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How Can Writers Know if Their Writing Is Ready For Querying?

We spend months laboring over a book trying to perfect it. One day we push away from our laptops, stare at the last page, and get a nervous flutter in our stomachs. Is our precious book finally ready to face the brutal world of agents and editors?

Julie Musil asked: "How did you know your manuscript was ready before querying?"

Her question echoes that of most writers who finish a book. How can we know when our manuscript is really ready to query. We don’t want to send it out too soon. But we also don’t want to let fear hold us back. Is there a way to know for certain if our manuscript is at a point where it will garner the attention we so desperately want?

What I’m learning is that it’s usually incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for a writer to determine the worth of their own manuscript, with their own subjective eyes. Case in point, I recently turned in my second contracted book to my publisher, and I thought it was the best book I’d ever written. Their verdict? It’s sludge. Rewrite major portions of it.

Most of the time, writers have an inflated opinion of their work, like I did. Very few of us hit the send key and say, “Well, there goes that piece of junk. I just know no one is going to like it.” Instead we hold our breaths and check our inbox every few minutes, wondering when the bidding war will start.

Agent Chip MacGregor said this: “As an agent, I see hundreds of manuscripts every year that I reject for representation. Nearly all of these are rejected for one basic reason: the writer simply isn’t good enough. The ideas may be interesting, and the marketing may be slick, but the authors simply aren’t good enough to publish.”

None of us want to fall into that category of “simply aren’t good enough to publish.” So, how can we make sure we’re sending out our queries at the right time? Here are just a few of my thoughts:

Get two or more qualified and objective critiques on our books first.

The feedback must come from someone who isn’t afraid to tell us exactly what they think (hopefully in a kind way). And that someone needs to be knowledgeable about the craft of writing, preferably another writer or editor at our level or beyond.

Often critique partners don’t feel comfortable sharing their truest thoughts. If we want a deeply honest critique, then we can say upfront, “I give you permission to tell me exactly what doesn’t work. Please be completely truthful, even if it’s painful for me.” Then our critiquers will know we’re teachable which gives them more freedom to share openly and objectively.

Make sure we’ve made good strides toward mastering basic fiction-writing techniques.

As I’ve critiqued for contests and for other writers, I’ve been surprised at how easily I can distinguish where writers are at in their writing skills. Some are at a freshman level in the college of writing. Some fall in the middle—not struggling with beginner mistakes, but still needing to mature. Others are seniors and ready for graduation.

Writers must gain mastery over the way they string words together and bring a story to life. Our plots and characters don’t necessarily have to be perfect for us to garner the attention of an agent or editor. Most authors have to make rewrites for their publisher once they’re contracted. But. . . we have to reach a place where our writing skills aren’t inhibiting the story-telling. (In the next post, I’ll share specific ways I’ve challenged myself to grow as a writer.)

Expect that agents and editors will be the gatekeepers.

If we’re getting positive feedback from critiques, and if we’ve moved to a senior level in our writing skill, then we’re probably at a place where we can begin to query with confidence.

And yet, ultimately, in the set-up of the current traditional publishing system, agents and editors act as the final gatekeepers. If we consistently get no response, form rejections, or a “no thanks” of some form, then that’s probably another indication we may not be quite as ready as we thought. (Or that perhaps our story doesn’t have a fit in today’s market.)

From what I’ve seen, most writers who reach a publishable place in their writing skills will eventually get picked up by an agent, even if their stories still need work. It may take many months of persistent querying, but usually agents and editors can pick out writers who’ve worked to hone their writing skills and story-telling ability.

That's my opinion! Now it's your turn! How did you know when you were ready to query? And if you haven’t queried yet, what tests do you plan to use to help you know when to start?

47 comments:

  1. Jody,

    I haven't queried yet, but I have two more stages of revision to go. (dialogue and reading aloud) Then I will submit to critique group and editor. If all goes well, then I am ready to query.

