More on Revision Letters

A few weeks ago, guest blogger Camille Eide wrote about getting a revision letter for her novel, and how much time she spent reworking the manuscript as a result. Many of you have asked variations of the following question, which came from Mike Dennis:

I have to ask, if the agent had 10 pages of “suggested” changes, how could she have liked the book in the first place? What I mean is, when the agent thinks virtually everything in the book should be revised, it usually means she sees very little reason to represent it. It’s hard to imagine an agent slogging all the way through a book like that, then saying, “Yes! Yes! This is what I’ve been looking for!”

Since so many people seem to wonder the same thing, let me take a shot at explaining.

1. It’s all about potential.

Many agents enjoy finding brand new authors and launching them. In order to do this, you have to be able to spot potential – even if that potential isn’t currently being lived-up-to on the page. While some manuscripts from new authors simply blow me away and are strong enough to be submitted quickly to publishers, that’s the exception. More often, new authors have talent that’s visible on the page, but they’re capable of doing better than whatever they’ve currently got written.

Since my goal is to sell it, rather than have editors come back to me with “She’s a good writer – but not quite there yet,” it’s in my best interest to help the author polish and revise the ms until I think it’s ready. So I often agree to take on a client based on the potential I see – and before they accept representation, I make sure they understand that I think the manuscript needs work. If they disagree or they prefer not to work with an agent who gets involved editorially, they can choose not to work with me.

2. The revision letter isn’t a negative message.

Just because there are 10 pages of revision notes doesn’t mean I see “very little reason to represent it.” Au contraire, 10 pages of notes indicates that I believe the author is worth this kind of time and effort; that with work she can become great; and furthermore, that she’s capable of handling this intense level of rewrite. Rather than a put-down, the big revision letter is a vote of confidence. It says: “I think you’re great, but I think you can be even better, and I know you’re capable of rising to this challenge.”

Also, do you have any idea how long it takes to write a major revision letter 10 to 20 pages long? Between reading the manuscript, evaluating it, identifying what’s not working, trying to figure out why it’s not working and how to fix it… it can take anywhere from 20 to 40 hours or even more. In other words, it’s a huge undertaking and if you get one of these letters, you shouldn’t take it lightly. Nobody would put that kind of effort into something they don’t think is worthwhile.

3. The Point is To Bring Out Your Best

Writers typically worry (understandably) the the editor or agent is trying to “take away their voice” or somehow ruin their story. The goal is the opposite. It’s to strip away the unnecessary bits and allow your voice and your story to shine through even more powerfully. For most people it’s a painful and difficult experience, but the resulting book is so much better that they realize it was all worth it. I’ve never met an author who didn’t believe the revision improved their book.

4. The Revision Letter Isn’t an Edict From a Dictator

Editors are always open to discussion, and if there is something particularly painful for you in the edits, they’ll help you understand why the change will make it a better book, and if necessary, they’ll help you find a happy medium. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the writer explaining to the editor what they were trying to accomplish with a particular character or scene, and the editor helping find a better way to accomplish that goal.

Any more questions about revision letters?

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!


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  6. Susan Saxx on September 19, 2010 at 5:46 PM

    >Thank you for this post, Rachelle! It made so much sense, and it was such a great explanation. I’ve recently lived through a similar experience, though on a much smaller scale. I received 3 pages of single-spaced commentary and feedback on my contest entry recently, from the judge who scored me the lowest in this particular contest. The other two judges scored me fairly high, while they had excellent feedback for me too. However, every time I read that third judge’s comments, I get a bit weepy ;), in a good way! The thought that someone bothered to spend SO MUCH TIME writing me feedback made me feel she sees potential in my story and writing, as you say, and I’m so appreciative. I’ve applied 99% of what she told me, because it made sense and resonated with me. It’s added at least a couple of months, maybe a bit more, to my revision time, but I know it’s made my story stronger and more sensible. If this story is published, I am so going to mention her in the acknowledgements. *The unknown judge*…yet someone who has played such a big part for me personally, and I have so much to thank her for. Thanks for your post. It shows how really positive such an experience can be.

  7. Jean on September 10, 2010 at 10:17 AM

    >Thanks. I've had friends who have received revisions letters and I was in awe. Now even more so! Thanks for the scoop from the other side of the desk.

