When do I know to revise? And when do I put the project in the drawer?

You’ve been working on a novel for weeks, months, years, you have been querying for what seems like ages, or your agent has been submitting your work for pushing a year or 18 months.

You’ve tinkered with revisions based on feedback.

But how do you know when it’s time to do a major revision, or whether it’s time to put it in the drawer? (If you have an agent this is a conversation to be having with them.)

It’s easy to get attached to your work, you’ve gestated the project and watched it grow. However, at some point if the manuscript isn’t grabbing hold of readers you have to make a decision. Here are some helpful tips…

When to revise:
  • The topic/theme/genre is still relevant and editors are actively acquiring in that space
  • The characters are still speaking to you and you feel constantly drawn back to it (also a sign that the work might not have been fully realized)
  • The industry feedback you are getting is supportive and suggesting revisions that are moving in the right direction
  • You agree with the feedback you are receiving
When you might want to put it in the drawer:
  • The genre is not being acquired actively or that space is overcrowded
  • It’s your first novel. Period.
  • You are getting form rejections or zero editor feedback
  • You’re already toying with or have started writing a new work
But revisions! Ugh…

The idea of a major overhaul is a massive one. The undertaking is huge with possibly minimal results. You have to love, love, love your manuscript and believe in the merits of the underlying spirit of it to want to strip it bare and rework.

The spectrum of revisions starts with minor setting, plot or character traits and spans complete page one rewrites. Now’s not the time to get lazy, if you are committed to revisions you need to be committed to the full spectrum in order to improve the novel and increase saleability.

Related posts:

Competition. It’s tough. Are you prepared?

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over”

When do you give up? When is it time to retire your query? 

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

10 thoughts on “When do I know to revise? And when do I put the project in the drawer?

  1. Being unagented, I can only speak from my perspective. The decision to put your manuscript away is a tough one. I tend to write horror and much of the genre is on life support. I write what I feel passionate about and worry about marketability later. If the quality of the manuscript is high, the subject matter, or genre, shouldn’t matter. Quality writing for the win!

    If, however, you’ve submitted for a year and a half, it’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Part of shelving a manuscript has to do with realistic expectations from the start. The possibility of your manuscript being unsuccessful is always high, especially when you’re unpublished. That doesn’t mean you should give up. Perhaps the time wasn’t right for that particular manuscript. It’s okay to write something else. But don’t forget about your “unsuccessful” manuscript down the road. The publishing industry is always changing and the subject matter may garner interest at a later date. The key (for me anyway) is quality writing.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. This is a subject every writer deals with at some point. I know I have and probably will again.


  2. Every manuscript needs to be shelved a little bit, I think, just to let the glycogen build back up in your brain. Yet, I sometimes fear I will lose momentum if I step away from a story for five minutes. It never happens that way, but I always feel it will. I would be especially interested on your thoughts on re-writing. How, when, and why should a writer do a complete re-write and what is the best way to remain free of the earlier version. Seems like re-writes often become glorified revisions.

    Anyway, thanks for your blog about shelving a manuscript.


    1. Re-writes are exciting and completely fearful.
      When to rewrite:
      – You have an agent or editor with high interest and the page one rewrite is the only thing holding you back from making that connection/deal
      – You know what it is that needs ‘fixing’ — i.e. readers want to connect more with the MC, the premise isn’t unique enough, the stakes aren’t high enough, there is no sense of ‘place’ and atmosphere.
      – And the other items from my blog post make sense too–is there a market still, are you 100% still committed to the book etc.

      When not to rewrite: you’re doing it to hold yourself back and you’re holding onto what you had instead of your talent and confidence that you can write another book, that you can grow, that you can do better.

      My advice: pick up WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK to get through it and evaluate whether it is worth it.


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