Agency Lessons: How much should I edit before querying?

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

One thing that writers tend to struggle with is when to put the red pen down and call your book good enough. Because the truth is that every book ever published is simply good enough. No book will ever be perfect.

If you are planning to query agents, you may be wondering how to find your own good enough. So I thought I'd share my own process for editing and a few tips for determining when you're ready.

1. Ignore everything
After you've finished the rough draft, hide your file and ignore it. A month is a good solid length of time, though I personally never last that long. When you let your manuscript sit, two important changes happen.

First, you forget what you wrote. This is important because when we know what should be on the page, our brains tend to fill it in for us, even if it's not really there. For example, you may want your character to be a jokester. In your head, that's who he is, even if he only every tells a handful of jokes in the actual story. By forgetting what you wrote, you allow your brain time to say, "Hey, this guy isn't actually funny." That allows you the space to determine what direction you need to go.

Second, you let your brain have some fun. When I'm editing a book for a client, I always sleep on my edits. I find that my subconscious brain allows me to analyze a book better. I've found inconsistent characters, plot holes and all kinds of little issues that poke my brain in the middle of the night that I never thought of when reading. These are exactly the little things that will drive your reader crazy and hold them back from recommending your book. Taking time away gives your brain a chance to think of all those little things you never thought of while you were in the creating stage.

2. Read and rough edit
Once I'm ready to go, I set aside an entire day to read back through the manuscript in a single sitting and mark anything that stands out to me. These can be inconsistencies, aspects I want to double check, clunky writing, bad scenes or even details that need to be corrected due to changes I made during the drafting process.

I don't fix anything yet. This is simply the discover process. I don't want to make changes yet because I may find that those changes don't work by the end of the story.

3. Fix the rough edits
After I've done the read through and made notes, I read back through all my notes and start editing. This is the most time consuming part of the edit. I often have to flip back and forth between scenes to make sure I am staying consistent. Also, one small change can impact the whole manuscript, so a single edit could encompass half a dozen scenes.

4. Line edit time
This is when I read through the manuscript slowly, analyzing every sentence to see if it is written to the best of my ability. Notice, I didn't say perfectly. That's not going to happen and the sooner you let go of trying to achieve perfection, the easier your edit will go.

5. Proofread
This can be combined with the line edit, though I recommend doing it separately so you can be completely focused on each objective. Either way, you'll want to do a proofread to make sure you don't have any typos, homophones or formatting issues that will make it harder for someone else to read your work. Because that's where your baby is headed next.

6. Beta Readers
Beta readers are volunteers who read your manuscript and give you feedback. Notice, I didn't say edit your manuscript. These readers are going to tell you about plot holes, character inconsistencies and other parts that just aren't working. They will often also tell you what is working so you don't delete their favorite line. Beta readers work best when you give them specific issues to look out for such as a scene you are questioning or a plot line that has you concerned.

7. More edits
As my betas send me their notes, I add them all as comments to the manuscript. I don't make edits until they are all in since a line that one reader hates could be another reader's favorite. Also, there may be something that several readers mention so I'll want to give that aspect extra attention. Once I have all the notes in, I make a plan for additional edits and work the plan.

8. One more read through
After you've completed all these edits, I recommend one more read of the manuscript to make sure you aren't missing anything and that you caught as many of the typos, etc. that you can. Don't fret about catching everything. No agent expects your work to be perfect (since that's impossible), but we do expect you to have caught the basic things that spell check and a thorough read will correct.

If you are querying, this is where I would tell you to stop. Of course, you're welcome to do another round of beta readers or workshop your opening chapter to death, but I doubt you'll make huge improvements to your work. At this point, you've done several rounds of edits and gotten outside feedback on your work (a must do before sending your manuscript to agents). You should have worked through anything that still feels week.

If there are places that still need work, work them. Don't query if you aren't sure that your manuscript is the best you can make it right now. If you query with doubts, they will drive you nuts while you wait for responses. But don't delay because you want to do just one more check. There will always be something else that you could fix and then you'll never query.

For more advice on editing I would highly recommend SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Browne and King. Also, check out this self-editing article from the lovely Joanna Penn.