Editing your manuscript with an agent… what to expect


I’ve been editing my manuscript with my agent, Julie, preparing it to go out on submission.

When an agent offers representation, author and agent will often work together to whip the manuscript into shape. The degree of involvement varies from one agent (and book) to the next, but because of the law of diminishing returns, it makes sense to have your script as polished as possible before it lands on a publisher’s desk.

Here’s how the editorial process worked for me.

The feedback

Julie began by going through the script a second time after her initial read-through, line-editing and marking up the script with comments and questions.

In addition, she sent me an editorial report identifying some thematic issues, followed by feedback broken down by viewpoint character, which often consisted of filtering the broader themes into each of my viewpoint character’s words and actions.

The discussion

Once I’d had time to digest the report, Julie and I discussed her comments and talked through some ideas about how to implement her suggestions.

Many writers seeking representation worry unduly about this stage – that it is typically antagonistic, with the agent trying to change the writer’s intention and the writer digging their heels in to protect a sacrosanct text. I’d suggest this isn’t the case for the majority of author-agent relationships. It certainly hasn’t been my experience.

An agent takes a chance on a manuscript because they feel strongly enough to champion it. That’s a real vote of confidence. And both parties want the best outcome – a stronger book. If you disagree on the ‘how’ or you can’t see a way forward, that’s when you open a dialogue.

For me, reading and discussing Julie’s comments focused my attention on the weak points in the story and helped me understand why I’d never quite managed to make them work. I could see the effect the changes she outlined would have on the whole. There was only one question she raised that I didn’t know how to execute. It was an alternative ending – one I’d tried before I submitted the manuscript – so I’d already had difficulty making it work. I explained that, we talked it through and came to a resolution that felt right. It truly was as straightforward as that.

In my writing process – and I suspect the same may be true for many writers – some scenes just flow straight from the pen and onto the page, usually at some silent, still hour of night, when the censoring part of my brain has given up and gone to sleep. The characters seem to tell me what to write, and they move effortlessly from A to B. Other scenes have to be carved out of solid rock. The action beats are a struggle and the characters end up in a dialogue that doesn’t lead anywhere. It can take weeks to bash it all into shape.

When it came to the mark-up, without exception, the scenes that just flowed were untouched. It was the hard-wrought chapters that Julie flagged – clearly the angst was still a part of the palimpsest.

Getting down to work

Where previous self-edits have sometimes felt piecemeal, professional editorial guidance and support has brought greater focus and confidence. I could see what we were aiming for, and was excited to get started.

But, of course, some parts of the editorial process are more enjoyable than others. If you’re starting out on edits, here’s my advice.

  1. Let it rest. Deadlines permitting, give yourself some distance from the manuscript before embarking on the editing process. Because I’d been submitting my book to agents, I had a few months’ natural hiatus. Looking back, I was glad I’d let us both rest – myself and the text – before I tackled any edits.
  2. Plan your edits. It’s tempting to dive in, but sometimes making a seemingly small change at the start ricochets through the book, and you spend time chasing your tail trying to fix it. Stick with it. Having a table of chapters and themes helped me map out where each thematic change or addition would have an impact later on.
  3. Save your easy wins for when you need them. Line edits and stylistic tics can be tackled when you’re tired or you’ve hit a wall with the bigger stuff. Keep them in reserve.
  4. Enjoy spending time with your characters. I’ve been writing and editing my book for a few years, but this time around, I was aware that my days spent with these characters might be numbered. Writing new scenes when you already know the players inside out is a gift, and something you’ll truly appreciate when you have to start a new work and get to know brand new people. Having my characters say and do new things, in the name of strengthening the existing story, was far and away my favourite part of the process.

So, my message is: embrace the process, both with your agent, and when working on your own. Like many elements of writing, it isn’t always easy, but it is incredibly rewarding.


Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

So, I signed with an agent…

A month ago, something amazing happened. I sent a query to Julie Crisp, former editorial director at Pan Macmillan – where she published authors including bestsellers: Ann Cleeves, China Mieville and Peter F. Hamilton – turned literary agent. A day later, she replied, asking to see the full manuscript. Three days after that (the speed was just as well, since I was holding my breath the entire time…) Julie asked to speak to me and later that week, I was holding a signed agreement in my hand.

Here’s how it happened.

I was just starting out with the querying process and found Julie’s name via the Writer’s Workshop – she was speaking at the York Festival of Writing in September. I was also trialling the Agent Hunter website for the Writer’s Workshop at the time, so was able to find out more about Julie’s ethos, interests and the sort of writing she was looking for.

Julie has worked as an editor in publishing houses all over the globe for over fifteen years, and headed up the Tor imprint in the UK before setting up her agency two years ago. She was actively looking to build her list and – having secured publishing deals for clients in a variety of genres – was on the lookout for upmarket women’s fiction in particular.

I was really nervous about the call, but Julie put me at my ease straightaway, with her overwhelming enthusiasm for the book and compliments about my writing – those are words I’ll never forget. In fact, I was pretty sure I was dreaming at one point… We talked about my background, then the logistics of preparing the novel for pitching to publishers and Julie helped me understand what to expect at each stage.

We discussed editing and it was amazing to hear her feedback on each of the three main characters in Unsteady Souls. Julie had a knack for seizing on the weak points in the story – places where I’d been scratching my head, but not able to see a way forward. I knew at that point that if Julie wanted to represent me, it was going to be an incredible journey.

The possibility of others reading and enjoying your story is what sustains many a writer through the solitary and difficult business of writing and editing a novel. It’s such an exciting prospect to be working with someone so passionate about the book to make the story the strongest it can be, and send it out into the world.

Julie says:

“I loved the voice, the characters, the emotion and felt a genuine resonance with the novel which is very hard to achieve. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, so accomplished was the writing.  I was totally thrilled when Victoria Bird agreed to join the list.”

You can find Julie’s full post about signing me up here, and watch this space for news about Unsteady Souls.