“The Great Unspoken” – Why Agents Don’t Critique

There’s a secret agents and editors share. Something they seldom discuss with each other, and never with writers. It’s something they dislike. Intensely. It ties their hands when it comes to guiding writers guidance. It’s the #1 reason they turn down proposals, and the #2 (and sometimes #1) reason they’ve gone with form rejection letters. It’s something many inexperienced agents and editors try to change—I know I tried to change it, both as an editor and as an agent. I still try from time to time, but like most editors/agents, so far I’ve had to accept it’s inescapable. And trying to change it costs too much—in time, effort, and heartache.

It’s something we all know. And something we can never say to writers.

It’s something writers always tell us they want to know, but when we speak it, what we get in response, by more writers than you can imagine—and I’m talking about all levels of skill and experience and professionalism—is indignance. Outrage. Sometimes vitriol. About our knowledge, intelligence, and, believe it or not, salvation.

No, that’s not hyperbole. There have been times, when I’ve dared to utter The One Great Unspoken, that I’ve been told I’m stupid, insulting, arrogant, and, yes, unChristian.

But I’m going to try again. I’m going to speak it here, to you. Because I want you to know how we agonize over what we say to writers. How we wish we could just be up-front on this count and know that when we did so, writers would trust that we’re not trying to put them down or put on some false superiority. What we’re trying to do is help them. And be faithful to the task we’ve been given by our employers. Because when we accept a manuscript, we’re making a commitment on behalf of our employers to invest a major amount of money, time, and manpower.

So here it is, The One Great Unspoken. The tacit, time-tested truth many agents/editors hold to:

Thou shalt not comment on a person’s writing inability.

Notice that says inability, not ability. When someone’s writing is good, just not right for that editor or agent, it’s far easier to respond to that. And that’s far easier for a writer to hear than, “I’m sorry, but your writing just isn’t ready for publication.” Or, if we’re totally honest, “I’m sorry, but writing may not be the right career choice for you.”

Please note, I’d never tell someone not to write, period. But not all stories are meant for publication. That’s just one of the many reasons God gives people the task to write. But I also don’t want to give false encouragement. I think it’s wrong to do so.

Before I go on, I want to know what you think about that. You writers, be you new to the craft or someone who has been working hard at it for years—tell me: is saying that cruel, even if it’s the truth, even if it’s said with the utmost kindness? And please, don’t tell me: “You can’t make a statement like that.” Of course I can. It’s my job to decide whether or not someone is ready for publication. And in the process of doing this job, I’ve seen utterly beautiful writing. Writing that makes my heart ache because of truth and power it contains. And I’ve seen a lot of material that is not only not ready for publication, it’s flat-out awful. Painfully so. But do I think the writer of beautiful prose is better or smarter than the other writer? No. If I say someone can’t write professionally, it doesn’t mean I think the writer is awful or stupid or anything negative. I just think they can’t write. Not professionally. I’m not criticizing them personally or spiritually, I’m stating a professional opinion. One I’ve spent over 30 years developing.

But let me—or any agent or editor—dare to say that, and suddenly, no matter how kind we are in saying it, we’re terrible, mean-spirited, cruel, and arrogant. Hateful, even.

So you writers tell me, what are editors and agents to do?

One caveat: this is not the place to tell me what a terrible person I am, or what a bunch of meanies agents and editors are. This is your chance to give me—and the agents and editors out there—honest feedback on what has been a troublesome issue for years.

Thanks!

 

138 Responses to “The Great Unspoken” – Why Agents Don’t Critique

  1. Amy Boucher Pye December 5, 2012 at 3:28 am #

    What a great topic, Karen. As an editor, I agonize about this. And like you, more often than not, pass on saying anything. I remember when I did venture forth and give some unsolicited advice to an author. A published author. But I thought he was writing purple prose and that he could do better. I think I even suggested a writing course. He was… indignant. Mad. Etc etc. We had only met once and I suppose I didn’t have the relationship with him to give that kind of feedback.

    But the good news was that a couple of years later, he wrote to me and said thank you. When he got home from our meeting, he said he ranted to his wife. But then a couple of months later, God really used it in his life. To push him to be a better writer.

    Usually we don’t get to hear the good news afterward, and I was profoundly grateful that I did. But I remain wary of giving the very advice that would ultimately help a writer.

    And now that I’m writing my first book? I hope I will welcome the constructive criticism that might sting, but will ultimately bring about better writing.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Amy, I didn’t know you were writing a book! That’s wonderful. And knowing you, I believe you will be a delight to work with.

      • Amy Boucher Pye December 6, 2012 at 2:47 am #

        I hope so, Karen! Yes, I’ve been laboring away on a memoir for ages. I’ve had a really hard time shutting up my inner editor. She was loud and obnoxious and shouting at me from the basement. I’ve tied her up…

        Great post! Hope you’re well. xx

  2. Diana Harkness December 5, 2012 at 5:26 am #

    Yes, please tell me that something is not ready. That gives me the impetus to work harder and longer to make sure it is. Please critique whatever you want to critique because reading my own poor writing bothers me as much as reading prematurely released books does. I read perhaps only a couple of “perfect” books each year and when I am published I want mine to be in that category. . . whatever it takes. When Steve Laube told me at a writer’s conference that my novel wasn’t speculative enough for the speculative fiction market, I was initially crushed, but almost immediately started a rewrite. If I now start to despise wisdom and experience, where will I end up? Keep it honest to keep my work out of the scrap pile!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

      “If I now start to despise wisdom and experience, where will I end up? ”

      Wow. Well stated, Diana. And something we can all say about many aspects of our lives. Thank you for this.

      And kudos for taking Steve’s words to heart and working toward excellence. I love that.

  3. Jennifer Major @Jjumping December 5, 2012 at 5:37 am #

    I do not want to query a book that’s black and white, I want to offer every colour in the spectrum and have an agent sit down, drop her jaw and say “who is THIS?”. I want them to drop whatever they’re doing, slam their office door closed and fall into my story and get happily lost in 1894. I want them to get to the end of the 3rd chapter and say “What? Wait, what happened to Sarah? And Tsela’s wife is dead? But? But?” and try to scroll down and find more.

    And if I can have them begging for more, then I’ve done what I set out to do, write a story that not only sings, but takes the reader by the hand and dances her somewhere she’s never been.
    If the sample chapters, that I sent out like a nervous Mama, don’t do that, PLEASE tell me!! Diana Harkness said it perfectly “If I now start to despise wisdom and experience, where will I end up?”
    I didn’t spend a year on this story to do my most mediocre work. If it needs more, I’ll dig in and find more.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      Oh, Jennifer, that’s what we want, too! To start reading a proposal and suddenly be grabbing for the phone to call you. Thank you for your encouraging words.

  4. Elaine Clampitt December 5, 2012 at 5:45 am #

    This is a tough one. Personally, I would want your honest feedback. As the above commenters noted, I would want to be pushed to be better. It’s almost like going to a doctor who has years of training and experience for his opinion, and then refusing to hear his diagnosis. However, I know that some writers would not anything other than positive feedback. Whether that had to do with maturity or blinders that we can all have in our lives in certain areas, who can say. It would be almost impossible to judge where the writer was at without what you mentioned in your post, Karen. If there isn’t a relationship with the writer to know how they would respond or would trust your feedback, I guess it would be up to you to risk their pique. I don’t envy your position.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

      You know, when I started college, I had a double major: art and journalism. My goal was to write and illustrate children’s books. It only took a few months to know there was no way I’d be a professional artist. Because I couldn’t take the constant criticism. And that’s what the classes were all about: looking at your work and telling you what wasn’t quality. I got a lot of positive feedback, but the negative comments just shredded me. It had nothing to do with the people critiquing my art–the problem was me. I took it as a personal rejection.

      That happens with any creative expression. It hurts when someone says it’s not good enough. Or that it’s just plain bad. But what we have to do is decide how we’ll respond to that hurt. Will we turn it into anger and resentment, or let it motivate us to take a hard look at what we’re doing, to prayerfully consider if we should continue. By God’s grace, I did the latter, and realized that while I enjoyed art, I wasn’t a professional artist. I didn’t have the talent. HOWEVER, I could take any and all criticism of my writing, because I knew I was a writer. Knew it long before I ever had anything published. So I switched to a double major of Multiple Languages and Journalism, and never looked back. I still dabble in art, just for pleasure, but I love being a professional in publishing. And what a wonderful career I would have missed out on if I hadn’t changed course.

      God is good, even in the detours.

      • Roberta Hegland December 5, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

        And Karen, your novels reflect your love of art. I’ve appreciated that aspect in your writing.
        I’ve recently determined I will never self publish, mainly because I want the filter of a critiquer/agent/editor – before my work hits the presses.

  5. JKW December 5, 2012 at 6:01 am #

    I would definitely want to know that my talent wasn’t good enough to be published. I would also want to know if it was good enough to be used in another realm, (ie, magazine, picture book, or etc) because there are many other ‘writer’ roads to go down. I would also like to know if there was somewhere I could obtain more learning in that which I am lacking.
    On the other hand, if the talent is not there, I would prefer one of those many other artistic roads to go down instead of beating my head against a stone wall (so to speak). I’m up for using any talents I have but if I don’t have that particular talent, I would definitely want to know about it. Life is too short to keep at something that won’t get me anywhere. Why wouldn’t or shouldn’t I know about that? Blessings, Janet

    • Rudy Martinka December 5, 2012 at 6:26 am #

      Agents use a standard feedback rating if requested by a writer, For example, if an agent would permit the author to request the following instruction in their submission guidelines.

