The rejections writers face are endless: from agents as fiction writers, from editors as nonfiction aficionados, even from clients as service providers.
Criticism of any kind is depressing, but when it’s a terse one-liner with no explanation, it’s especially brutal. The rejections writers face have been known to shut us down completely because let’s face it, it just really sucks to be halfway through your morning coffee and read an email that effectively disembowels who you are as a writer/human in a single sentence. (It’s kind of impressive, actually. Agents and editors have a lot to teach us about brevity.)
Here’s the upside: Each and every one of these criticisms is a little nugget of wisdom and inspiration that, should you choose to accept this [probably unpleasant] mission, can be used to transform your writing. Sure, a lot of rejections are just plain crazy, but would you rather shrug, or would you rather get to work and improve? I choose the latter.
So when you get a rough rejection from an agent, editor or client, go ahead and cry into your coffee for a minute, then take a few deep breaths and put the criticism to use. To that end, here are 10 of the most common one-liners and their antidotes.
Well, what hasn’t. I mean, seriously. Take a look at the best Isaac Asimov novel or the most engrossing article in The Atlantic, and you’ll see that at the very least, the core of the story contains the seeds of ideas past. We’ve been telling the same tales for thousands of years.
The answer isn’t to bristle and point this out to the agent, but to find a fresh take on the stories that will always wear well: love, loss, betrayal, redemption, finding the Holy Grail of gelato stands. You know, the important stuff. Find a fresh angle or new approach, then take another crack at it.
This kind of me-centric statement gets a lot of people fired up. Oh, you’re not convinced so you’re not going to give my ditzy would-be YA readers a chance at my brilliant writing? you want to scream. And perhaps the agent is wrong. But perhaps they are not, and let’s be honest, they’ve spent a lot more time than you have reading both convincing prose and senseless drivel.
The good thing about this line is that usually the critique is followed with “by the fact that your character goes to the moon without her dog” or “by your assertion that James Franco is the new James Dean.” If you get specific feedback, use it to make your writing stronger, or simply remove the part that isn’t working.
If you’ve ever looked at this and scratched your head, you’re not alone. But this is really just a restatement of No. 1 … they don’t think it’s new enough. That is not the same as having no merit, so if you hear this, your job is to find a new take, redraft, rewrite, re-edit and re-polish.
My first instinct when I read this is always to rage, “Well, what DO you find compelling?? Long walks on the beach? Videos of cute otters? Agatha CHRISTIE??! Tell me!”
Wrong response. Chances are agents and editors already told you what they think constitutes a compelling story on their bio/submissions pages. Go look there first and foremost. Could be you’re just barking up the wrong tree and should go somewhere else. Or it could be you’ve ignored their very sensible directions, in which case you can clean up your work and resubmit it, this time adhering more carefully to guidelines.
This response always kind of baffles me. I mean, I get lost all the time. Books I read have a paragraph or two that don’t make sense. A client loses me with an instruction I can’t make head nor tail of. My husband loses me when he expresses anything less than perfect adoration for the goddess that I am.
The answer is not to toss my book/client/husband into the wastebasket, yet that’s exactly what editors and agents do. What else can they do, with slush piles the size of Manhattan? The good news is they’re usually very specific with this criticism. You can literally point to a part on the page where you went wrong. Boom. That’s the paragraph, page, chapter or character motivation you have to fix.
Sounds like something a high school English teacher would write in red pen, right? Well, it’s not far off. Truth is, 10 percent of the time you have explained it beautifully, and your critic just didn’t get it. The other 90 percent of the time, though, you botched something. It’s lame to have someone reject your writing on the grounds of one thing you didn’t get right, but it happens. Go get it right.
Clients ask me this all the time, and it’s infuriating, especially when you’re making a broad statement such as “Jobs have been harder to come by since the Great Recession.” I mean, really? Someone needs to point you toward a Pew Research study on that one? Yet this too is one of the most common rejections writers face.
But … yes. That is what your client needs. That is what your editor wants before they will publish your story. That might even be what an agent requires, as in, “Can you back up your assertion that you’ll be able to market and sell 3,000 copies?” Which is a fair point. If you’re asked to support a point, even though you think it’s obvious, don’t waste time bellyaching. You’re smart; you can do it. So just do it.
You’ll hear both of these criticisms, especially in fiction, but the answer in either case is simple (if not easy). First, you have to parse which of the two rejections writers face it is. If it’s too formulaic, then you’ve just rewritten The Hunger Games and we all know it. If it’s not formulaic enough, then you don’t hit the right emotional chords, flesh out your secondary characters or wrap up loose ends definitively enough. Don’t dismiss formula as a bad thing. Some of the best writing advice, such as plotting a story, depends heavily on it. Do your homework.
Of all the harsh criticisms, this one may be my least favorite, because it contains nothing helpful whatsoever. Most editors or agents don’t even tell you why it’s a tough sell, so you don’t have much (read: anything) to work with. But that’s just the way with some rejections writers face.
Since the path forward in this case is often unclear, you’re better off taking a “Meh, getting a date to prom was a tough sell and I still did that” approach and moving on. If you do get specific advice, though – which will often take the form of one of the other criticisms listed in this post – it’s your job to implement that information right away.
Why, indeed, Person Who Just Ripped My Heart Out? Why, indeed.
Here’s where the real talk starts, though: This person does not care that you sweated over this magnum-opus-labor-of-love-first-baby or whatever it is you’ve created. They care about whether or not they can sell it, and if they ask you, “Why should I care?” it means they don’t think they can.
To which you have two responses: 1) see No. 9, and 2) head back to the drawing board. If someone can look at your writing and give you such a cold response, well, you truly have left them cold. The question becomes: what can you do better? How can you flesh out your characters or subjects? How can you bring your topic more fully into the light? How can you add beauty to every paragraph, to every sentence? While “whyyyyyyyyyyyy?” is certainly a tempting question, these are better ones.
And truly, the real answer to all rejections writers face is:
Look, if all you wanted to do was complete tasks, then you’d probably be happier as an administrative assistant. But instead, you ache to be a writer, which is hard and sweaty, frightening and full of rejection. You’re still here. So remind yourself, even in the pits of refusal, that all is not lost: Each “no” has an antidote that, if you work hard enough, can eventually lead to a “yes.” And that’s enough.
So tell us: Have you received an awful one-line rejection that we haven’t included here? What did you do about it?
And if you’d like to improve your writing, feel free to head to the Free Resource Library and start working on your craft today!
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