Listen Up: Ruth’s Guest Editor

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: May 4, 2013
Categories: Basics, Craft, Critique Process
Comments: 1 Comment

ExlibrisTwo years ago, at about this time, I thought that my Blue Thread manuscript was ready for prime time. Sylvia Spratt disagreed. I was smart enough not to argue. At least not too much. Sylvia was right. Blue Thread has since gone on to win the Leslie Bradshaw Award for Young Adult Literature at the 2013 Oregon Book Awards, and I’m delighted to offer you this post.

Are we there yet?

How to know when your manuscript’s ready to submit, to whom, and why

 Sylvia Spratt, Ex Libris Editing, LLC

When Ruth mentioned that a common topic of discussion that pops up in Viva Scriva’s meetings is how “polished” a manuscript should be, I thought, “Perfect. As an editor, I’m pretty much constantly thinking about variations on that same theme!”

I decided to tackle the topic in this guest post, hopefully with an eye toward helping you with the decisions that are right for your book and for you.

So: After all the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears you never knew you had in you when you started your book, it’s finally time. Time for the first day of the rest of your book’s life: submitting your manuscript for publication.

…or is it?

One of the biggest mistakes authors of all experience levels make is sending manuscripts out into the world too soon. It’s incredibly tempting, after all those countless hours of hard work, to just throw your arms up, say, “that’s it!” and either pack the manuscript off to the self-publishing entity of your choice or to agencies and acquisitions editors without a backwards glance.

But are you truly done? No one knows your manuscript as well as you do, and no one’s closer to it that you—which often means that you can’t see the forest for the trees. I’d go so far as to say that it’s impossible to tell if your manuscript is “finished” on your own.

The question remains: how do you really know when your manuscript’s ready to submit, and to whom? What happens then? After all, “finished” means very different things for different people. If you’ve got a manuscript to tout, you’ve probably asked yourself these questions at some point, and if you haven’t, you certainly shouldbefore taking steps towards publication.  The answers to these questions are intertwined, and can branch off along several different paths based on what you want for your manuscript/how you want to approach publication.

Freelance editors

If you plan to employ a freelance editor/editorial firm (not attached to a publishing house), then—at least the majority of the time —your manuscript can be in much rougher shape than if you were submitting to a literary agent or publishing house directly. If fact, you can enlist the help of a freelance editor at any stage of your writing process, as most editorial firms offer a range of services designed to assist authors with everything from developmental editing (the “biggies” like plot and character development, world building, etc.) to proofreading (dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s).

A professional editor isn’t meant to replace a writers group or an agent, but rather to work alongside an author to get his or her manuscript into shape for publication, whether that means self-publishing or going the more traditional route. If you decide to work with a professional editor before you pursue publication, don’t worry too much about your manuscript being “polished”: that’s what your editor is for. It can be immensely helpful to work with an independent editor before seeking publication, especially if you are a newer author navigating the publishing process for the first time. It’s a good idea to have a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) pair of impartial eyes on your work before you self-publish or submit to a literary agent or publishing house, because you want your work to be in the best possible shape before it meets the POD machines or overworked editorial interns! Which leads us to…

Self-publishing, literary agents, and acquisitions departments:

This is where you want to dot every “i” and cross every “t”—and then go back and dot and cross about a dozen more times just to be certain! When submitting a manuscript to an agent/agency or to a publishing house directly via the acquisitions editor, you really must have full confidence that your manuscript is polished with a capital “P.”

The folks at agencies and acquisitions departments who will be reading your submission will likely be incredibly busy people, and, while they also likely (hopefully!) care about their jobs and love what they do, they just can’t afford to spend time on a submission that hasn’t been perfected beforehand. This can mean anything from sloppy grammar to an inconsistent or underdeveloped character or plot arc.

Think if it this way: If your manuscript is, say, 95% polished (you’re getting positive feedback from your writers group, you’ve maybe worked with a freelance editor to develop and/or polish it up, you’ve gotten unbiased opinions from other authors in your genre, etc.), then an agent is more likely to say, “Hey, this really only needs a little polishing around the edges. This is something I can afford to take on at face value.” If, however, your manuscript is, say, 60% or 70% done and you’re counting on either your potential agent or your eventual editor at a press to help you get it the rest of the way there, your chances of getting picked up plummet—not because your book isn’t worth the work, but because many agents and editors simply can’t afford the gamble of taking on a less-than-finished manuscript up front. It’s a gamble on both sides of the fence—one that is hardly ever worth throwing the chips on the table for either party.

Likewise, if you choose to self-publish, you and you alone are often the final quality control before your book meets the world, and you will need to put in time and effort equal to the task to make sure everything’s as it should be before your book is printed. On the plus side, you’ve probably eliminated some costs up front by not having your manuscript professionally edited. On the minus side, this increases the likelihood that there may be errors in or underdeveloped areas of your manuscript that have been overlooked, thus increasing the possibility of a final product you’re not happy with.

So, in summation, before asking yourself how polished your manuscript should be, take yourself through these steps:

  1. Get some distance from your work once you’re finished with the majority of the writing process.
  2. Decide how you want to pursue publication and approach your revisions based on that decision.
  3. Get a variety of unbiased/professional opinions during the revision process.
  4. Strive to give your book the best chance at success as you can, just like you would for a child.
  5. Revise like crazy.
  6. Remember: the more work you put into the revision process before, the easier time you/your book will have when it’s time to pursue publication.

As long as you get some distance from your work, amass a healthy number of unbiased and caring opinions, and keep your end goal for your book in mind, you’ll know when to stop—and most importantly, you’ll be ready to take the next step towards your book’s (hopefully wildly successful) future.

Sylvia Spratt is the co-owner of Ex Libris Editing, an editorial firm based jointly in Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado, alongside fellow editor Sarah Heilman. Sylvia and Sarah specialize in developmental editing for science fiction, fantasy, and young adult literature, and accept work across a variety of other literary genres as well. Please drop by www.exlibrisediting.com to learn more about Ex Libris and to say hello!

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.

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