      Please favor me with a reply of your profession opinion of this query. I agree not to send you a return request to ask for any specifics about your opinion.

      On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being the highest rating, my professional opinion of your query is as follows

      A. Story Interest 9
      B. Writing Proficiency 5
      C. Market Potential 10

      • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

        Rudy, interesting concept. When I was an editor, I designed a scoresheet similar to this which I used at writers’ conferences, to give writers an idea of what they needed to work on. I’ll put some thought and prayer into using it for proposals as well.

      • Rudy Martinka December 6, 2012 at 5:45 am #

        Karin,

        I am amazed that you personally answer almost every blog. I recently submitted a query to you and was rejected with a reply saying that a committee determined that you would not be interested in my MS. This leads me to believe you never saw my query? If you ever decide to rate a query after you think more on it as you replied in this blog, I would value your comments especially after reading your personal replies in this blog.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

      That’s a great idea, to suggest other outlets. Thanks, Janet!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

      Janet, that’s a great idea about giving writers suggestions for other outlets. Thanks for that!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

      Janet, just so you don’t think I didn’t reply to you, I did. But I did so in the wrong place. My reply (duplicated….sigh…) comes after Rudy’s comment.

  6. Dina Sleiman December 5, 2012 at 6:27 am #

    I agree, Karen. I’ve been editing for WhiteFire for almost two years now. At first it seemed kinder to say, “You aren’t quite there yet,” or “keep working hard and send this to me again in a year or two,” but it’s soooooo not worth it. It just opens up arguments and ugliness. Now I only give suggestions if I need the submission edited before I can take it to committee. Otherwise, if I can compliment them honestly but they just don’t fit our needs, great. If I can’t, they get a form rejection.

    But I will also say, as someone who was a newbie not long ago, that the agents at Laube are some of the best about giving feedback. Tamela (now my agent) rejected me years ago with a solid reason of marketing issues. Steve also rejected me (several times, LOL) but his reasons always helped. In fact, I feel like he’s the one that got me started on the road to professional author by telling me I had talent but needed a book coach. So if you are at least on the right track, chances are you’ll get more than a form rejection.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

      Thanks so much, Dina. I love working with Steve and Tamela. They are amazing.

    • Roberta Hegland December 5, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

      Whoa, Dina – what’s a book coach? And where do I find her?

      • Steve Laube December 5, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

        Roberta,
        A book coach is someone you pay to be your mentor…for lack of a better soundbite definition.

        Take a look at http://www.mybooktherapy.com/ run by Susan May Warren as an example of one of the best book coach services for fiction you will find in our industry.

        Also take a look at our page for Freelance editors. Many are book coaches too:
        http://www.stevelaube.com/resources/freelance-editorial-services/

      • Dina Sleiman December 5, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

        Roberta, they can go be a number of names, book coach, book doctor, content editor, developmental editor.

        Basically they help you with the novel writing elements of your book, which is different than a line editor or proofreader. The one I used had me listen to her CD series and do one edit before she would even look at my book, but it was all very helpful. The lady I used isn’t doing it anymore though. I was going to emtion Susie May, but I see Steve already did. I’ve actually recently opened a little business in this area. My rates are pretty reasonable. I would never have brought this up, but since you asked, feel free to check it out. Part of the reason I wanted to do this was because it was so helpful to me. http://dinasleiman.com

  7. sally apokedak December 5, 2012 at 6:32 am #

    I love this post.

    Anyone who has ever been in a crit group knows there are people who don’t write well, who feel called by God, or gifted by the universe, to write bestsellers.

    We can see on the talent shows on TV now that many tone-deaf people think they can sing well, too.

    Why don’t they know they can’t write or sing well, I wonder. Has no one ever told them?

    And…horror of horrors…what if I’m one of them? What if I stink, too, and none of my friends will tell me?

    So maybe in a future blog post you can answer this question: What are the signs that you should give up the writing and what are the signs that you have talent and you should keep knocking on doors until you find the right one? Because we’re told at every writers’ conference that perseverance is the key to success. So we all keep persevering and some of us, clearly, should hang it up.

    • Robin Patchen December 5, 2012 at 7:29 am #

      Sally, this is so true. And yet, I remember reading a manuscript on the critique loop awhile back and thinking how horrible it was and how, I was sure, it would never get published. But that author was so teachable, and her writing improved, and now she has a contract. So it’s hard to know who should “hang it up.” Not that I’m an expert by any means, but everyone can learn to write well if they want it badly enough. It’s the people who already think they’re the next Hemingway and don’t need to improve who need to think twice about this business.

      • sally apokedak December 5, 2012 at 8:44 am #

        And there is the key, Robin–that teachable spirit. The people who are railing at editors are probably missing that teachable spirit.

        Please don’t think I was saying that people need to write perfectly good novels from the time they pick up their first crayon or they need to give up their dream to write. We do need to learn. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars on books and conferences, trying to learn my own self. I’m all for learning. My question is, “When do you stop throwing good money after bad, and take up knitting or watercolors or web design in order to scratch that creative itch”

        I also think that there must be clues in writing, as there are in musical ability, to tip us off that we might want to choose another career. Great writers need not only to learn to write–they also need some God-given talent. I think it is possible to say to someone, “You may learn to write well enough to be published, even, but you do not have that ability to be a really great writer.”

        We could say that to a ball player–you can learn the plays, but you don’t have the size or the speed, or the God-given ability to play the game really well. Why can’t we say that to writers?

    • April W Gardner December 5, 2012 at 8:07 am #

      Sally, I LOL’d at your talent show comment. So true!
      I edit on the side and am convinced there are some who should never be in print. They don’t see it that way, and I won’t be the one to tell them otherwise. Instead, I give them a few areas I know they can work on–something they can handle. When they’ve conquered that, we move on. As Robin says, if they have a teachable spirit, they can often surprise us. I’ve seen awful writers learn the rules and greatly improve the quality of their manuscript. Should they then go to print? That’s not for me to decide, thank goodness! (I WILL say that technically correct writing doesn’t equal good writing) I’d hate to be in an agent or acquisition editor’s shoes.
      Love your blog post idea–what are the signs a writer should quit or keep plugging along? I second the motion. LOL

      • sally apokedak December 5, 2012 at 9:07 am #

        I agree that technically correct writing doesn’t equal good writing.

        Most people can learn to write, but there is a talent involved in really good writing, I think.

      • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

        Amen and amen. A teachable spirit makes all the difference!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

      I can do a post like that, but it won’t be about giving up writing entirely. Remember, I’d never tell someone that. But ways to know publication isn’t the path for you…

      Let me think and pray about that. And maybe even get some feedback from my editor pals!

      Thanks for the idea!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

      I typed this response once already, but it didn’t show up, so trying again. Of course, I did that with a response to Janet’s comment above, and suddenly there were two. So we’ll see what happens!

      Sally, that’s an intriguing idea for a post, though it won’t be about giving up on writing entirely. Just on seeking publication. Because again, that’s just one of the multitude of reasons God tasks folks to write. Maybe I’ll even get some input from my editing/agent buddies for the criteria…

      Thanks for the idea!

  8. Emily Rachelle December 5, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    I’m a teenager who likes writing but isn’t nearly as dedicated as my fellow writing teens, or as I personally could be. I have a lot of other interests that I enjoy as much as or sometimes more than writing. Just yesterday I came to the realization that, while I would’ve given anything for publication at thirteen, now at almost seventeen I really wouldn’t mind if I never went beyond my blog. Right now I’m trying to figure out what God has for my life and future. If I could get an editor or agent to just look me in the eye and tell me that “Yes, I think you should pursue writing,” or “No, I think your writing should remain a hobby,” then I would be happy.

    • Robin Patchen December 5, 2012 at 7:32 am #

      Ah, but wouldn’t we all? But it’s possible that, even if you got an agent or editor to encourage you or discourage you, he could be wrong. Your guidance needs to come from the Lord first. You’re wise to consider what God has for your future and not wait for that elusive “expert” to tell you what to do.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

      Emily, you send me your writing and I’ll tell you exactly what I think. I’ll tell my first-pass reader to watch for an email from you.

      Deal?

      • Jennifer Major @Jjumping December 5, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

        This makes me want to cry and send you flowers, Karen. How sweet of you. Truly, very sweet and generous.

  9. Micky Wolf December 5, 2012 at 6:48 am #

    Personally? Tell me. The truth. Paddling persistently with one oar in the water is fine–only if you are in a canoe.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

      Doesn’t even work in a canoe unless you alternate sides!

      :)

  10. Andrea Nell December 5, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    Criticism hurts. Hearing that my writing is, and probably never will be publishworthy would be a very hard pill to swallow. I’d rather hear that it’s not ready yet. But I guess if there truely was no point in continuing to work toward the goal of publication, I’d want to know. The publication journey is too time consuming and expensive to continue investing in conferences, classes and retreats if I have no hope of developing into a published author.
    I’m sorry to hear how many writers lash back and say nasty things in response to honest professional feedback, especially considering how much time and energy that agent or editor puts into reading and responding. Industry professionals deserve more respect than that.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

      Thanks, Andrea. And authors deserve a great deal of respect, too. I recall in my early years as an editor, listening to a fellow editor rant and rave about how an author he was working with couldn’t write. He stomped out into the hallway, manuscript in hand, and bellowed, “I could do better than this!”