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  2. I didn't know. Just jumped in. lol Thought the one i'm querying now is great due to feedback (some from an intern) but it seems now like my ego got a bit inflated. ouch! good post and all the best with your rewrites. :-)

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  3. "What I’m learning is that it’s usually incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for a writer to determine the worth of their own manuscript, with their own subjective eyes"

    This is true even for blog posts and short articles. Sometimes we do sense we've written something better than our usual fare. But we can't rely on that feeling. It isn't always accurate.

    What I am learning right now is how to select editors and readers for my writing who are compatible, WHO REALLY "GET" WHERE MY WRITING IS HEADED, but who can ALSO help me grow. This is not easy.

    Advice?

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  4. At first, I queried much too soon. Then realized my mistake and stopped. Wrote two more books. And waited until my first conference to jump into querying. It was the best thing I could have done. Because it was at that conference that I landed my agent!

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  5. Wow, my story is a lot like Katie's. Hope it ends like it too. ;) Queried after my first book. Ohps. Yep. Got a bite. Then realized I had work to do. Wrote three more novels. Got critique partners. Studied agent and editor blogs furiously. Entered two contests. Finaled in one. Saved up to attend a conference...

    I'll let you know how the story unravels...

    However it continues you can bet I'll keep on writing.
    ~ Wendy

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  6. This "From what I’ve seen, most writers who reach a publishable place in their writing skills will eventually get picked up by an agent, even if their stories still need work" actually gives me hope. thanks for a very thoughtful post. :)

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  7. I'm not reasy to query yet but this post is interesting.
    Thanks!

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  8. I totally agree with you and Chip about those objective opinions.

    My way of doing that? Pay a professional editor.
    Then ask them if you're ready.

    When they say yes, buy stamps.

    Blessings, dear one!
    Patti

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  9. Jody, first of all, I don't for a second believe that your second MS was sludge, but I understand your reaction to it following the letter. We want our MS to be the best it can possibly be, and if that means some extra work, so be it. Remember, they are part of the team, helping you to be as successful as possible (I know, you know all of this; I'm just trying to do a little cheerleading for you because that one comment really struck me...)

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post. When my MS was finally done, I had 10 readers go over it and told them to be as brutal as possible because all that mattered was the end result. Some were pretty gentle, but a few were as brutal as I requested and that was all good. It was what the piece needed to make it better. And only after those revisions were done did I feel that I was ready to start querying.

    I'm at the gatekeeping stage now, and I have to say it's nerve-wracking and frustrating and exciting in turns, depending on what arrives in my inbox, or if nothing arrives in my inbox. I've had some good luck so far and have a bunch of partials and several fulls out and am still sending out 6 queries a week. But still, I think it's normal to second guess everything from the MS to the query letter on a regular basis... and I do. I think that's all just part of being a writer...

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  10. I can honestly say I know I'm not ready for the query stage. I want to write at least one more novel and then get focused on paying for professional feedback on both projects.

    Great points~ thanks Jody! I know you will be able to tackle those rewrites!

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  11. I queried too early. (I think most of us do!) But luckily I found a few agents who liked my writing enough to offer revision notes. In some ways I wonder if I ever could have made the manuscript good enough without those notes, so I'm glad I queried when I did, even though the initial response was "no."

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  12. Cassandra asked: What I am learning right now is how to select editors and readers for my writing who are compatible, WHO REALLY "GET" WHERE MY WRITING IS HEADED, but who can ALSO help me grow. This is not easy. Advice?

    My Answer: I really think this is a matter of trial. We find people who we think might be a good fit and then we give it a try.

    I've been involved in some critique relationships in the past that for one reason or another didn't work out. Up front, however, I'm always clear to say that if things don't work out, we can part ways without any hurt feelings.

    Most recently, with my current crit. partner, we did a trial period first before committing to work together. We were able to get a feel for each other's writing and critiquing styles before agreeing to a partnership.

