Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why I Write Vague Rejection Letters

I'm going to be totally honest: my rejection letters on partials are not usually very helpful. They tend to be vague, formulaic, and brief. But polite!

Please trust me though: I have a good reason for this.

I know full well that people put a lot of stock in rejection letters, especially when the agent has considered the actual manuscript - people are hungry for any tidbit that will give them insight into why something isn't working or what they can do to improve it. Writers will hunt for hidden meaning, try to divine what the agent was thinking, and attack their manuscript with renewed vigor based on whatever they were saying.

But here's the thing: I don't want to lead anyone astray.

If I'm passing on a partial, chances are it's because I'm just not feeling that zing that I feel whenever I'm reading something I'm going to want to take on. It's just not for me. But I'm not always able to articulate precisely why exactly that is, and I haven't read enough to be able to provide a particularly insightful critique.

If I can put my finger on the reason for the lack of zing I will absolutely tell the writer.

If I am just not feeling it and don't know why: I'd rather be vague rather than say something just to say something. I'd hate for my just-to-say-something reason cause the writer try and revise based on faulty advice.

On full rejections I absolutely give more detail because I've read enough to be able to weigh in with something hopefully helpful and tangible. But for partials, I'm really not the best person to be weighing in - I'm not sitting down for an in-depth edit, I'm just reading to figure out whether I'd be the right agent for the project.

The somewhat grim truth is that prospective agents aren't really the ones who are best equipped to give you good feedback. While I'll work with authors on revisions if I think the manuscript shows great potential and will give my all to partial critiques for contest winners, an agent's job isn't to help everyone who comes their way with thoughtful, helpful critiques. I absolutely do my best, but for the best feedback you'd likely be better off with someone you trust who is reading your work with a thoughtful critique in mind.






65 comments:

Christopher Ing said...

I disagree! I thought your rejection to my partial, while not necessarily "specific" was still very helpful. And encouraging.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

This is a considerate and fair approach. Thanks for articulating it so writers know what to expect.

Remus said...

I am absolutely fine with vague rejection letters. If you don't know what's wrong, don't point just to have something to say. You'll steer me in the wrong direction.

Anonymous said...

Your right, we disect everything, including the partial request itself. That's why conflicting advise is so daunting, so I see why you hold back.


AA

Natalie Whipple said...

I never minded the vague partial rejection. That's much better than getting random advice that doesn't really work, which is frustrating and confusing.

Stephanie said...

While I think an agent's opinion is very important, you're right....some writers will take that one little comment and read into it deeply. And there may not be something detrimentally wrong with their story...it just didn't click for that particular agent. This business never fails to amaze me with it's subjectivity. Great post!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Thanks for this very respectful explanation. I was wondering why some agents don't offer advice for partial rejections. Now I understand that better. As always, Nathan Bransford clears things up in the literary universe.

erica_henry said...

Nice information to know. Thanks for sharing.

Amanda J. said...

This is very good to know. Though I think writers should understand that not everything can be identified and pointed out as "the problem."

It's just like reading a book you picked up in the store. It's a good concept and you liked the first few chapters or even the entire thing, but there's just something about it that isn't doing it for you. It's often the difference between 'I liked this book' and 'I loved it.' You can't always pinpoint what it is, but you know when it's not there.

I feel like that made absolutely no sense now, sigh. Oh well.

Thanks for sharing, Nathan!

Bane of Anubis said...

Yeah, vagueness/formulaicness on a partial/full rejection can be frustrating, but in some ways, I think it's better b/c it helps reduce the brooding period and panic editing.

PS - Merry Nathan's Christmas. Hope the Kings come up w/ another Tyreke type draft.

Anonymous said...

As someone who had a partial requested and then rejected by you last week, I appreciated the vagueness of your reject.

I've had other agents give a detailed list of crap they hated on twenty pages -- and their assesment of the plot/characters didn't (even remotely) match the characters in my book. Wrong sex for the MC, wrong plot, location, and even the mention of the title was inacurate. It only made me think the agent was sort of a know it all, though they knew nothing.