      My response: “Then why don’t you?”

      He stopped and stared at me. “What?”

      “Why don’t you put in the hours of work and research that author did, taking time away from everything else in his life, striving to put the story God gave him onto the page and make it come alive? If you can do so much better, then do it. Write your own book. Until then, do your job. Respect the fact that your author has done his work, and now you do yours. Work with that author, who HAS written a book, and help him refine his craft. That’s what you’re paid to do.”

      I wasn’t too surprised when he left a few months later to pursue another career. And to this day, I’ve never seen a book published with his name. That maligned author, though, has gone on to publish book after book, each better than the last. Each changing lives.

      So yeah, authors deserve a LOT of respect!

  11. Ginger December 5, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    Writing takes a lot of time. Time away from other things I “could” be doing. I am one of those who would want to know if my pursuit of publication was in vain. That does not necessarily mean I would stop writing, as I’m not sure that’s an option. It just means I would take more time for other things and not focus on making my work the best I’m able.

    It’s like dressing for the day…if I’m going to be home all day I wear what’s comfy. However, if I know I’ll be going out at some point, I wear something that looks nicer. So it is with my MS. If it’s going to be viewed by many, I want to dress it up and make it pretty. On the other hand, if it’s just to satisfy my need to write, no one will care how many sentences start with he/she or contain the word was.

    It is the desire of my heart to KNOW if I have the potential to be an author. I’m already a writer.

    • Meghan Carver December 5, 2012 at 9:48 am #

      Well said, Ginger. I agree completely.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

      “It is the desire of my heart to KNOW if I have the potential to be an author. I’m already a writer.”

      Beautifully stated, Ginger! Amen and amen!

  12. Lisa Phillips December 5, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    Oooh…this is a toughie.

    From the perspective of now having a contract from Love Inspired Suspense, I can look back and honestly say I REALLY DON’T LIKE THOSE FORM LETTERS!

    I much preferred when they rejected me (on the second pitch) with “We really like the idea, but the writing still needs work.”

    My reaction was, “Right. Okay. Well then. Got some work to do.”

    I guess it depends on the kind of person the writer is. Are you able to accept that kind of criticism? Apparently yes, since I stuck with it. Or, I’m just supremely stubborn and I knew what I wanted.

    You see, if you’re willing to work on the craft then you’ll take that form letter and get back to work, or you’ll accept that criticism and…get back to work!!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

      Lisa, LOL! Yeah, I don’t like ‘em either. I’d much rather be helpful.

      Now…

      Get back to work!

  13. Nora Spinaio December 5, 2012 at 7:23 am #

    Truthfully, I want to be told that I’m brillant and that everything I write is gold. However, and I say this knowing it probably will not happen, I want to be told the unbiased truth. My greatest writing fear is that I’m not any good and never will be; but, I still want to know. I want to know one way or the other. And one day when my WIP is finished and edited and proofread and edited some more and beta read, I hope to find out. Thank you for telling me that an agent may not tell me I’m terrible or just not ready. I suppose I will have to rely on my writer friends to tell me that.

  14. Lynn Squire December 5, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    First: Karen, I love you….well, I know that’s a bit strange because you’d hardly remember who I was (and might even think I’m a bit whacky for saying so), but I know that I’ve always admired you because of your ability to be honest. After being terrified to sit at your table at Mount Hermon that first year I was there, every time since, I’ve made a point out of sitting at your table, not because I had something to pitch but simply because you’re fun to watch in action. LOL And I delighted to get to know you via the Inspire Writer’s Conference in Elk Grove, CA.

    But by the time Elk Grove came along, I believe I matured enough to know I’m one of those people who may never write for the traditional publishing market. Of course, you never know what God may do, but I do believe it is important for a writer to recognize their niche–whether it be simply their journal or their local church or to infinity and beyond.

    I believe in honesty, particularly if done with kindness. Truth often hurts. It often demands change in our lives. Problem is, we often don’t wanna change. Sometimes Truth demands we accept what we do not like. But one thing I have learned, when you listen to Truth, God usually has an even better plan in the works for you….so why fight it?

    If you had taken the first manuscript I ever submitted to you and published it…oooo…I think utter embarrassment would be too mild a phrase for what I would now feel. And God’s plan wasn’t for it to be published because He knew the personal struggles I’d experience (and now am going through) that would have made the responsibility of being a published author with contracts a killer. Maybe literally. :)

    Well, I’ve been blessed to know you and many other agents and editors I’ve met along the way. Some I’ve liked and some…well lets just say we exist in different worlds. To God be all glory, honor, and praise.

    So breathe easy, and remember ultimately the only opinion you really need to worry about is God’s. :)

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

      Lynn, love you back!

      Breathing much easier.

      Thanks.

  15. Jeanne December 5, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    This is a conundrum. There are writers who are receptive to the less than desired feedback, who want it so they can learn from it and improve. And there are writers who think they’ve “arrived” when perhaps they’re still enroute with their stories.

    Personally, I’d want to know if I’m not ready for publication, and if suggestions were made, I’d welcome them. I’m learning to take a couple of days to mull over critiques and contest results before responding to them. I’ve always been glad for them in the end because others see things in my story that I can’t see because I’m too close to it. :)

    Your words give me a better understanding of why the form letter rejection is used as often as it is. Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts, Karen. They are much appreciated by this writer.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

      And your words are much appreciated by this editor.

      Thanks!

  16. Leah E. Good December 5, 2012 at 7:31 am #

    I would want to know the truth. After meeting an editor at a conference and getting a request for my proposal, she replied by saying that my writing had potential, but she didn’t think that particular story would work for publication. She also gave me a list of things to work on. It stung, but even through the sting, I was incredibly grateful. I know how busy agents and editors are and felt honored that she gave up so much time to give me helpful feedback.

    I think authors need to learn to act like professionals, and not take their frustration out on agents and editors.

  17. Robin Patchen December 5, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    I think there’s a big difference between telling someone his work isn’t quite ready and telling him he’s a talent-less hack. If someone tells me my novel is not ready for publication, I’ll get back to work. I had some negative feedback on my pitches at conference, and I’ve gone back and fixed the issues. If nobody tells me, how will I know? So personally, I want to know if it’s not ready. I want to know how I can fix it. Since my biggest fear in this writing journey is not that I’ll never be published, but that I’ll publish something that’s not very good, I desperately need to know if my novel needs work.

  18. Ane Mulligan December 5, 2012 at 7:59 am #

    I may be the oddball, but I love to get critiques. When I started out writing, I knew I was a storyteller, but I also knew I didn’t know how to write a novel. So I absorbed everything like a sponge.

    I wish more editors and agents would give advice. Anytime I’ve received some, I’ve weighed it and made the changes. I think maybe they resistance is that it’s hard work to make the changes. Yes, it takes some shoving down the old ego, but editors have a broader view of my story than I do. Each change I’ve made has been for the better.

    Funny how those here, who are serious about this gig, welcome advice. ;o)

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      Ane, of COURSE you’re an oddball. That’s what I’ve always liked about you!

  19. Jennifer Hallmark December 5, 2012 at 8:04 am #

    Such honesty in a post. Wow. As much as I hate rejection, deep down I would want to know. I made a decision at the beginning that I would write regardless, even if it is only the family that reads it. I’m glad that agents and editors take this issue so seriously…

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

      Thanks, Jennifer. They absolutely do, because they care, not just about the writing, but the writers.

  20. Sandy December 5, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    One of my son’s hated looking “stupid” in school and refused to raise his hand to ask for help. I created a special 3X5 card with a large question mark on it for him. When he didn’t understand the premise of the lesson, he was to take the card out of his desk and place it in the corner. The teacher would respond after seeing it. Maybe it’s time to create our own secret signal we are mature enough to take redirection without retaliating.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

      A secret signal! LOVE it. Okay, everyone who is open to critique, or even to being told not to quit your day job, put some kind of smiley face on your proposal. I’ll know what that means!

      Sandy, you’re a genius.

  21. Darcie Gudger December 5, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    As a coach of a competitive team, I deal with this issue a lot. In an “Everyone wins a trophy” culture, a lot of folks believe that are all that and then some. I have seen some downright awful runs of a show (I teach color guard) and then have colleagues tell the kids how wonderful they are! The usual reason when I ask why such false feedback is given? The staff member didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and felt it would be good for the self esteem of the students.

    Here’s what happens in the long term whether it’s competitive sports or writing: those kids/adults are no longer open to constructive criticism. They forever latch onto, “We’ll Mr. H told us we were the best he’s ever seen… You’re just being mean!” No longer are they teachable at that time. And their performance suffers. They see scores ( or rejection letters) as personal attacks by incompetent judges/agents/ editors.

    The sad truth to all this is, until culture changes and people embrace honest feedback, they will lash out. Someone somewhere fed them a line that is sending them on a baffling path.

    Personally, I like honesty. I want to learn. I love it when my crit partners make my ms bleed red with comments and corrections. I learn more that way.

    Honesty, no matter how painful, is the best gift a person can receive. It’s up to them what they do with it.

    • sally apokedak December 5, 2012 at 8:58 am #

      Amen. The “everyone wins a trophy” culture has done so much damage.

