, sage advice.

    I learned the lesson of putting it away after mailing in my portfolio of 100+ pages for National Board Certification. Knowing the scores wouldn’t be released for another seven months,I placed my copy in a box and sealed it. I knew if I didn’t do that, I’d obsess over every error I found.

    So, when the time came for me to mail my full, I sent it and then refused to look at it again. I knew there were errors because I’d made myself stop halfway through my pre-mailing edits because I was afraid I’d edit the life out of it.

    So, since the [sage]agent signed me anyway (!!), I figure, “leaving well enough alone” is my pre-submission lesson.