Mike Dickson wrote:Polymath,
Doesn't it help to find an agent with a highly polished manuscript? I would think a prospective agent would toss a manuscript with a great plot and so-so writing.
Yes, a highly polished manuscript helps. Nothing like frequent style, craft, voice, and appeal hiccups to disrupt a reading experience, though. Polishing a manuscript may equally as well be a hindrance from polishing away the creative vision and expressive voice. I've seen a few promising ideas spoiled by overpolishing and by underpolishing. Actually, the writing development process I've noticed most commonly is raw draft, rough draft, working draft, polished but lackluster draft, writer stuck not knowing what's not working, epic stall. Rarely, progress might resume if the work's appeal, voice, and craft are finally fully realized as a glorious synergy.
Keep in mind that editors, agents, and publishers screen for easy reasons to reject, since many, if not all, are overwhelmed by a deluge of manuscripts they can't possibly represent. Like government, banks, insurance companies, all of commerce's routine responses, a no answer gets through drudge work faster than yes.
Agents, publishers, and editors evaluate a manuscript by differing individual criteria, some intuitive, some objective, some subjective, some all the former, some one or two discrete areas. Number one, though, audience appeal is universal. Is there an audience of sufficient size this manuscript will appeal to? If the conclusion is yes, many literary agencies and publishers may work with a writer to clarify and strengthen the work, or tentatively indicate interest and provide a panel of editors, suggesting an editing service for the writer's selection consideration, or perhaps indicate interest if the manuscript is reworked at the writer's discretion.
Developing a working relationship between editor and writer is at the writer's discretion and often expense. Some promising works ask for more work than an agent or publisher can justify in house expense-wise. Often, they are rejected outright or, in a better outcome, infrequently, the writer is asked to rework and submit again. Tragically, not many realize their works' shortcomings. So editors, agents, and publishers rarely do much more than impersonally, courteously form reject.
A fundamentally flawed manuscript a writer does not see shortcomings in is essentially a dead end for the writer, and an editor, an agent, and a publisher, and in my opinion, not worth any expense to rework. Maybe the inspiration has golden promises. Reworking probably won't make it work. A complete rewrite might.
From there, editorial evaluation breaks down into craft (plot mostly but also content and organization), voice (expression), and mechanical style (grammar and such). The mechanical style may be finely polished but the craft or voice weak. The style and craft may be highly refined but the voice unsettled or lackluster.
If a manuscript has a number of minor mechanical style glitches but is strongly organized and the content mostly fully realized and appealing, and the voice mostly expressive, settled, and appealing, those glitches are comparatively easy to adjust. Actually, my experiences as editor with publishers I've worked for, a large majority of manuscripts have numerous mechanical style glitches, far more than the average six to twelve that are overlooked all the way through to publication. I recently completed a proofreading pass on a manuscript pending publication that needed on average two nondiscretionary mechanical style glitch adjustments per paragraph. The writer paid me $ per page and was glad for it.
Adjusting craft, voice, and appeal are nigh impossible; from, one, no editor worthy of the title should impose her or his creative vision onto a writer's; two, if the creative vision isn't readily discernible, is inaccessible, it cannot be adjusted by an editor; three, the writer writes the narrative, not an editor (nor a reader); otherwise, the editor might just as well have written the narrative in the first place; four, the expense of working out glitches, shortcomings, and kinks may be too fiscally and emotionally high for editor and writer; and five, worthwhile editors especially are wary of working with promising but grossly underdeveloped, underrealized ideas and inspirations due to concerns about litigation.
Since mainstream publishers no longer accept unagented, unsolicited manuscripts, literary agents have been filling in the editorial gaps: some in house, some from part-time editors, some from retained freelance editors, some from subject-matter experts, some from stringers (contracted consulting editors). Since many agents and publishers may not offer in-house editing services, oustide editors are coming along to fill in gaps. But many self-proclaimed, and costly, editors are not up to the task. Most are fair to middling proofreaders, fewer are reasonably competent copyeditors, far fewer are adequately competent developmental editors.
For me, if a work under consideration has promise but has fundamental shortcomings, I'm reluctant to get involved. No editor or agent can guarantee publication acceptance, though that's what many writers believe editors and agents' roles are, and what a writer wants and pays for from editors and agents.
A manuscript close to a finish line will pass scrutiny and ask for editorial contributions to strengthen the work so its promise is fully realized. One that's barely out of the gate, and most are raw though believed by a writer as finished, in terms of craft, voice, and appeal, has stopped short. No editor can help with that. Writing workshops may fill that gap, which is their role: strengthening writing skills.