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping December 5, 2012 at 9:16 am #

      Oh my word, YES!!
      My family is deeply involved in competitive hockey and soccer. The kids who’s parents give them gold medals for showing up get eaten alive by the kids who know how to play, win and lose.
      Sweet little Muffin can’t do real life if she is crowned queen everyday. Life is not like that.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      Darcie, PERFECT example to use. It’s really not about everyone being equal. I’m the first to tell you that math is NOT my gift. Numbers give me hives. In school, when they tried to teach us through story problems, all I wanted to know was WHY Billy took three of the apples, and WHY did the train leave Station A earlier than the one at Station B? I wanted the story, not the numbers.

      God has gifted us according to His purposes, and we need to focus our time and energy on what HE says to focus on, for whatever His purposes are.

      Thanks!

      • Darcie Gudger December 6, 2012 at 8:56 am #

        Karen, you made me snort out loud! I stink at math and always say, “numbers give me hives,” too! Must be a right – brained person thing.

        But to add to the discussion, the whole you-can-be-anything-your-heart-desires message is part of the over-arching problem as well. Despite my allergy to all things math, I wanted to be a doctor. Even got into a private uber-coveted per-med program. Spent two years suffering and failing, trying to live up to that adage of putting my mind to it and it will happen. My organic prof, and a such prof sat me down and told me the truth. I would never be a medical doctor. But that was not all. They went on to show me that my gifting was with words, not numbers. I wanted only to be a doctor since I was 5! Never thought through other options.

        I spent almost two decades trying to find my place. I wish someone told me in junior high when my inability to do math reared its ugly head. I could have saved myself a lot of grief and money (student loans I still owe).

        The upside to it all, is that I have good stories to tell. I make sure I tell my students the truth. I tell my 6 year old son the truth.

        Sure, I cried for weeks after that day the profs told me to find another path, but it was for my good.

  22. Jennifer Sienes December 5, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    The first time I attended a writer’s conference, I was blessed that both Jerry Jenkins and Debbie Macomber were the keynote speakers. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was twelve, but this was the real first step toward that endeavor (over 30 years later!) The title of Debbie’s talk was “How to Become an Overnight Success in 20 Years.” I received a wonderful critique from John Olson, who told me I had the gift and heart of a writer, but needed to learn the craft. Those two experiences put everything into perspective for me. If we can’t take critiques, we can’t grow. If we’re not open to growth then what’s the point? Of course, I was an 8th grade English and history teacher before I left that career to follow this dream. It’s always been about the learning for me.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

      Jennifer, that’s one HECK of a wonderful team for your first writer’s conference! Jerry and Debbie are pros in every sense of the word, but more than that, they’re kind and giving when it comes to helping writers. Love those two.

      And absolutely agree: we must be open to growth. Whether in writing or in life.

      Thanks!

  23. Rebecca Aarup December 5, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    I’ve learned over time not to take too seriously what friends/family say. I had friends tell me so many “wonderful” things about my writing but once I actually took a writer’s course and was instructed one on one by a professional, I learned SO much that I could never have learned from the “praises” of personal contacts. It was then that I was able to actually improve. While some of my friends prefer a preachy style, I learned the story-telling approach was much better. I actually had friends stop reading anything I wrote once I changed my style at the advice of writing professionals. Honestly, though, I am ok with that because the professional opinion is what will help me improve.

    I sent my proposal to Tamela and never receieved a response. I would much rather have been told that I wasn’t ready, or even that it sucked and I should quit, then to get no response at all. Fortunately, though, the same manuscript was responded too by other agents like Les Strobbe whose advice helped considerably.

    Now I have had the privilege of meeting Terry Whalin and perosnally comunicating with him, and receiving his honest professional opinion about my manuscript (turns out I was approaching the wrong market). If not for his personal feedback, encouragement, and motivation to press on, I would have definitely quit. And if I had never pursued a writer’s conference (thanks Les Stobbe!)I would never have met Terry and developed that contact that has turned out to be the most important communciation I’ve had in the professional market. I wish more agents were as nice and hands on as Terry. He has responded to every email I have sent him, usually within minutes.

    Please agents, tell us the TRUTH. If a writer can’t handle the criticism they are not ready to be a professional anyways and you still did them a favor.

    • Steve Laube December 5, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      Rebecca,
      If I may? I’d like to comment. You mentioned you never heard from Tamela…and by implication suggesting that she somehow failed you.

      I happen to know that Tamela is one of the hardest working and finest agents in our industry. She replies to everyone. Her slush pile is reviewed regularly.

      My question would be whether your proposal was ever received.
      Did you follow the guidelines?
      Did you follow up after not hearing?
      Do you know it was received?
      This week one of my own client’s email was snagged by the server’s spam filter. If she had not asked if I had received it I never would have known it was sent.

      A lack of an answer isn’t necessarily because the agent failed.

      And also Rebecca? Please be careful when publicly naming people in our industry.

      I’ve been named/shamed/blamed in blog posts and in emails for one thing or another. Usually due to a misunderstanding of what was actually said or written. “Oh what fun it is to ride this industry sleigh.”

      • Heather Day Gilbert December 5, 2012 at 11:57 am #

        Steve, not sure where this comment will appear, but reading your vitriolic reply post made me chuckle. My hubby taught several online class, and his writing corrections are rarely taken well. Generally, the responses/justifications are so poorly word, it’s evident to everyone why the student wound up with a D or F in the course.

        I hope parents start stepping up to the plate and instead of telling kids, “If you can dream it, you can DO IT!” they start bolstering their kids’ NATURAL strengths instead. Not everyone can sing, yet they still try out for American Idol. Not everyone can write, yet they get hostile if you try to gently direct them.

        Agh!

      • Heather Day Gilbert December 5, 2012 at 11:59 am #

        AND OH MY WORD! Sorry I just poorly worded my own post! I was switching words, and apparently left off some endings. Blushing frantically write now. I’m a good writer. I really is…hee.

      • Heather Day Gilbert December 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

        AND then I said “write” instead of “right.” So sorry for such a goofy looking reply. It’s a great example of HOW not to write. My mind is elsewhere today, but I’m enjoying this post.

      • Heather Day Gilbert December 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

        Karen, not sure where THIS will show up, but I totally misplaced the modifier there. I didn’t mean STEVE’s reply was vitriolic, I meant the reply he was POSTING was vitriolic–the response he’d gotten. Sorry that was unclear, AS was the rest of my comment.

        My crit partner suggested I give a “Writer out on Submission” disclaimer alert on days like this! I was trying to articulate that Steve’s letter he RECEIVED was much like one my professor hubby gets many times from people trying to justify their writing skills (which are really lacking).

      • Jennifer Major @Jjumping December 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

        Poor Mizz Gilbert. You seemed a little stressed today. I feel bad. I wish I could come and give you a hug and say “they’re , there, their” and make it all better.
        Your crit partner must have a PhD in awesome. From Oxford. And Harvard.

    • Rebecca Aarup December 5, 2012 at 11:41 am #

      Clarification: This is not a personal attack on Tamela, who I am certain is a wonderful agent (which is why I submitted to her). I was using the example to show the difference between no response and a short critique/response. I apologize for the misunderstanding, Steve. I was not shaming, blaming, or any such thing. In fact, I fully understand that many agents never even see proposals/queries because they have people who sort through the slush for them. I assumed, as is indicated in the guidelines, that a non-response after a certain amount of time is a rejection, so I did not further initiate any communication. I got the same non-response from a dozen others, so once again, not a personal attack on Tamela, whom I don’t even know. According to what I have read here it seems like she is very nice and caring towards her clients. If I didn’t respect her I wouldn’t have followed her on twitter and facebook and read every article she puts out. I believe my query probably just wasn’t right for her, or the agency, according to the adivice I had been given from Terry.

      • Steve Laube December 5, 2012 at 11:51 am #

        Thank you for the kind clarification. It is a lesson for all readers though. When naming names in any context, praise or example, it can be perceived differently by those who are reading it.

        PERFECT example as to the dilemma Karen writes about today. I may say to a writer, “it isn’t a good fit” but it is read as “Leave me alone you terrible writer.”

        I have been cursed on the phone for rejections. Sent profanity laced responses. Told that I will be living a hot place for eternity. That I’m stupid, ignorant, and plain blind.

        After a while it can feel like it isn’t worth telling anyone anything. The hateful and vicious reactions are unbelievable.

        Below is a quote received from someone who received a gentle critique from me for their novel (typos are original):

        “Weakness with my dialog?! Have to shake my head. The dialog in this story is excellent. I minored in English and finished with a 4.0 GPA. There were some English Masters classes I took in which only one A was awarded, and guess which student received it? Imagine that. In a room full of English majors, a chemistry major outscored them all. My writing has been read by Fortune 500 CEOs and senior managers and major foreign firms around the world when I worked for Stanford Research Institute. None of them complained. And I would say their education, intellect, corproate responsibilities and compensation puts them just ‘slightly’ above the general public. My vocabulary has been tested to exceed the level of college English professors, considered the most expert group insofar as word knowledge is concerned. I therefore have no need to be concerned with my abilty to express myself in written form. You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

      • Rebecca Aarup December 5, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

        Steve, thank you for pointing out the “name-dropping” issue. I am new to all of this, so I am a bit naive to these things. I truly appreciate your comments and will make a note of that in the future.