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  13. I always check my manuscript against macro and micro revision list. I let it sit. And I try to find a new reader or I see that crits are coming back mainly with line editing. But, only we can determine when we're ready. And sometimes, it could be better, but we've made it the best we can! It's hard to know, for sure. Thank God, I'm still revising. :)

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  14. Hi Jody! I write non-fiction so I didn't need a manuscript to query. SO, I actually queried the idea when I had NOTHING written in the book.. and my book was bought on proposal with two chapters written. That said, I was supernervous to send my final manuscript to my editor as I wasn't sure if it was ready.

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  15. Jody, this is such a timely post for me since I feel like I'm on the brink of querying. I've gotten two qualified opinions. Now I'm just working through their comments and cleaning things up. Thanks for a great post as always!

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  16. Once I get to the point where I think it’s great, I’ll give it to a trusted critiquer and go from there.

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  17. My first couple of rounds if querying did not go so well. It took a while to get the query letter looking professional. My editor certainly helped with that. A query letter needs professional help. I do not recommend going it alone.

    Stephen Tremp

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  18. I am having qualified people look at one of my books. Definitely a good place to start I agree! :O)

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  19. Great and very thoughtful post. I too almost made the mistake of querying too early. And now I am ready. Months later. But I learned a lot. I learned that writers have lots to learn. :)

    Jody, I think that we want to be published so badly, that we are anxious to get our story out there. And you're right. We think we have written gold x gold. Then we find out it's really mud x mud. ;)

    Hugs Jody. I loves ya. :)

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  20. Personally, I wouldn't have the courage to send a query unless professionals have helped me out with my MS. I want the best chance at success.

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  21. I definitely query too early, but I also learn a lot from rejections, which actually helps my manuscript for the next place I query.

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  22. I haven't queried anything big yet, and I know I'm not ready. The tests you mentioned are ones I've already thought about, and put into practice for poetry and short stories.
    Great post!!!

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  23. I had a couple of false starts, querying too early but they were invaluable because of the feedback I got. The third time I queried I relied a little more on external objective feedback. One, from a contest I won and another from an editor I queried directly who liked my ms enough to send it to her colleagues for review. That house didn't make an offer but it showed me that the quality of writing was in the ballpark. I feel fortunate to have had that contest experience and the experience with the editor. Those things helped me to query more aggressively than I had in the past.

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  24. Terrific post. I am querying now --- and am getting lots of partials and a handful of Full MS requests but no cigars (yet)! The most important thing is to stick with it: the perseverance factor. Fingers crossed for all of you folks!

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  25. Great advice, Jody. I queried too early with my first book, but I consider that a really effective learning experience, lol. I'm now querying another book and hope that my timing and skill are up to par this time. :)

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  26. I am really taking my time with this book--getting it professionally edited as well as using Beta readers who told me like it was. (ouch) but glad I am going slower.

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  27. I LOVE querying!!! The anticipation is so much fun and the responses are so interesting ... good thing I love writing enough to be okay if I never get published :)

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  28. I pitched my first novel at my first conference, received some positive feedback but soon realized it really wasn't ready. In fact, later I decided it wasn't even very good and ended up shelving it. I've written a couple more novels since then, while continuing to write my non-fiction, and only now am preparing to leap into querying again.

    I think experience helps tell us when something is ready. That and time. Time gives us a better perspective. Writing is an on-going education for me and it took that first book and a few years to remind me that I needed to keep putting the learning into practice.

    This time I've made use of beta readers, critiquers and a professional editor, have revised until the tweaking is no longer accomplishing anything, and prayed for guidance. I think it's time to take the next step. Wish me luck! ;)

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  29. This is a wonderful post, Jody, and timely for me. I am fairly good at rushing things. I appreciate the reminder to slow down and make sure I'm ready before the big leap.