A polite "no thanks" always fares better than something that makes you laugh out loud AND question the agent's sanity.

Anonymous said...

I've had form rejects for requested fulls. Now THAT stings! :)

Remilda Graystone said...

That makes a lot of sense, and I'd be afraid of leading someone astray too. Thanks for explaining it to us!

Sandy Shin said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. :)

Josin L. McQuein said...

Vague is still a step up from a form letter consisting of: Not for me, thanks.

And while that's pretty clear, it's still annoying after waiting three months for someone to read. It seems like the "not for me" part would be obvious much sooner.

Any extra hint, even vague ones, can help. It might click with something the author already knew didn't feel right but couldn't quite figure out why.

Lynn Mitchell said...

Makes good sense.

greatwritingexperiment said...

I think will avoid looking too deeply at rejection letters in the future.

Lisa said...

Great post! And good to know.

Margaret Yang said...

I have to politely disagree with a few of my fellow commenters.

I prefer a form rejection--for partials, even for fulls. After the word "no" what more do you need, really?

I have a critique group for crits. I don't need a critique from an agent or editor who is saying no. When the publishing pro says "yes," THAT'S when I want my critique (i.e. editing letter).

Mira said...

I think you're being very responsible. You're being careful with your power, and I respect that.

Joanne Sheppard said...

Personally, I think writers who expect/want a detailed critique from every agent who rejects them are being a little lazy - it's almost as if they expect to be able to use the query process as a free advice/critique service, rather than seeking advice or critiques themselves. I have seen comments from would-be authors on a certain website where people have said, "I know this needs some work, as it's only a first draft, but I'm going to submit to a few agents - they'll be able to tell me what needs fixing before I start work on the next draft."

Ed Miracle said...

Dear Mr. Bransford, Thank you for submitting your story, REJECTION, for our consideration. We are returning your partial, as this project is not right for us at this time.

(Even though it was a very considerate, and well considered post.)

Lisa Yarde said...

Your rejection letter to me wasn't vague: not right for me. I didn't puzzle over what I hadn't done to gain your interest, it was sufficient response. I think it's impossible to expect a full explanation for every submission, because agents do more than respond to queries. It is fair however to expect more if a full has been requested.

Kelly Wittmann said...

Excellent policy, Nathan.

Draven Ames said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mayowa said...

Great explanation, Nathan.

Thanks

Steppe said...

Great post Nathan.
It is about selling and personal taste matters a lot when the first person is trying to convince the second person who has to keep that chain alive until a publicist positions themselves to convince an audience to buy a book.

In adult literature is there a genre that tends to satisfy you more than others such as thrillers, mysteries or urban fantasy. Is a certain stylistic quality present in each genre that deals with depth of setting, depth of character exposition, underlying moral conflicts of a identifiable type.

An agent knowing their own preferences is as important as a writing finding an agent that wants the story style and range of engrossment with a type of story they feel they can immerse themselves in. I pursue agents I know enjoy huge epics with one or two MC a ensemble supporting cast and a large ideological struggle that ends in solution by battling over the outcome.
The opposite is following the X-Factor
approach where the entire piece has its own internal symmetry and consistency and appeals to a more non-linear sensibility; a worldview approach where the reader ends up understanding the narrators world view.

I don't personalize rejection it is a waste of time and energy.
Great post.

A Paperback Writer said...

Nevertheless, a brief, vague, and PROMPT rejection letter from an agent is still better than nothing at all, particularly when the agent being queried does not specifically indicate that s/he will only respond if interested.

Magdalena Munro said...

I think it stinks that I'm not allowed to tell candidates why they didn't get a job and that legally I have to keep it vague and/or lie. It's why I'm working on my current project. You're lucky though in that you have the freedom to give honest feedback.