        The copied comment from a disgruntled writer made me laugh! Thanks for sharing! Sometimes I marvel at how “Christians” could respond in such a way, but I know if it wasn’t for grace I could easily fall into that category myself. We are all capable (this from a recovering addict, so I try not to judge someone’s intentions but it’s not always easy).

        Once again, thanks for pointing out my error and allowing me to clarify. I will certainly be more aware of that from now on.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Rebecca and Steve, you two are cracking me up. See why we have to work so hard to be sure we’re saying what we mean to say? And Heather, Steve’s response wasn’t vitriolic. It was…Steve. He’s the first to tell you he’s not all “puppies and kittens,” meaning he’ll tell you what he thinks without sugar coating. Because I know him so well, when I read his response I knew he was just going down a list of “Here’s what you do if you haven’t heard back from an agent.” But I can guarantee you it wasn’t meant in a caustic way. Just in a “Did you give this a try?” list.

      Ah, the joys of communication!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

      Heather…

      HAAAAA! I’m cracking up! I think part of the problem is that not all the comments follow the things we’re commenting on. So hey, no worries at all!

      As my tongue-firmly-panted-in-cheek hubby is wont to say:

      “Peace, love, and smoke…well, okay. I’ll settle for peace and love.”

  24. Carol Moncado December 5, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    I live in fear* that one day I’ll get an email from an agent or editor [or worse - at an in person meeting] where they look at me like I’m one of those people on American Idol.

    You know the ones. The ones that get up there in front of Randy, Paula and Simon [or whoever it is these days] and have even Paula [who finds something good to say about almost everyone] cringing. All of us at home sit there wondering “doesn’t your mother/husband/best friend love you enough to tell you that you can’t sing?”

    William Hong made good on it, but the rest of them end up humiliated on national [international?] television.

    Though I know it would be hard to hear, I’d much rather have someone [preferably a friend or crit partner before I make it to the editor or agent] tell me that.

    More recently, I feel more like I’ve made it to “The Voice” [to stick with singing shows]. If you make it to the blind auditions on The Voice, you have talent. You might not get one of the coaches [very different from "judges" imo] to turn around, but you don’t make it that far without being good enough to be on one of their teams. If you don’t, it seems to be [mostly] a matter of stylistic choice etc [like Blake looking to build a mostly country team] rather than ability.

    So yeah – long story short, I’d rather know that if I’m going to write, it should be for friends and family who’ll love me even if it stinks. Personally, I would never DREAM of emailing you back and ranting about your salvation etc, but at the same time, I know there are many who would and don’t blame you for not wanting to open yourself up to that.

    *not really, but it’s so much more dramatic to say it that way ;)

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

      Carol, great comparisons here. You made me grin. And you point out the importance of being part of a working crit group. Refine, refine, refine…THEN submit!

  25. Michael Duncan December 5, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    Hi Karen,

    Let me say, that when you and I went out for breakfast (I think it was 5 years ago!) at the Northwest Christian Writer’s Conference, you were very upfront and openly told me of my “inability” to write. That meeting did more for me than I can begin to tell you. As the saying goes: “God bless you for an honest woman.”

    From that point on, I did what I needed to do to hone my craft: taking courses, learning lessons and pursuing this call in my life with a view to sharpening my skills. Without your honesty, I doubt that I would have published anything – let alone, authored or co-authored five books. The truth may hurt, but it will be the only thing that delivers.

    God bless you and thank you for your willingness to commit such a breach of protocol – to tell me that I needed to become a better writer.

    As always…

    In His Grace,
    Michael Duncan – author!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

      Michael, I remember that breakfast well, and I remember how gracious you were as you listened to my thoughts. KUDOS on keeping at it and for letting God use you and your writing!

      • Michael Duncan December 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

        Thanks! By the way – I could still use an agent. :)

  26. Susan Hollaway December 5, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    The truth shall set us free! I, personally, want to know the truth — no matter what. How can I ever grow in my writing journey and become better at my craft if I don’t hear the truth? If I don’t know what’s wrong, I can’t fix it.

    No one ever said that writing was easy. Sometimes the words flow, and sometimes they don’t. But you don’t stop writing during the “grit your teeth and pull out the words” times. You just have to work harder and be willing to listen to constructive criticism.

    I’ve been blessed with critique partners who care about me enough to tell me the truth. And I’ve grown a lot in my writing because of it. Without that “honest, mark up and bleed over my pages” direct approach, I wouldn’t have learned and grown. And it’s my personal humble opinion that we never stop growing as writers. There’s always something new to learn and a way to improve upon our craft.

    I don’t want to be published “just” to be published. I want to write a story worthy of publication. A story that will touch people’s hearts, make them smile, entertain them, and hopefully, give them a glimpse of God by the end of the story.

    When we submit to agents and editors, we are ultimately asking for their opinion. Their professional opinion. If you really don’t want the answer to the question you’re asking, don’t ask (or submit) in the first place.

    Just sayin’. Thanks for a great post.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

      “If you really don’t want the answer to the question you’re asking, don’t ask (or submit) in the first place.”

      Okay, you made me smile.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Susan.

  27. Meghan Carver December 5, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    I am so glad I don’t have to make that call! As hard as it would be to hear, I think I would want to know if I just didn’t have the talent, skill, whatever, to be a published author. However, I wonder if just a query or proposal would be enough for an agent to make that assessment. From what I’ve read on blogs, there could be any number of reasons why a query doesn’t sit well with an agent. What if I can write well but I don’t have the right idea yet? That doesn’t mean I should quit. I just need to keep brainstorming for the right idea. I know you all are experts, though, and maybe you can tell from a proposal? Now I’ve commented myself in a circle and I’m right back to my original sentence. I am so glad I don’t have to make those decisions!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

      Meghan, a query isn’t enough…usually. I mean, there are some queries where it’s clear the writer doesn’t have a grasp of the basics of writing or English use. So the odds are good the proposal will just be more of the same. But I digress…

      Your point about query letters is exactly why I don’t want them. I want the full proposal. Even as an editor, I told writers not to query me, just send the proposal. Because what I look at first is the sample chapters. It’s the writing that matters. If I respond to the writing, then I go back and review the rest of the proposal.

      Which again is why you should never submit until your writing is all shiny and brilliant!

  28. Patrick Craig December 5, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    This is a good word, Steve. When I was in the music business I remember many times when I was trying to break in that I was “invited” out of jam sessions or asked to let someone else play the keyboards. Over the years I had record contracts and I had companies that took a pass on my music. I wrote songs with great artists and was passed over for those jobs many times. Of course the rejections hurt, but I had to learn to listen to what was being said and take it to heart. In my early twenties I was once told that I wasn’t a good enough player, so I started taking piano lessons again and practiced hours every day. If I send my writing to an agent and a publisher and they say no, but I believe that I am gifted to write, I need to hear what you are saying and take it to heart and then practice, practice, practice!!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

      Patrick, aren’t ALL of Steve’s words good?

      And you make a great point: Being told you’re not good enough doesn’t necessarily mean you should quit. Sometimes, as in your case, it just means you need to put in more time and work.

  29. Becky Doughty December 5, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    Karen,

    This is a great post – and some very intriguing feedback.

    When I present my material to an agent, an editor, a publisher, a critique partner, etc., my head wants honesty, my heart wants accolades. I don’t WANT to be told I need to work on my craft. I don’t WANT to be told that I should go to a conference or a workshop. I don’t WANT to be told that my story is formulaic or 2-dimensional, etc., and I don’t WANT you to tell me that I can’t write. In fact, I may just rant and rail a little if you respond to me with this kind of feedback…in private. With my hubby. Or my writing pals.

    BUT… how will I KNOW what I need to do to become a better writer if the “experts” in the field don’t respond? I’m with Rebecca A and Sally A above – HONEST FEEDBACK is imperative in this line of work. NO RESPONSE is far more devastating than a painful response. FORM letters stink.

    Karen, I’m going to use your own words here. Maybe if more people in the industry stood up and said “I’m going to be brutally honest, Mr./Ms. Writer. You’re not ready for these reasons (One or two reasons would suffice!). And please, don’t tell me: ‘You can’t make a statement like that.’ Of course I can. It’s my job to decide whether or not someone is ready for publication.”

    And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? You agents ARE the gateway. You ARE the ones who primarily determine what does and does not pass muster.

    I’m going to capitalize this for emphasis, not because I’m yelling: IF I’M IMBECILIC ENOUGH TO LASH BACK AT YOU WITH SLURS AND CURSES, THEN THERE’S SOMETHING FAR MORE WRONG WITH ME THAN JUST MY WRITING ABILITY – OR INABILITY.

    I can be honest back to you by saying, “Your critique was painful to receive, but I’m going to take it, mull over it, pray over it, and apply it. Thank you.”

    This is WHY we send our manuscripts to you. We may not WANT negative feedback, but if we’re to grow, we may NEED it.

    I NEED feedback, because I’m narcissistic and idealistic enough to believe that I have what it takes, but I’m also DESPERATE to develop and learn and grow.

    You’re in tough spot, Karen, but I think it comes with the territory. Praying for you as this new year comes with all the changes in the publishing industry.

    Blessings,
    Becky

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

      Becky, I’m laughing here. Love your “emphasis.”

      And you’re right, it all comes with the territory. And you know what? I actually LOVE working with authors and making their writing stronger. That’s part of the reason that I’m still an editor (freelance), and that I’ll always be an editor. I love coming alongside writers and helping them discover ways to strengthen and refine the craft. I’ve even been hired to mentor writers this last year, and that was GREAT fun. Not just because it was a one-on-one situation, but because the improvements I saw in the author’s craft were amazing.