  8. Anonymous on September 9, 2010 at 8:30 PM

    >So, now I'm dreaming of the day I get a revision letter . . .
    Jenn Fromke

  9. Rick Barry on September 9, 2010 at 8:05 AM

    >I would have loved to have gotten a 10-12 page revision letter from my past agent. After receiving from her one letter in which she told me to whom she had submitted it (and even I knew some of those publishers were not in the market for that type of story), I was unable to contact her for months. Emails unanswered. Phone rang off the hook for weeks. In the end I had to cancel our relationship and sold my first two novels unagented. But at an upcoming conference I do hope to snag the interest of an agent capable of offering editorial input. So bravo to you, Rachelle. Good blog post!

  10. Keli Gwyn on September 9, 2010 at 12:19 AM

    >This post couldn't have come at a better time. I just printed the final pages of my story after working the past nine months on a major revision, one recommended by my wise and knowledgeable agent. I'm tired but satisfied.

    I'm a firm believer in heeding the advice of publishing professionals. My story is far better than it was because of the work I've done under my agent's guidance.

    Thanks, Rachelle, for seeing the potential in new writers and fostering that talent.

  11. Vickie Motter on September 8, 2010 at 10:54 PM

    >One only has to look at the acknowledgments page of any book to see how much an author appreciates the time, effort, and suggestions from agents and editors. I've come to love reading these and I have stopped worrying about all the time I take to revise a ms.

  12. Tahlia on September 8, 2010 at 10:44 PM

    >I've always found that following the advice of people in the business has made a better book. My agent told me to take out 19000 words to make it under 100,000. I managed it without losing any of the action, and yes it was better for it.

    Writers can get overly attached to their work, and that can be a stumbling block. This post helps to get over that. It's a good topic.

  13. KC Frantzen on September 8, 2010 at 9:57 PM

    >Thank you as always.

    Publishing is a business, our writing is a product that agents/editors are selling.

    I wrote the best story I could and knew it needed to get to the next level. So – I invested in an amazing writing coach I'd worked with before in the Christian Writers Guild ( and wow – did she help me. She's been a dream to work with and though the re-write is difficult, it's making me stretch and learn.

    And the story is IMPROVED!

    Thank you Rachelle for all you do. And for all those who comment. This blog is well worth my time.

  14. Michelle DeRusha on September 8, 2010 at 8:01 PM

    >Excellent post — thank you. I just had my manuscript professionally reviewed/edited, and the editor suggested some fairly extensive changes. While I'm reluctant (i.e. lazy) to dive into the ms again (frankly, I'm a little tired of myself — it's a memoir), I know it's important that I do in order to weed out the extraneous material and let my voice shine through.

    Thanks for reiterating what my editor told me — you have renewed my confidence that I am making the right choices.

    Also, thanks for the post below about professional headshots. It's been suggested by a blogger friend, but I've hesitated since I am not agented or published. I figured why waste the money if I don't even have representation and may never get it (yes, I am in fact a bit glass-half-empty)? But perhaps a professional image would help with the whole branding thing, which might in turn attract an agent, yes?

  15. Erin MacPherson on September 8, 2010 at 5:08 PM

    >This is a really helpful post, Rachelle. I'm wondering if you could enlighten us on the way you treat non-fiction proposals and fiction manuscripts differently in this regard. Obviously, with non-fiction, you're not getting a manuscript, so do you often send authors suggestions for the proposal? Or do you make suggestions for the manuscript once it's sold?

  16. Rachel on September 8, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    >Thank you for this post. I always learn a lot from your blog but this one really touched on something that I haven't read explained before. Thank you for shedding light on this, as I must admit not only was I curious, but just a little anxious about the process. 🙂 Love in Christ!

  17. Rachel on September 8, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    >Thank you for this post. I always learn a lot from your blog but this one really touched on something that I haven't read explained before. Thank you for shedding light on this, as I must admit not only was I curious, but just a little anxious about the process. 🙂 Love in Christ!

  18. Discouraged on September 8, 2010 at 3:37 PM

    >My best experience with an agent included very general feedback, like "the victim needs to be more likeable/sympathetic" and "the MC needs to be more tough" but she hit the nail on the head. I did revise it for her as requested but she still decided to pass. After all this work, now I can hardly get an agent to respond, much less ask for fulls. I'd jump for joy at such a detailed letter but only if the revisions made sense to you.
    Sounds like you're close–good luck!

