Justin Cox
Administrator at The Writing Cooperative and Eater of Donuts
Published Apr 30, 2019

ProWritingAid

Literary agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing world. Their verdict on a five-page submission can make or break an author’s dreams. It’s critical to ensure your submission catches an agent’s eye and doesn’t immediately get passed upon.

This two-part series covers advice I received from a local literary agent. These editing guidelines ensure a submission is agent ready. Part 1 looks at developmental editing.

Contents:

  1. What Is Developmental Editing?
  2. Follow the In Media Res Principle
  3. Read Aloud
  4. Find a Team of Beta Readers

What Is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing covers the overall story progression. It is not a look at grammar and formatting (we’ll cover that in part two). Instead, developmental editing ensures the story is told in the right order and captivates the reader.

Follow the In Media Res Principle

Stories should be interesting. If an agent will only see the first five pages of your manuscript, it’s crucial to capture the reader. One way to ensure a reader is hooked is following the principle of in media res — or, in the middle of things.

Stories should begin in the middle of some form of action. When the first five pages of a story focus on descriptions or world building, the reader is turned off or confused. Instead, action should drive the pages.

While opening action can be a major fight (think of the beginning of almost every superhero movie), it can also be something subtle. Stressing over a deadline is a form of internal in media res conflict that unveils a lot about the character without requiring too much explanation.

Beginning in media res captures the reader’s attention and hooks them into the rest of the story.

Read Aloud

Read your work out loud before submitting to an agent. Verbal reading requires the brain to process the words audibly. Our ears have a keen ability to notice when something is out of place.

Reading out loud highlights structural issues and helps you check that the tone, voice and point of view all work as intended. While we’re not focusing on copy-editing in this portion, reading out loud often flags common grammar mistakes.

Find a Team of Beta Readers

Beta readers should be an important part of everyone’s editing process. Before submitting work to an agent it should pass through multiple beta readers.

While having friends or family members read through your work is nice, beta readers are people who will be critical and constructive.

It is vital to find beta readers who have different backgrounds and cultures than your own. This helps point out cultural issues or phrasing that you might not be aware of.

Additionally, find beta readers that also represent your characters. This is especially important when characters have different ethnicities, generations, or gender identities than your own or if they struggle with an affliction or mental health issue you do not. Beta readers will help flush out the feelings of someone in your character’s shoes and ensure terminology is used properly.

Finding beta readers is incredibly important and will ultimately help your work become agent ready. Check your local writing communities or find online options, like The Writing Cooperative.


In Agent Advice Part 2 we’ll cover line-editing and copy-editing.

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Justin Cox
Administrator at The Writing Cooperative and Eater of Donuts

Justin Cox is a writer, minister, and donut eater. His words are available online at Wired, Film School Rejects, The Writing Cooperative, The Coffeelicious, and more. Besides writing, Justin is an avid traveler and foodie. He lives in Orlando, Florida with his wife, Carla, and their dog, Mac. Connect with Justin on Twitter, Medium, or at JustinCox.com.

I'm not sure I understand this advice. It seems to be saying authors should construct their stories mainly to catch an agent's eye. In particular, the 'in media res' section stating: "Stories should begin in the middle of some form of action. When the first five pages of a story focus on descriptions or world building, the reader is turned off or confused.... Beginning in media res captures the reader’s attention and hooks them into the rest of the story." But won't this then lead to a lot of very similar novels, so creating a similar trend to the film industry's commercially safe output - anyone for yet another superhero movie? It might also just create another undifferentiated playing field of submissions, just at a higher tempo, for agents to wade through. Readers may also end up all the poorer if such a homogenising trend you're espousing takes hold, when surely variety should remain the spice of life? What if instead agents are directed to the "action" by using a relevant extract from the manuscript as a coverpiece? So can you explain your approach in a bit more detail? Thank you!

By j.reid2099 on 03 May 2019, 02:13 PM

I am faced with the interesting challenge of applying this to a children's book. I have used the concept of setting place which in this case is a fantasy land already associated with a strong cultural point for all children of western culture which I have built up in the first to pages, dropped in a villain and a hero that is basically every child of 8 to 10, and then referenced how he alone will can save this cultural event for all children. Being a child;s story I worked on the premise that the action must threaten the readers world as its still a world of fantasy mixed with reality. It was the basis of this kind of threat to a child;s world upon which I designed the story. Hence i have attempted to bring the readers own fears into play. Fingers crossed..

By mibbuildin on 04 May 2019, 09:45 PM