GUEST POST: 6 Revision Tips to (Hopefully) Impress an Agent

Client M-E Girard steps in with some words of wisdom…M-E Girard Pic

Remember Linda’s recent blog post—the one in March about improving your craft? In it, she talked about submissions that make her go “I love the premise of this! I wish the writing was better…” Well, I spend a lot of time on learning my craft. As much time as I spend on the actual writing part of being a writer, I spend just as much time learning about what constitutes great writing. When I felt ready to start querying, I figured that since Linda was good enough to ask for a 20-page sample as part of her query guidelines, it was my job to make her like the words I arranged on those pages. The story itself might be great, but we have only a few pages to impress an agent and get them to want to keep reading based on those few sentences. So, they better be great, too.

Here are some of the things I focus on when it comes to polishing my work:

1) Starting with “I” too often. If you write in first-person POV (and I do almost all the time), you might fall into the trap of starting most of your sentences with “I.” The thing is, it becomes annoyingly redundant to the person reading your work: I did this. I wasn’t sure about it, but I did it. I saw this. I heard this. I then decided this. I once submitted a first chapter for a contest, and it came back to me with every single “I” highlighted in yellow. Ever since then, I work hard at varying how I begin my sentences.

2) Spelling things out. If you’ve got a great dialogue exchange that shows your protag being a snippy jerk, while the best friend is being a pushover, do you really need to then sum up with a line of narrative that says, “I was being a snippy jerk, and my best friend was being a pushover”? Seems obvious, but when you’re writing along, you might have the tendency to spell things out when you’ve already done a pretty good job showing everything the reader needs to know. It’s actually irritating for a reader to be “told” things, like they’re too dumb to have picked up on it. When I revise, these instances usually jump out at me, but I make sure I’m on the lookout for them.

3) Who said what, and why did they say it like that? Dialogue tags (or speech tags) can become a problem, especially if you’re trying to be too fancy with them. After a while, admonishing, pleading, countering, and offering dialogue lines sticks out when it shouldn’t by calling attention to itself. Unless it’s super important that I clarify how something was said, I’ll stick to the word “said,” or to no speech tag at all. The flipside of that is that when I revise, I might realize I’ve omitted the dialogue tag when it was needed for clarity. If I’m asking myself, “Wait, who said this?” and I start counting the lines to figure out who spoke when, then I know I need to stick a couple tags in there.

4) Repeat offenders. It didn’t take me long to make a list of my overused words. I started with the word feel (in all its forms), then I went to the following: shrug, gaze, look, eyebrows (and all of the things they do), whatever, like, then, I, just. There are more. There are actually lists of overused words you can find online. Do a search of your document, and start switching things up.

5) The “tells” that slipped through the cracks. I am always thinking “show don’t tell.” I think that is the ultimate rule, and it will usually fix a lot of the issues with a manuscript. Still, some of those “tells” end up making it through multiple revisions. I remind myself to engage the senses. Another thing I do is picture the events unfolding like a movie, that way I tend to write everything I would see on the screen, which keeps my writing focused on the “show.”

6) Take the meh and make it cool. This is where I get rid of my clichés, my boring descriptions—all the places where it feels like I just used words to get from Point A to Point B—and I shake things up. You gotta work with characterization here, and you gotta think about your writing style. Do you want it to feel like anyone could’ve written this? Or do you want the agent to think, Niiice. A passage might feel “done” because it does its job, but I try to look at every sentence individually and assess whether or not I can make it shine to the point of hopefully making a reader go, Niiice.

So, all this boils down to one thing: thinking like a reader. When you’re ready to start submitting to agents, think of these agents as readers. They want to read something excellent, something they’ll want to be responsible for getting on the shelves, out to other readers. Don’t give them the opportunity to sigh and wish the writing was better.

M-E Girard is a registered nurse moonlighting as a writer of LGBTQ young adult fiction. She has completed her first Young Adult novel (a finalist in the 2010 Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest) and is working on her second, third, and fourth. M-E is a member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region and is on its Board of Directors. She also manages their website Reading As Writers, a blog and resource site for members. M-E lives in Ontario, Canada, with her partner Melissa and their two Chihuahua babies.


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27 responses to “GUEST POST: 6 Revision Tips to (Hopefully) Impress an Agent

  1. great post, and great things to keep in mind that it can be easy to overlook once you get into the groove of writing. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you for reading!
      That’s what I wanted to show, that when you’re about to start querying, these are fixes that are totally doable, if you can train yourself to actively look for them.

  2. Great post! Although I’m cognizant of #4 (Repeat Offenders), I’m not sure I’ve ACTIVELY hunted them down. I think what I’ll do on my WIP draft is take your advice and hunt them down via a document-wide search. It’ll probably open my eyes to some overuse I may not have been aware of. Had H.P. Lovecraft done this, I think stygian, eldritch, and primordial would have been at the top of list, lol… Thanks again!