      • Becky Doughty December 5, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

        Karen
        That’s one of the things I appreciate about you: You’re heart for working with writers, rather than working for, or working on them. :-)

  30. Susan E. Richardson December 5, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    I’d want to be told, too, as long as you gave me some specifics I could latch onto. Nothing would frustrate me more than being told “needs work” without any clues as to what kind of work.

    As I do critiques myself, I know what you’re talking about, though. Some people can’t handle hearing the truth, but a few precious ones will take a deep breath and dive in to learn more.

    I have to confess that once upon a time I would have been in the indignent group. Hard to step back from your work and not take comments personally. Lately I’ve been blessed to have a critique partner who will absolutely shred my work, which has definitely pushed me in good ways as a writer. Once you see how that input can sharpen your writing, you love having it.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      “Once you see how that input can sharpen your writing, you love having it.”

      AMEN! You know, as a writer, I love being edited. In part, that’s because I’ve had a wonderful editor, Julee Schwarzburg. But it’s also because writing is such solitary work. You create and craft and revise in this vacuum of solitude, then send it off. And I can’t tell you how many authors–and I’m in this same group–are convinced what they’ve just written is the worst thing ever committed to paper. I felt that way about my last novel, What Lies Within. Thought it was my worst writing ever. Going to end my career. And what happens? My wonderful editor worked with me, but more than that, she believed in me. Told me it was my BEST writing. And sure enough, that was the novel that was nominated for a Christy award for excellence in writing.

      So yeah, writers and editors need each other. It’s all about being kind and encouraging and teachable.

  31. Jennifer Dyer December 5, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Submitting and having one’s writing judged is about as easy as poking oneself in the eye. Repeatedly.

    A few years ago, a friend in the publishing business sent my work to a respected agent. He took the time to look over my story personally and was very nice when he told me it was overwritten. While I felt irritated at MYSELF for my failure to deliver perfection, I was so grateful to him for the time he spent on my work and for being honest with me. That one-sentence response gave me a direction and desire to be even better.

    The fact that he was kind made all the difference and is a reason I respect his agency all the more. If he had been mean or spiteful or made fun of me publicly it would have hurt deeply and made me question his professionalism.

    No pressure… ;-)

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

      Yeah…no pressure…

      Where’d I put that Prozac??

      Seriously, if someone is mean or spiteful, the problem isn’t with the writing. It’s with a heart that’s become wounded or arrogant or weary or jaded. Whatever the case, that person is in need of prayer.

  32. Heather Day Gilbert December 5, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Karen, wow, this is a can of worms! When I first started querying, I definitely CRAVED very specific feedback. But now, I realize that since not EVERY agent “gets” your style/genre of writing, not every agent SHOULD critique it in a rejection letter.

    Honestly, I think critique groups should be the FRONT LINE here. Problem is, many people (myself included the first time) submit before letting anyone else read over their stuff. This is a huge mistake. The more crits you get PRE-querying, the smoother your writing will be for that agent. If you want specific crits outside a crit group, hire an editor. Do NOT count on some random agent to fill you in on all your mistakes.

    Now, once said agent has requested your proposal or chapters and read over them, that’s a different story. Interest has been shown, they’ve gotten on-board (somewhat) w/your writing or vision. At that point, a polite, “___________ is why I can’t rep you at this time” would be most helpful.

    I never thought I’d reach this point, but I am beginning to understand that the form rejections are a type of mercy to new writers. Great post, Karen.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

      Absolutely agree. I confess that I’ve been guilty of the non response. Usually it’s because I’m swamped and haven’t had time to review the proposal. But sometimes it’s because I’m just not sure what to say. Which means, if I’m honest with myself, that I know what to say, and that’s “This isn’t a good fit for me.”

      Sigh…

  33. CathiLyn Dyck December 5, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    I think it’s pretty important to hear whether we’re ready or not. Listening for that has saved me thousands of dollars and a ton of frustration and confusion. I’ve been writing for about ten years, and I decided early on I wouldn’t try to travel down from Canada for conferences until I might be getting close to saleable. I couldn’t waste time and money playing publishing roulette with un-competitive product — it’s not fair to my family.

    Honestly, the whole reason I went to ACFW 2012 was to determine whether I should keep writing or go do something else with my life. (Yes to writing, it turns out.) I think it’s a question people need to ask themselves, because the time commitment to learn professional-quality writing is so huge.

    I’ve found conference appointments absolutely invaluable. When a person spends decades honing their professional sensibilities, the stuff they can do in 15 minutes is amazing. Ms. Ball, you are already helping writers that way, with or without personalized rejection letters, so thanks.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

      Wow. Thanks so much. Your words lifted my heart today.

  34. Bette Nordberg December 5, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Dear Sweet Karen, I suspect that every professional has moments where doing your job is met with vitriol. In medicine, education, social services, heck, even the post office gets the brunt of the client’s mean spirit occasionally. I’m sorry that you have to experience it too! That said, anyone who reads understands that there is writing and there is ahhhhhhhh Writing! I don’t think I’d ever say someone could never write for publication. I’ve seen too many determined, type-A people accomplish astounding feats, far above their natural ability, simply by unrelenting and repeated effort. So, “not yet ready” is a perfectly acceptable comment! I think most find it excruciatingly frustrating to read someone else’s published work, which may be truly below the “quality line,” while waiting to be published ourselves. That, I think, is the most discouraging of all. That said, anyone, having met you, could never assume you had an arrogant or stupid bone in your body. That comment is just sin nature hanging out. Hard to take? Yep. But never enough to keep us from doing the best we know how to do! Keep up your amazing work, my friend!

    • Rebecca Aarup December 5, 2012 at 10:53 am #

      Bette, I completely agree with your comment on seeing someone else with questionable quality get published while you’re still waiting. I do a lot of book reviews and a self-published author requested me read his book and review it. Immediately I was disturbed by the poor editing quality (not that I’m an expert, but having been professionally edited myself I had a little bit of an idea). In fact, it was so poor I had trouble reading the text and often had to re-read paragraphs to understand what he was saying b/c of the poor sentence structure/punctuation…etc. The content of the book was good, however, and the message important. I more or less reviewed the content rather than the editing. Come to find out a few months later his self-published book was picked up by a publisher and conracted!!! Discouraged is an understatement. Not that I wasn’t happpy for him, but I was baffled at the result and left wondering why I invest so much time into careful writing, crafting, and editing when apparently it doesn’t matter for others. It’s all so confusing!!! I can totally relate to your statement.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

      Bette, you are wonderful. Thank you for the kind words. And I hear you about the frustration of reading published books that we think aren’t well written. When that happens, I remind myself that there is someone out there who needs to read this book. That God knew this was the book that would move someone, maybe change a life. I’ve heard countless people put down Grace Livingston Hill novels as simplistic and fluff, but I grew up reading those books and loved them. And her novel THE WITNESS is to this day one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read about the impact we have on others in the way we live our faith.

  35. Maggie Amada December 5, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    Criticism is how we grow and its remarkably difficult to acquire.

    I’m starting out as a writer. On my first book, I entered a competition and had two people who loved my story and one who tore it apart while telling me that with work, my story could be very “marketable”. I have to say that I am grateful to the person who tore me apart because she helped me grow. She told me one good thing while pointing out all the areas where I needed to work harder. She was very good at it.

    While writing my second book, I improved so I’d say it depends on the person. Some people can’t take criticism. If so, they should be up front about it so others don’t waste their time and effort. I think that a lot of people recognize the need for criticism, though, and use it for self-improvement.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      Maggie, a lot of people do. And I’m grateful!

  36. Rachel Wilder December 5, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    The teachable spirit is crucial. If that’s missing, it doesn’t matter what the agent or editor has to say (short of a glowing gush-fest), because the writer isn’t going to listen. Since there’s no way for an agent or editor to really know if the “not there yet” writer has this teachable spirit, I don’t blame you at all for the form rejection. It really is easier on all involved, and much kinder.

    I’ve received three rejections so far, one of which was amazing and I felt great after I read it, which led to an invitation to resubmit if I wanted to. The others weren’t form either, but one felt like a personal attack and reduced me to tears. Took me two hours to get a grip on myself again. Even with personalized rejections it’s a fine line to walk and it’s very easy to lean toward being cruel. I know that wasn’t the intention of the one that hurt, but that’s how it felt. How it still feels, nearly a year after the fact.

    The third led me to pitching another project, which I’m in the final throes of whipping into shape so I can send it. Three different agents, three different personal responses, three different reactions. All for the same writer.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

      Rachel, I’m so sorry for the one that reduced you to tears. And congrats on the offer to resubmit. That’s great!

  37. Susan Karsten December 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    This is interesting. Thanking the Lord for my thick skin – I have treated all crits I have gotten like the gold they are. Not saying it would be easy to be told not to aspire.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

      Ah, thick skin. Don’t let your submissions leave home if you haven’t got it.

  38. Heather Day Gilbert December 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Thank you, Karen–my crit partner and I think my comment about poor writers with incidental misspelled words should be used as an example somehow–of how NOT to comment when you’re stressed. We’ve been laughing about my crazy wording all day! Then I felt really bad b/c I would never insinuate that Steve is vitriolic. I think he seems like an uber-nice agent.

