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 looked at developmental editing and Part 2 is all about line and copy editing.
What Are Line-Editing and Copy-Editing?
Line-editing refers to the clarity and flow of a piece. Some flow issues are addressed in developmental editing, but line-editing takes a deeper look. Copy-editing is another word for proofreading—ensuring grammar and spelling are correct. These editing techniques are crucial before turning your draft into an agent.
Avoid a Play-By-Play
One of the biggest red flags in a five-page submission is a play-by-play of what’s going on. You know the style. It’s something similar to this:
Jane walked to the park. She sat on the bench. She opened her book. Jane read her book until dark.
Here, the author (please don’t judge my flash fiction!) leaves nothing to the reader's imagination. We’re told exactly what is happening and what emotions are being felt. There’s no room for interpretation.
Not only is this style of writing boring, it will cause agents to place your submission in the rejection pile.
Cut Repetitive Sentences
Readers get bored when sentences are repetitive. It’s important to break things up, use different structures, and vary the sentence types.
Again, look at the example above (I know, it’s terrible!): not only is it a play-by-play, but there is no variation in sentence structure. If you’re bored reading the passage, you know an agent will be too.
It’s important to break repetition using varying sentence structures. Mix short sentences with complex ones.
Use Descriptive Verbs
Verbs are the action of every sentence. Using natural and descriptive verbs is extremely important.
Suzie walked through the puddle conveys action and is clear—the character moved through a puddle—but is not not very descriptive.
Suzie stomped through the puddle conveys the same action but is much more descriptive. One different word portrays a very different image in the readers mind.
Clean Up Dialogue
All dialogue should have a purpose in the overall story. The conversation should ultimately lead the character somewhere—be it the next portion of the story or to some internal insight.
Similar to verb choice, dialogue tags are equally important. Said is a common dialogue tag that works in many situations, but not all because it’s not descriptive. Using more descriptive tags (whispered, shouted, mumbled, etc.) paints a clearer picture for the reader.
Make Passive Voice Active
Okay, I’m sure you’ve heard this one a million times, but it’s important. Passive voice has less impact than active voice. It removes agency from characters and acts as narration.
For example, Jane was walking is passive and feels lackluster. Instead, write Jane walked and keep the drive of the sentence.
Was and were can be key indicators of passive voice. Before submitting to an agent, do a word search in your manuscript for them and see if the sentence can be restructured. Alternatively, ProWritingAid will identify each instance of passive voice with suggestions on how to make them active.
Look Out for Adverbs
Similar to passive voice, removing adverbs is also important. Adverbs are modifiers that add color to writing. For example, Jane walked quickly modifies the verb and provides the reader a little more description.
Some adverbs provide value to writing, but it’s important to remove most of them. While the sentence above works with an adverb, it could be rewritten. Jane jogged or Jane power-walked provides the reader with more precise detail.
Cut All Whimper Words
Whimper words are filler words: that, really, so, like, kind of, just, and apparently.
Whimper words put agents on high alert for lazy or amateur writing. They are unnecessary and only beef up word counts.
Thankfully avoiding whimper words is pretty simple. Search for every instance in your manuscript and remove them. Doing so will often not even require the sentence be rewritten. Take the following sentence filled with whimper words:
- Apparently, Jane drove really fast just to escape the storm.
Removing the whimper words provides a more direct sentence without rewriting anything:
- Jane drove fast to escape the storm.
Before submitting a five-page manuscript to any agent, take the time necessary for developmental, line and copy editing. Not only will your submission be polished, it will show an agent you are ready to move toward publishing.