  19. Jillian Kent on September 8, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    >I just got my first edits back from my editor yesterday. It was scary the number of words that were cut and the recommendations that were made. A lot of work is involved and this is my very first book for publication. But I value the feedback.

    It takes time for me to digest feedback and make sense of it. So I highly recommend that if you get edits from your agent or editor late at night, don't open the e-mail. You need a good nights sleep. 🙂

    The important thing is not to get in the way of the story but to do what is best for the story. That is what I will attempt to do.

    Yesterday Rachelle sent me a link to guest blogger Camille Eide's post from last month. If you didn't read it, do yourself a favor. The woman should be writing comedy. 🙂 Thanks Rachelle.

  20. Alexis Grant on September 8, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    >Yay for seeing potential in writers! 🙂

    When I edit for other writers, I often find myself making MORE marks and comments if the piece is good. It's worth it to me to suggest changes because I see that the story or article is going to turn into something great. The best writers understand that and appreciate the feedback.

  21. Beth Cato on September 8, 2010 at 2:49 PM

    >I'm on the Online Writing Workshop (OWW), a critique site for fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. From my experience, the amount of requested revisions has nothing to do with the worthiness of the work. I have a few novels I'm following chapter by chapter and absolutely love, but I can still find two screens full of flaws to note in a single chapter. A lot of those are nitpicks– awkward sentences or necessary clarifications that do nothing to stop overall enjoyment of the piece.

  22. Tawna Fenske on September 8, 2010 at 1:16 PM

    >I'm bookmarking this post so I can remember everything you've said on the day my editor gives me her revision letter for my August 2010 release. I'm braced for her to request lots of changes, so thank you for putting it into perspective!


  23. Candyland on September 8, 2010 at 12:23 PM

    >This is EXACTLY what I needed to read today!!! Thank you:)

  24. Jessica on September 8, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    >As an editor, I can second the notion that one only offers detailed revision requests to a writer one thinks capable of making intelligent revisions.

    When I'm working on work-for-hire stuff (which, contractually, I can revise without consulting the writer) I always ask myself "does the writer seem smart, talented, and humble enough to revise this, or should I just do it myself?"

  25. D.J. Morel on September 8, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    >At a writer's conference I attended recently an editor said: I buy the book that's in the author's head, not necessarily what's on the page.

    I thought that was a good way of looking at the revising/editing process. It's about helping the author achieve the full vision of the book, with the aid of a fresh and professional perspective on it.

  26. Paula B. on September 8, 2010 at 10:17 AM

    >Hear, hear!

    And if you think the revision letter asks for changes, wait till you see what your editor at the publishing house has to say.


    But that's okay. It's all part of the process, and all this revision makes the book better.

    — Paula B.
    The Writing Show

  27. on September 8, 2010 at 10:07 AM

    >Unfounded fear: that an agent is asking for revisions with a particular editor in mind.

  28. Jessica Nelson on September 8, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    >This is so very helpful. I just got back a full request with a suggested revision on my characterization. I'm rolling it around in my head, trying to think how to do this…To know the editor sees potential kind of boosts me, you know?
    Thanks so much, Rachelle!
    I hope you had an amazing birthday. 🙂

  29. ET @ Titus2:3-5 on September 8, 2010 at 9:13 AM

    >I cannot tell you how much I appreciate what you do here! As a new author, it can be difficult to find good information. This blog (and thus, your mind) is a treasure chest full of gems. Thank-you for answering all our questions and allowing us a peek into the world of literary agents and publishing.

    On a side note, I am a relatively new reader here, and after seeing how much you invest on your blog for your readers, I knew you would be a rock star agent! I cannot tell you how sad I am to see that you're not accepting queries. Sigh. 😉

  30. Teenage Bride on September 8, 2010 at 8:40 AM

    >Excellent post.

    Potential is a lovely word.

  31. Pam Halter on September 8, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    >My experience was not with an agent, but an editor. I rewrote a story three times (her her request) but the company still decided not to go with it. What does this mean?

    1) I learned I can take direction.
    2) They learned I can take direction.

    And that's nothing to sneeze at.

