Working As A Reader To Improve My Writing

For the past four months I’ve been sneaking a peak behind the scenes of a New York literary agency. Yes, I was snowed in at my Midwest writing office most of that time. I’ve been working remotely as a middle grade and young adult manuscript reader. No, I don’t plan to move to New York to become a literary agent. So why did I volunteer to read other people’s manuscripts?

To improve my writing . . . and yours.

Don’t ask – I’m not going to share the name of the agency, agent, or manuscript authors. What I can tell you is how the reader process works at this particular agency and what I’ve learned during the past four months.

The Process:

This agency accepts unsolicited queries. That means any author can submit a query – after carefully following the submission guidelines – even if she hasn’t met the agent at a conference or workshop.

Each agent reads her own queries and decides which manuscripts to request. (Note that some agencies have an assistant agent or intern read the queries).

Once the requested manuscript arrives, it’s sent to a remote reader like me. I typically have one week to read the manuscript and write a report. What does my report include? A synopsis of the novel plot, the writing strengths, the writing weaknesses, and whether I recommend the agent represent the manuscript.

Once I turn in my report, the agent decides whether or not to take the time to read the manuscript. Sometimes my report is enough to result in a rejection. If I note great potential, a busy agent might read excerpts from the beginning, middle, and end of the manuscript to get a feel for the consistency of the writing quality. If the agent is strongly considering representation, she’ll read the entire manuscript. Others at the agency may also read the manuscript. All of these manuscript reads can add up to a long wait for the author.

I don’t know how many queries this agency receives per week, but I’d guess it’s in the hundreds. What I do know: only six manuscripts were given to me to read in four months. There are two other readers, probably receiving a similar number of manuscripts to read.

The verdict: I recommended passing on all six manuscripts, despite great potential in a few cases, because the manuscripts would require significant revision before they could be sent to editors.

Authors tend to query their manuscripts before they’re actually ready for an agent to read.

What Have I Learned:

  • There is often a decrease in writing quality after the first two chapters of the manuscript.

What does this mean?

The occurrences of grammar mistakes, typos, missing words, and repeated words dramatically increase after the opening pages. Pacing sometimes changes – either slowing down with tons of backstory or speeding up to tell the action as stage directions. The promises made to the reader in the opening – for both plot arc and emotional arc – often get lost in the muddy middle. A big Ta-Da ending often comes together too conveniently without feeling earned.

What can you do?

You’ve probably invested significant time critiquing and polishing your opening chapter in hopes of turning a query into a manuscript request. Don’t forget the entire manuscript will then be read. Don’t query until you’ve invested the same level of revision effort on every single chapter of your manuscript.

Revision should start at the developmental level with character, plot arc, and emotional arc. Revision passes should also be done at the chapter, scene, paragraph, and line levels. If you’re not great at grammar or spelling, find a beta reader who is. Make sure every one of your 80,000 words is clear, concise, and serves your story.

  • New writers often have similar writing craft tells.

What does this mean?

New writers tend to convey emotion by stating the emotion name (ex: She screamed in anger.), using cliché body language (ex: Her heart pounded. She clenched her fists.), or using descriptive dialog tags (ex: “Yeah, right,” she chortled.). There are often an excessive amount of tears, used as a crutch to tell the reader a character is upset instead of showing a more specific emotion. Exclamation marks can become another crutch to convey excitement.

The action often stops, in what is called a pause button violation, for the author to describe every detail of a new setting or info dump backstory (ex: A kid steps up to the plate, followed by five pages of setting description and batting backstory, before a pitch is thrown. Another three pages of inner monologue convey worries about striking out before the kid swings the bat. A page of detailed description following the arc of the ball comes before the character takes off running, etc.).

What can you do?

It’s okay if all these tells, and many other personal writing tics, show up in your first draft. An agent (or manuscript reader) shouldn’t ever see that draft. Take time to critique and revise before you query. Remove emotion names and show your character experiencing a specific emotion. Improve your dialogue so you only need “said” as the tag, if there is any tag at all. Replace adverbs with stronger, more specific verbs. Replace all clenching and pounding with fresher body language or figurative language. Setting can also set mood and convey emotion. Don’t forget that a character may feel one thing and say something completely different. Scenes should have subtext or misunderstandings that create conflict and tension.

Insert backstory in brief snippets, only if absolutely necessary for clarity, only when the narrator would naturally have that thought, and only when the narrator would have time to think that amount of text. The author needs to know a lot more backstory while writing than what belongs in the final manuscript.

Describe only the setting elements that matter – what your narrator would notice in that moment, in that emotional state, and in that amount of time. Consider using shorter sentences in fast-paced moments. You don’t have to always use proper grammar. You do need to use vocabulary and expressions that fit the age, experience, interests, and time period of your character.

  • Most manuscripts lack an emotional connection.

What does that mean?

If a reader doesn’t feel emotionally connected to the character and hooked into the story by reader questions, it is very easy for her to set down your manuscript to go do something else. As a manuscript reader, I must read each manuscript from beginning to end, but it’s a bad sign if I start skimming purely to write my plot summary for my report.

What can you do?

The manuscripts sent my way all have something great that caught an agent’s eye – maybe a clever plot, a unique character, an interesting setting, rich worldbuilding, a relatable obstacle, or an intriguing mystery. These elements of writing craft are important, but they won’t emotionally connect me to your manuscript.

Don’t tell me a story. Let me experience the story alongside your narrator. I want to know who the story is about, what that person desires (both emotionally and more concretely in the plot), why, what obstacles stand in the way, and what is at stake if the person doesn’t get the desire. I want to feel each of the character’s emotions along the way and grow with her.

  • Jennifer the Writer falls into all the same traps that Jennifer the Reader is warning you about.

I get sloppy and use shortcuts in my first drafts. I get impatient while working through a young adult novel sentence by sentence. I feel the urgency of getting my manuscript into the hands of an agent NOW.

Then I imagine a manuscript reader, much like myself, wishing an author with so much potential had taken more time to revise and polish her work. That image sends me back into the revision trenches every time.

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a KidLit author and Structural Engineer. She has a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an SCBWI Rockford Network Rep, edits the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind, and belongs to Mystery Writers of America. Jennifer works as a writer, freelance editor, literary agency reader, and creative writing teacher.
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2 Responses to Working As A Reader To Improve My Writing

  1. Alice Fleury says:

    Jen, A generous post to share. Thanks so much for your insight. Such an exciting experience you had. Glad I wasn’t one of your 6.
    I find it difficult thinking of ways to show the character’s feeling, like heart pounding, fist clenching, I wanna punch somebody. The one I’ve read in YA so often, I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. I’ve read that phrase in several YA’s.

  2. Jennifer Kay says:

    Alice – I agree. Creating fresh ways to show emotion and body language is so hard. We all default to cliches in our first drafts because they’re a short cut everyone understands. But they do lose impact each time we read them. The hard work of revision is going back and coming up with something better.

    One of the faculty members in my MFA program was on a mission to eliminate all clenching, pounding, and breathing from KidLit. Once she pointed it out to me, I saw the same expressions (including the one you mentioned) everywhere.

    My advice would be to take a close look at the scenes that generate a strong emotion when you read. Is the character crying when you cry? Was any cliche body language used in the scene? What did the author do instead?