  39. Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Thanks, all, for your thought-provoking comments. I tried to reply to each of you because I so appreciate your input here. If I missed someone, accept my apologies.

    Now, what was I doing before I popped over this blog…?

    Oh yeah.

    Reading proposals!

  40. Mick December 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    No, not every can write. But everyone has a story.

    I don’t have 30 years’ experience. I have 10 as an acquisitions editor. I’ve seen most writers need what I did starting out: time to read. (Brandilyn Collins and Karen once pointed this out to me and I was just humble enough to listen).

    Start with your favorite authors and pick them apart. What do you love about them and why? How did they say it just right? What made your heart sing and say, “I’ve always wanted someone to say that exactly that way!” What about them freed you to see yourself better, to hope more, to appreciate life a little more?

    Practice writing a scene with their character, i.e. fan fiction. Give yourself a deadline like NaNo to do a little each day. Maybe you already do this…but as you read more and more–read widely and deeply!–you will find out how to do it, how to put your story into the right words, the words you use when you sound like yourself, and as no one else can.

    Miles Davis said sometimes it takes a long time to play like yourself.

    Get Donald Maass’ book, Writing the Breakout Novel. It’s tremendous help–and the workbook is worth it’s weight in gold.

    Above all, be grateful for the vision you were given. Cultivate that and you will have all the fuel you need for the journey. That’s where the “success” is. Writing it well will come…

    Thanks for being you, Karen Ball. God bless you for saying this! :)

    mick

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

      And thanks for being you, dear Mick. Love your heart and spirit.

  41. Charles Bailey December 5, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Why not tell a writer, “Sorry, but in my opinion your writing is not up to industry standard.” This at least gives the writer a clue as to what is his/her problem. The difficulty would be if the writer wants to enter into a discussion as to why his writing isn’t satisfactory. You don’t have time for this.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

      Charles, you hit it right on the head. Because I’ve tried doing exactly that, and the response I get is, well, exactly that! Giving that kind of non-answer is equally frustrating to people as a flat no.

  42. Kimberly E. Lepins December 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    Karen,
    Thank you for your well-written post! And I love the inability versus ability distinction. It made me think of separating the sin from the sinner! :) I am completely shocked at how you and the other agents have been spoken to, especially considering, I’m sure, that most claim to be “Christian.” Hurts the heart but then again, maybe they need a heart/priority check. I value any constructive criticism I can get, especially from a prospective agent. Life has taught me to be teachable and God has used writing and the gift of His grace to keep me that way, reminding me to remember Who I am writing with and for so as to not lose focus when the rejections come. To be honest, I’d rather hear “why” it’s not a good fit so I can improve, but then again, I now realize that’s incredibly risky for you guys and leaves you vulnerable to peoples’ verbal abuse! I love your transparency, and Steve’s as well! Thank you for all each of you at the agency do in helping to change lives one heart at a time through writing!
    Blessings
    Kimberly (Evinda) Lepins

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

      Thanks so much, Kim. I love what you said about remembering Who you write for. Same thing for me as an agent: I have to remember Who I work for: the Lord and His glory!

  43. Pat Lee December 5, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    Leave it to you Karen to march into the mouth of the cave and dare the grizzly to chase you! LOL

    I look at this issue of rejection in eternal terms. We only get one pass through this life and rejection will come our way at every turn. In school that super duper paper we turned in got passed up by Polly Pulitzer and we got the C-. That job for the back corner clerk garnered 300 applicants and we were interview 299.

    Rejection hurts, but it also frees us to move on to something else. I don’t want to stand before God and say I have six novels in my computer, but I’m still waiting for the agent or editor to tell me if I have a chance. Why not tell us our talents would be better served in another direction?

    I loved what Ethel Herr said about rejection. She would take the article and send it out again the same day to a new destination, so that it was no longer a rejection, but an anticipated response.

    If someone has enough determination to write a bad full length novel, wouldn’t that energy be of better use channeled into something constructive?

    I’d rather sting for a few minutes and face the truth than drool over what I cannot have for years. Thanks for the great post. Pat

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

      “I’d rather sting for a few minutes and face the truth than drool over what I cannot have for years.”

      Great thought, Pat. And thanks for the chuckle. Love the image of marching into the Grizzly’s cave!

  44. Carrie Miller December 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Hi Karen,
    I really appreciate this post. For me, I am more afraid of a form rejection letter than the fear of actual rejection. I honestly want the whole honest truth, even if it is just in once sentence. I used to watch American Idol and make a connection between myself and those singers. I think I’m good and I hope I’m good, my family and friends tell me I’m good, but I will never know until someone in the industry tells me.

    I love writing and the book I’ve submitted has been revised countless times over the last eight years. So if I hear you or the reader who you trust tell me that writing is not the profession for me, I will believe you. I will continue writing because I love it, but I will put my focus into teaching literature.

    I wait patiently. My proposal was submitted 36 days ago. Every notification on my phone gets my hopes up. So please, don’t give me a form rejection letter. Even if it’s one sentence. Help me make a decision if I should stick with this or move on. Thank you!

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      Carrie, I hear you, loud and clear. And I appreciate your words.

  45. Sondra Kraak December 5, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Karen, I was shocked when I read that some writers don’t appreciate constructive criticism. I still remember specific conversations with my writing professors and their suggestions for my writing. I’m just beginning to probe my dream of writing fiction, and if I reach that moment to submit (which hopefully I will!) I’d want specific feedback. I guess I had that impression that an agent’s or editor’s job was to either say, “You’re writing is good enough for publication” or “You’re writing is not ready for publication.” Being a perfectionist, I’m not sure I’d ever think my writing was ready for publication, but I’d love to hear it from someone with skill and experience so that I’d know how to improve.

    • Karen Ball December 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

      Sondra, great to know you’re starting out with this kind of attitude!

  46. Michelle Massaro December 5, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    Personally, I definitely want to know the truth about my writing. How else can I grow? After every stage of growth in the writing craft I’ve looked back and thought “wow, how did I not see that before?” Every time I’m stretched, it hurts and feels like maybe I can’t do it, I can’t grow any more, I’m stunted. But it’s never been true. The process isn’t easy but it always has results that make me feel so grateful and, indeed, proud of myself for plowing through and becoming a better writer. I can look back at drafts written four years ago, and even drafts written one year ago, and feel SO GRATEFUL TO GOD that I had people who didn’t leave me there, who taught me to do better. So looking forward I say, please don’t leave me HERE. Show me how to keep growing and improving.

    Now, on the other hand, if I were the editor or agent, I’m not sure I’d want to offer the bottom-line truth when someone simply didn’t have a drop of talent. I’d be way too afraid of crushing their spirit. For those with ability, but a long way to go, I’d only hope to be as patient and caring as my mentors were with me!

  47. Peter DeHaan December 5, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    Karen, I understand this dilemma too well.

    I once received a poorly written submission for one of the magazines I publish. It was from a person for whom English was a second language. I responded with a “it’s not a good match for us” rejection.

    The author pushed me for feedback so he could improve. I fell for it.

    He then argued with my opinion.

    Things went downhill from there.

    In exasperation, I became blunt: “Your words are in English, but I have no idea what you’re saying.”

    I could have saved myself the embarrassment of a harsh reply had I simply refused to give him feedback in the first place.

  48. Catherine Hudson December 5, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    I really see your side on this one! Offense really is the bait of Satan (in my opinion) and when you are talking about someones creativity it is particularly hard to speak the truth. But it is the truth – some people just cannot write, professionally. They are not only wasting their own time, but the time of professionals such as yourself, publishers and readers alike (if they get that far which they often can now with self-pub)

    But here is the thing – we were born to create. We are made in the image of a creative God, and so feel the need to do so ourselves. That is not to say everyone must write. For those who need to change writing as their creative outlet, there will be, somewhere out there, a creative need for them to fill – one in fact they may be born to fill!
    I personally love critique that helps me grow – hate the pain at first, of course, but in the end am so grateful. But this is totally different to advice for change that a writer may eventually accept, adapt to and learn to implement.

    Here we are talking about the death knell to a dream of being the next best seller.

    For editors and other professionals? Stick with silence. That sort of honesty has to come from someone they will receive it from – if indeed anyone will risk speaking the truth.

    Until then, perhaps we should pray? – for a creative talent is being misplaced

    • Rudy Martinka December 5, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

      Catherin Hudson,

      You made a great point about a writer wasting an agents time by sending them a losing query.

      Maybe if after the writer recieves ten or so rejections with candid critiques, they would get the message that they are wasting both their time and the agents.

      The rest of your remark about creativity does not apply to the point of this discussion in my opinion..

  49. Stephanie Karfelt December 5, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    I want the truth, and when you tell me why you’re rejecting me, you’re giving me needed feedback. Surely many determined writers can learn novel writing skills. I want to know if it is my writing skill, my choice of material, me, the market – anything you tell me that can keep me from wasting time, and point me in a direction I need to go in.
    What an eye-opening post, I assumed all writers did their ranting and raving (or weeping at their desk) privately, before resuming their work. The reactions you describe illustrate surprisingly unprofessional behavior.
    Makes me wonder if it is more of a CBA phenomenon. You know where we think we’re on a mission from God? Maybe we all are, that still doesn’t mean those stories are all meant for publication. I’m pretty sure my first 450,000 word stories were meant for mine eyes alone. ;)

  50. Nancy Kimball December 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

    American Idol needed Randy Jackson way more than Paula and Simon. Simon, Great-Crusher-of-Dreams, and Paula, Eternal-Optimist-Extraordinaire, needed Randy. Randy, Reality-Check Randy, gave it to you straight somewhere in the middle.