  32. T. Anne on September 8, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    >I'd be honored to work with an editorial agent who would invest time in my work to make it all it can be. I say, bring on the revisions.

  33. Caroline Starr Rose on September 8, 2010 at 8:14 AM

    >I found my letter really encouraging for reasons you've said: my editor saw promise in my work and was committed to making it even better. After years of negative feedback or worse — silence — getting my editorial letter was incredibly special.

  34. Susan Bourgeois on September 8, 2010 at 8:02 AM

    >I would welcome and appreciate this type feedback from an agent. Common sense tells us that fresh eyes from an expert are able to view things from a totally different prospective.

    It's like a Realtor who comes to your home and advises you to clean, straighten and remove the clutter so that she can achieve a quick sale for your property.

    An agent does the same thing for an author who needs a polished manuscript in order to have it viewed in its best light.

  35. Melissa on September 8, 2010 at 7:38 AM

    >I'm at the query stage for my first book, and I'm definitely looking for an agent who's willing to send me a lengthy to-do list of revisions. I don't believe my manuscript is perfect even though, at this point, I've written the story to the best of my ability. I am thankful there are agents out there willing to see potential and then help the author cultivate a brilliant book.

  36. Wendy Paine Miller on September 8, 2010 at 6:34 AM

    >I hear you loud and clear, Katie. Feedback is invaluable. Recently I had two published authors invest in one of my manuscripts. I’m indebted to them for their input. I tackled a section that needed a rewrite and I’m extremely grateful I stayed with it.

    And Katie, we're probably both crazy. 😀
    ~ Wendy

  37. Terri Tiffany on September 8, 2010 at 6:33 AM

    >I have been watching an author go through revisions for months now for an agent and how I have admired her. But even more now as I just had a new MS professionally edited for the first time. Oh my. I am working my way through and it is painful but already, I can see why she made the suggestions and that when I get done, she will have strengthened what I didn't see before. It hurts but it is so worth it.

  38. Katie Ganshert on September 8, 2010 at 5:30 AM

    >Am I crazy if this post makes me WANT a revision letter? 🙂

  39. Tabitha Bird on September 8, 2010 at 4:49 AM

    >I am currently working through revisions for an agent who has not offered to represent me yet, but has asked to see the re-writes should I take her suggestions and edit. As much as I wanted to pout and stomp about, this agent's feedback was right. I believe in her insight. Whether or not this agent ends up offering representation I will be forever grateful that she gave me the feedback she did. Such feedback is GOLD. I am all about working to make my book the best it can be. Heck, I want me to be the best me I can be. Edits here I come 🙂

  40. Allison Williams on September 8, 2010 at 1:19 AM

    >One of the most valuable relationships I have is with my editor (who in my niche market does my revision letters) – I generally pout for 48 hours, then realize she's right and do the fixes. It's often the case that I disagree about HOW to solve the problem, but she's almost always right about WHAT the problem is.

    Also, my editor rarely tells me, "Fix it like this" – instead, she asks a question, like, "Why is Juliet asking for thing A when on page three she says she needs thing B?" And that's when I realize not everything in my head made it to the page.

    Finally – my graduate assistantship was as the assistant editor of a journal in my field. We never accepted ANYTHING without revisions. But damn, there were a lot of authors who got a six-page set of notes, which we meant as, "your article is almost there, and with these issues addressed we are so eager to publish it" and which they received as "this is a rejection." We finally started making phone calls to confirm we wanted their piece when they revised it.

    Most writing is crap. Total, utter, unmitigated crap, with no hope or potential. When you get to that 10% that's good, it's so amazing to look and say, "If she just took out her ponytail and got contact lenses, she'd win Homecoming Queen!" And working with revisions is the makeover montage. It's not about the hero ending up with a different girl – it's about the girl bringing out the best and most beautiful her that she can be.

  41. Aimee L Salter on September 8, 2010 at 1:12 AM

    >This is such an encouragement! I've been working through edits with an author friend for quite a while and you've just reiterated everything she said. What a confidence booster, thank you!

  42. Christine Macdonald on September 8, 2010 at 1:03 AM

    >@thatgalkiki here.

    Thank you for this post. I always learn from you either here or your tweets.

    Appreciate you taking so much time to write such detailed and informative blogs.

    No questions from me (yet) as I am still in the thick of draft one of my manuscript.

    Dreaming big,