    • Wow–I haven’t read any Lovecraft, but I kinda want to now. I keep hearing about his overwrought prose. Stygian, eldritch, and primordial are such pretty words! 😛 My very first manuscript was basically all “shrugging.” It was my go-to physical description between dialogue lines.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Mel

    Reblogged this on Melly Loves Orange and commented:
    Great tips from a fellow writing friend.

  4. Mel

    Number 2 seems familiar 😉 I, too am printing off this list to put above my writers nook. Thanks for being a sharer, not a “I did it myself, good luck on your own” person. We need more people willing to HELP other writers make their works the best possible. It’s not a contest people. We all have the same dreams to hold our very own book in our hands in the end. That’s why we’re here. Isn’t it? Can’t wait to read your many novels 😉

    • #2 does sound familiar–but it’s actually mine! I’m revising and had to cut out 3 times where I spelled this out between my protag and sidekick. Seriously, I’m honestly taking my own advice. 😛

      Thanks for reading, reblogging, tweeting, and all that you said. Glad I could help!

  5. generally agree…except for show, don’t tell…if my story has a complex plot with multiple story lines, it would be tedious to say the least to show everything…that’s a cliché in writing circles…in my opinion

    • I agree that a writer can’t “show” everything. There’s a balance. A lot of it is “telling,” but I do think that writers easily fall into telling and rob themselves of great moments to show. It’s the same way I feel about “ly” adverbs. I see those being used in places where more engaging mental images could’ve been given to the reader. Revision is the place to take a look at the writing and decide what would benefit the story more–that’s what I think. 😉

  6. Thanks, M-E, for this useful list. Going to print it and put on the wall, close to the computer. Best wishes with your four novels.

  7. mistytucker

    Reblogged this on tossingdaisies and commented:
    I know I’ll take a second, or third, peek before submitting!

  8. mistytucker

    Fantastic advice!! #3 struck at the heart for me. I’m always on the search for an alternative speech tag. I’ll have to keep in mind it’s okay to use *said* more than just occasionally. Thanks for this post! I may have to reblog.

    • Hey. Thanks. 🙂
      I still have a list of all the speech tags I could find, like 25 of them. I thought it was “rookie” to use “said” all the time, but the more I read on craft, and read books in general, I realize speech tags aren’t supposed to stick out, and dialogue should–usually–be strong enough on its own.

  9. Yes, to all of these, especially lackluster prose and spelling things out, which I find insidiously easy to slip into. My repeat offenders are snort and grunt. I weed them all out, then come back and do it again, and there’s still plenty of snorting and grunting left.

    • Snorting and grunting! I gotta watch out for those. I feel like I started relying on those to get around using other repeat offenders. 😛
      Revision has me sitting at my manuscript going, “Why, WHY did you write this crap?! How dare you!” And then I fix it.

  10. Diane Lash Decker

    Yikes . . . I’m a repeat offender!! Gotta work on that. Thanks for the post M-E (and L.E.)

    • Thanks for reading! 🙂
      There’s a blog chain that went around a few months back called “The Look Challenge.” Writers would search their manuscripts for the word “look,” and apparently, some had over 600 instances of using it. Crazy.

  11. Great post–and a great reminder to work on our craft. (According to my critique group, I am occasionally–okay, often–guilty of #2.)

    • Nice–a bit of a spelling-it-outer. 😛
      I think critiquing other writers’ works is the thing that keeps me most on my toes. I read a lot about what makes great writing, what not to do, but when I see it demonstrated in someone else’s writing, it jumps out at me in a way it can’t when I’m looking at my own stuff. Critiquing helps me gain a better eye for it in my own writing.

  12. Niiiice. Great post, M-E. Just got done with some last minute #6 that I missed. A couple of good-enough-for-nows.

    • Ha! #6 is the most tedious, but it’s so important. I’m the kind of reader who responds to amazing style, sentence by sentence. No matter how firework-y the plot is, it can’t carry me through blah writing. But it’s hard to keep alert to it while revising my own stuff.

  13. Great, GREAT advice M-E. I’ll bet your writing is a fun, zingy ride. Where, when, how can I/we read more of your fictional stuff? I hate to say, I am (somewhat) guilty of ALL these transgressions. Not all the time, and not in all my work, but enough of it. Wish I had read this post before sending out my revised manuscript last week!

    • Hey. Thanks. 🙂
      I feel like I’m guilty of all these, all the time, even though I’m here writing a guest post about it. I mean, after Linda got my supposedly polished-and-agent-ready manuscript, I revised substantially a few more times (with her input) and caught a bunch of these. But, I think agents can probably tell when someone put effort into their craft, even if there’s still work to do. The good thing is, the more I work on my craft, the more I incorporate these methods into my writing so that it’s becoming natural to write “better.”
      When my manuscript becomes novel, I’ll be having a cyber party. Hopefully that’ll happen sooner rather than later. 😀

  14. Great post. I’m writing my first novel and already have these points in my head – but it’s so helpful to see them all together like this.

    • Thanks! I try to keep all this in my head as I write, so that I’m not stuck with a huge, discouraging revision at the end. But even so, I surprise myself with how much lackluster, not-so-great stuff makes it through multiple revisions unquestioned.