The Revision Letter: Why and How to Follow it to a T

By Rachel Beck

When an agent takes the time to write a thoughtful revision letter for your manuscript, it’s a really good thing because it means he or she is interested enough in your story and characters to invest in this. It just means your book isn’t quite there yet, but they’re willing to put in the effort to help you get it there. It means they want you to succeed! But revision letters can contain a lot, and there are often many ways to interpret a change that an agent is asking for. The goal of this post is to help you make sense of revision letters.

keepcalmIn an ideal world, an agent will read a manuscript, like it but have some thoughts for improvement, send off a letter detailing these thoughts, and then the author will read it, nod, and get right to work, producing the manuscript of the agent’s dreams. But this is rarely the case–in fact, one round of revisions is usually not sufficient. So it’s likely that authors might wonder when asked to do more revisions, What did I do wrong?

Revising is tough. We get it. Sometimes our ideas and reasons for having a character do X instead of Y make perfect sense in our heads, and we think we’re conveying exactly what we mean in our revision letter, but what you read and what we wrote are actually coming across like two totally different languages. German and Swahili. Arabic and Spanish. Or maybe just Agent and Writer. So how do we all get on the same page (literally)?

It’s important to understand the reasoning behind a change an agent is asking for. Especially if it’s something major, like a plotline, character’s motivation, or deleting an entire chapter. If the agent hasn’t laid it out in a clear enough way that you understand and agree with, probe further. Ask more questions. If you’re just blindly making a change because your agent said to, the changes you make won’t necessarily be stronger. Plus, you’ll learn for next time that, say, having your main character’s estranged cousin comes back into her life and reconcile with her at the end of the story doesn’t work because it distracts from the purpose of the book and creates a contrived relationship that’s totally separate from and unnecessary to the main storyline.

You might often be asked for revisions to a character’s goals, motivation, or conflict. A realistic book with stakes and heart is going to need these three things in sufficient doses. So one revision note might be, what is Mandy’s goal in the scene when she looks up her cousin with the intention of reconnecting? Why does she want this reunion in the first place? Such revision points should cause you to question your own choices for your characters and story. If you can stand by your decisions, by all means, give your agent your rationale and have a conversation. The key is to ask if you’re still confused about a certain point after reading through the revision letter. It can never hurt to get more information.

script-revisionsAmong other things, we might ask in revision letters for higher stakes to the plot as a
whole, slowing down or speeding up the pacing of the story, beefing up a character’s past or conflict, and so on. These are all important things that are sometimes not brought out in early drafts. Additionally, we might give some pointers on the mechanics of writing, though we generally expect the authors to acquire this knowledge on their own. We might question why a character is hiding their true identity, or some fact that seems important, from another character. If it seems unethical or makes a character seem less appealing, we’ll probably note that, and we can discuss whether the deceitful action is worth the less-appealing light it puts the character in order to accomplish whatever purpose he had.

Think of a revision letter as a pair of eyes on all of your characters and storylines. If they’re doing something that doesn’t ring true to the book, it’s going to be questioned. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that a revision letter is like a conversation. So be sure to respond with any concerns or questions that you have after reading over your agent’s thoughts, and never hesitate to ask for clarification if you need it or are still confused on a certain point. The book will be stronger for it when all is said and done!