    Those with some sense took it to heart, and the rest, well, we all remember the blowups, the name calling and threats and “I’ll show you!” vows that you’d laugh inside and be like, who does that? I’m sorry to hear that happens for you too.

    Sorry because those few have ruined it for the rest of us who would treat that educated advice like blue-prints for an extreme makeover: manuscript edition instead of allowing our initial disappointment to express itself in an undignified and retaliatory manner.

  51. S. Kim Henson December 5, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    I don’t think I would have ever been published if the first editor I submitted to hadn’t made it very clear that my writing was not publishable. She didn’t say those words, but when I asked if we’d be critiquing my article the second evening of a class she was teaching, she said “no” in such a way I knew. I’m forever grateful for her honesty and guidance even though that season in my writing career was painful.

    I have no idea how to fix the problem of others not wanting to hear the truth, but that happens in any line of work (I used to supervise interns at a college – most of them didn’t like feedback either). Yet, I’m still surprised how many writer friends I’ve heard say they’re going to self publish to avoid being edited or they don’t need a writers group with a bunch of people criticizing their work. I’m sure it’s tough for editors and agents because we can be a tough bunch to deal with. Thanks for sharing your side.

  52. V.V. Denman December 6, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    Love this post and all its comments.

    The thought of an agent telling me to give up on publication makes me cringe/shudder/vomit, but I would SO want to know. Good grief, I’ve got other stuff I could spend my time on, right?

    And as far as constructive feedback on proposals, I’m in favor of the tiniest bit of information. (Like I received from a respected agent whose name I won’t drop, but whose initials are S.L.) I respect the fact that agents don’t have time to critique proposals, not to mention its not their job, and I don’t expect a full explanation. Besides, if an agent pointed out everything, I’d go into a depression! But it’s amazing what God can do with a one line response. After stewing for a while, I begin to recognize the problems on my own.

    So, I guess I’m saying: you guys are doing a great job. (Even when we cry and complain.)

  53. Dina Sleiman December 6, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    Coming back to speak again from an editor role. I’ve only seen a handful of submissions that I thought to myself, “There is no amount of training that will bridge the gap between this person and publication.” And those people would have had a hard time passing highschool English. Most of the time, it’s a matter of dedication and hard work, and agents and editors can’t gauge that. I remember a time a lady in my local writers group brought a horrible manuscript for us to critique. I was shocked by how much was wrong with it because she’d already had a request from an editor at conference. But it turned out she was the fastest, most determined learner I’ve ever seen. I think she landed an agent about six months later.

    • sally apokedak December 6, 2012 at 9:09 am #

      Would you say the same was true of other talents? Do you think anyone can learn to sing well enough to sing professionally and anyone can learn to paint well enough to paint professionally?

      On the one hand I think anyone can learn to do any number of things, but I also believe that God has called us and given us ability to do some things well and other things…not so much.

      I will never be a football player. I know the rules, and I can throw and catch and run, but I can never play pro ball. I’m not physically capable of competing against the existing players.

      I wonder if because everyone who has been to first grade knows how to write and sing songs, that makes people believe they have a talent for writing and singing.

      Anyone with fingers is physically capable of writing and anyone with a voice is physically capable of singing. But that doesn’t mean we should attempt to be professional writers and singers. After all, anyone with hands and feet can catch and run with a football.

      I think many of us should write the way others play football: in the street, for fun.

      Or we can make a living as support staff. We can be coaches or water boys or sportscasters. Or editors or agents or booksellers or reviewers or teachers.

      • Dina Sleiman December 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

        I agree about the singing and painting, and it correlates somewhat, but I honestly do think there’s a little bit of a difference with writing. Maybe because it’s both an art and a craft. I’ve seen very talented artists who think they’re above learning the craft side, and they’re probably not going to succeed. And I’ve seen people who I personally don’t find very talented who plug away for ten or twenty years and manage to master a certain genre and get published.

        Of course, maybe it is the same as singing and painting because they all a modicum of natural ability and a whole, whole lot of determination, practice, and teachability.

        Besides, it’s not an editor’s or agent’s place to know who is or isn’t called. I certainly wouldn’t want to make that decision for someone.

  54. Andrea Graham December 6, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    We each own our own opinion and are free to choose to share it or to choose to keep it to ourselves if we think it’d hurt the person’s feelings more than it’d help them grow. In my view, though, the kind, humble assumption, if one can’t think of a single nice thing to say about a manuscript, is that it was just not to our tastes, unless the problem is glaringly obvious–not just that they don’t use the fiction writing techniques that we favor and feel produce the best quality of art, but their fundamental use of the English Language is itself deplorable. When we do see such objectively bad writing, it’s usually accompanied by an attitude that it’s someone else’s job to know how to spell and how to follow the rules of punctuation, word usage, and English grammar. They usually either think that someone should fix it for them or that they should be exempt. Our breath is wasted upon them. Otherwise, fiction writing is an art and what constitutes good quality art is subjective. We can only tell someone what its professional worth is based upon what works in our experience. Another professional down the road from another school of thought might possibly treasure our junk. Remembering that can help us communicate our honest opinion gently.
    For tactful, there is always, “I don’t think commercial writing is right for your voice. Have you thought about going literary?” LOL, I’m mainly kidding about that one. I’m fairly new of an editor, and I’ve already gotten told by authors in essence, “This is a literary piece, it doesn’t have to follow your so-called good fiction writing techniques.” Literary used to mean its quality of art was good enough to study in English class, not that you could be sloppy and do whatever.

  55. Jan Cline December 6, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    I am late to the comment line, but this really is a sore spot with me. As a conference director and leader of a writer’s group I am continually frustrated at the number of writers who are uninformed, by their own choice, about this business. When I start a job, any job, I always find out what is expected of me, what level of excellence I will be called to and whether or not I have the determination to do the job as required. I don’t expect the boss to compliment me when I don’t deserve it or accept my work if it’s sloppy or not up to par. Why is it any different for writers? I know most of us believe we have a calling and that maybe we get to thinking that somehow excuses us from pursuing excellence. But none of us were born with the ability to pen prose perfectly. I’m preaching to myself here too, so I hope I’m not offending. But I want the truth about my writing. How will I ever be worthy of this “calling” if I don’t deal with the advice of those who know more than I do? I don’t like criticism any more than the next writer, but I know it’s a blessing in disguise. I appreciate all you editors and agents who put up with us. Just be kind and I can take it. I CHOOSE to be better for it. Thanks.

    • S. Kim Henson December 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

      Jan, your comment hit home. I feel the same way.

  56. Megan B. December 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    There are so many comments here, I couldn’t read them all, so I hope I am not just repeating people. Here’s my two cents…

    When I started writing, years ago, I wrote some real crap. If someone had told me then that my writing wasn’t good enough, I might have stopped and lost out on a wonderful hobby. And then I never would have learned to be a better writer. Most of us suck at first, and some of us submit too soon (sadly).

    My other thought is, we writers are always told how subjective it all is. Bad writing is bad writing, but when you keep hearing “it’s all so subjective,” then it’s hard not to dismiss a comment such as “your writing isn’t good enough.” I think that’s part of the reason some writers react badly to that type of feedback, and put blame on the agent or editor.

    In short, if I were an agent or an editor, I would never tell someone that their writing isn’t good enough. I would just turn them down with a form rejection and move on. Which is what most of you do :)

  57. Eva Ulian December 12, 2012 at 5:48 am #

    I think agents are right to send out rejection slips without saying the work is not up to par; because a)the author will not believe it, tell a mad-man he is mad type of thing; and b) you know the saying, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, you never can tell what that person may go on to do. I do think, however, that it would be much appreciated by an intelligent author if you specify that the work is not suitable or right for your agency at the moment- which translated means you are not a bad writer but you are barking up the wrong tree.

  58. Leslie Miller June 27, 2013 at 7:15 am #

    This is a subject that really speaks to my heart. As a freelance editor, I’ve been asked to work on manuscripts that are so poorly written, I almost wonder if the writers are native English speakers.

    I have looked at manuscripts that were clearly first drafts, that the author could not possibly have even read through a second time.

    I understand having a story to tell and longing to be an author, but what I can’t understand is not being willing to work on the craft of writing. At all! And expecting the editor to somehow pull the book into publishable condition.

    I don’t believe it is an agent’s job to critique a manuscript or query. The time that takes is taken away from getting to the next query, which might be from someone who actually did put in the time to turn out a polished, well written book.

    But a wee hint of why the project was rejected might be considered, in this era of self-publishing, as a public service to all of us! After all, if you reject it without cause, that same writer will probably give up on agents at some point and decide to self-publish, inflicting their poorly written prose on the unsuspecting Kindle loving audience.

    How about a form rejection with a list of reasons for the rejection, and the agent could simply check the box next to the most applicable one?

    For instance:

    Intriguing but just not quite right for our agency.
    Too similar to another project we have in the works.
    Needs extensive polish and revisions in prose, character development, or plot to make it publishable.
    Needs better editing to make it publishable.

    Etc…

    Simply checking the appropriate box would not take forever, and could give the author a clue without actually telling them their writing is–as another editor friend of mine likes to say–criminal.

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