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  30. This is a wonderful post, Jody, and timely for me. I am fairly good at rushing things. I appreciate the reminder to slow down and make sure I'm ready before the big leap.

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  31. Jody, thank you so much for answering my question. I could probably read your blog all day long. It feels soothing, like chatting with a good friend.

    I submitted my query for critique at writeoncon, and received many constructive opinions. I'm in the process of gutting my letter now!

    I need to remember not to compare myself to others, and that we're all at different levels. You're amazing, thank you.

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  32. Hi Jody -

    I started querying too early and have the battle scars to prove it. Some of us find out the hard way that our early writing efforts are not publishable.

    I've worked hard to improve my craft, edited, and submitted my work to others for critique. Hopefully, I'm in a better position now.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  33. I am fortunate enough to have four fabulous women who read my WIP once I think it is done. One is a writer, two are avid readers, and one used to proof legal documents. These ladies are not afraid to be blunt. I know my WIP isn't ready until I get their feedback and reflect upon it.

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  34. I agree with you here Jody. You need to put your book in the hands of someone who knows what they are talking about and is not afraidd to tell you the truth about your manuscript. I have yet to formally query, but received requests at a conference and then one other by word of mouth. The feedback on my writing was all amazingly positive. But they all said the book needed some restructuring. I will know that I am ready to query when I get that structure right. I have an invitation to resubmit to an agent who knew me outside of the query process. Her feedback on the re-write/ restructure will let me know if I am ready to query. I guess if I am ready to query and she likes it I may even be blessed enough with an offer of representation. We'll see. All the best with your books. Use that fear girl. Use it :) God didn't say we couldn't feel fear. He just said don't let it stop us. Feel it and give it to Him. He is always good with mine. :) Do it afraid :))

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  38. Jody..I think we are ready to query when we cannot make any more changes to our manuscript. Then we know that its the time to query.

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  39. I just hired a professional editor to review my ms. It was hard to part with my hard-earned cash, but I think (hope) it's the right thing to do!

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  40. It is really very difficult to know whether a manuscript is ready for querying or not. I brush with the reality recently. I have my own problem being from a small town without any fresh eyes reading my work. I am the editor with a writer's myopia. I am the proof reader, i am the one critiquing my work. I know all these things cannot be done by a single person as everyone has got a specific role.

    Currently, i am writing my third novel. In the meanwhile i have learnt many things about the craft of writing. However, finding a beta reader is a problem for me and i am sure i will have to hard work to polish my manuscript. For me there is no technique to know other than self satisfaction.

    Hiring a freelance editor is a good idea but as there is no guarantee, writers seldom think of that action.

    In the Us one can find many beta readers but here in large part of India that is not possible. Can you believe that in my town there is not a library or club to hangover and discuss.

    And my club is twitter that is one as i only learn. I appreciate your effort and laud that. Your blog has got good resources and i am sure in days to come more will come.

    thanks

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  41. For me it's all about voice. I have a pretty tough internal editor and she doesn't let me get away with much.;)

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  42. At around the fifth draft, after beta readers and classes and when I was adding things only to discover the scene was already on the next page - it seemed that it was time. And I believed it was the best I had to offer -which was true for the time. I'm hoping it will be true enough with the second round of querying (with a new approach and some maturity) that an agent will say yes this time.

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  43. I'm still learning. I'm querying and believe my work is ready to query, but I know I have much more to learn. I love your blog for the honesty of your posts. Thanks for keeping it real.

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  44. So glad I have found your blog!

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  45. qualified feedback is crucial I think. We have to give our MS the best chance it can have. After all, we've poured our heart and soul into it, why not give it that little bit extra :) Oh, and not be afraid to go back and change parts - again - if that's what is necessary.

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  46. I got bogged down with so many varying opinions about my query letter. I tore it up and now target the individual agent with one of their own.
    I get to a point of send and hope, it is ready...press the button of no return. *giggle*

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