When my last boyfriend (before I met my super awesome husband) dumped me he told me "I can't put my finger on it. We're great, you're great, it's great, but it's just not right." He was pretty vague but actually spot on.

As long as vague=your own truth, I'm fine with it. If vague=avoidance/fear of wounding aspiring writers, not so much.

greenlinnet said...

Thanks, Nathan, for the wise post. I often hear other writers dissecting a rejection letter (yes, myself included) as if the agent broke up with them and they have this deep need to understand why. Sometimes, as you stated, the agent's "just not that into you." No particular reason. Move on.

Terry Towery said...

Sigh. I never got far enough for a partial request, although your form rejection of my query and first few pages was certainly polite! :)

WriterGirl said...

I think it's quite rude to expect a detailed rejection letter from an agent. After all they are just considering your work, you haven't paid them for anything and it's not your job to critique every potential client!

Lauren Johnson said...

I equate rejection letters to hearing from an interviewer. Any answer is better than no answer at all!

I've sent out manuscripts to publishers and literary agents well, one each, who have approached me!

And I've heard nothing back. I'll take vague any day over silence.

But you are right about the dissecting part. Just like job interviews people want to know what they did wrong so they don't repeat it again. I know it's a lot to ask for so I don't expect it.

mary said...

This is where the reality pendulum slams heavy into the fact that writing (at the “I want to be published” level) is a business. I mean, yes, we authors cut our hearts out to bleed all over the computer as we tap away our chef d'œuvre, but when it’s all said and done, we are working professionals. (Er…right?) In any other arena of the business world where products are considered or interviews given, a “no thanks” without the extra attention to sandwiched explanations and personalized critiques is the norm. In such cases, it would be considered unprofessional to demand further evaluation. So why is it so hard for us authors to make that mental switch? That’s all it is right? A brain switch. Flip left to access creativity. Flip right to access the reality that Nathan Bransford (or any other agent) is running a business (and doing a darn good job of it too). And so are writers...which means we use our critique groups and editors for actual critiques, and value the publishing agents as publishing agents.

Although, for the record, I like the sandwiched explanations.

Jessica said...

I would much rather have a prompt "No thanks" than a two-month-later in-depth no.

P.A.Brown said...

I would take any agent's comments with a grain of salt. I've heard of too many authors who had their work rejected by one agent who went on about how weak the characters were, but the plot was phenomenal. Then another agent will reject it on a partial or even a full with a detailed analysis of why the plot was riddled with holes, but she loved the characters.

An author who tries to fix their ms based on those comments is as likely to destroy a perfectly good book and still not have an agent.

Personally I'd rather just have a 'Thanks, but not for me' than some vague comment that could be taken a dozen ways and just drives me and other authors crazy.

D. G. Hudson said...

Thanks for providing the background on the rejection letters that you send.

Most writers DO want any little tidbit of advice, and we DO fixate at times. Isn't that part of our creative energy? (It's generally the same for most artists, musicians, chefs, etc - we all want to know if you like what we've created.)

Aside from writers' needs, it takes an honest agent to explain part of his decision process, and that's appreciated.

Cushnoc said...

Very interesting post. I was just agonizing the other day about whether to respond to a reject--wherein the agent claimed vague problems with my plot--by asking specifically where the plot sagged. I'm assuming then, Nathan, you'd advise against that?

Thanks.

Rosie E. Scott said...

I believe that a brief, non-specific rejection that the writer's work is "not the right fit for the Agent" is adequate enough, as you are right in what one Agent will like and feel re a "zing", another may not. And silence can often say more than no reply at all. (I did not realize that writers analyzed things so much re rejection, etc.; thank you for providing that small insight, Nathan).

swampfox said...

Reminds me of being a teacher. Try writing feedback on 150 writing assignments everyday.

I'm so glad I just teach art now.

DazzledGirl and Braticas said...

I've done research on this but haven't found any helpful answers. How does one get an agent to read a literary blog? Julie and Julia is an example? How does a blog or it's concept become a book? Promoting only does so much.

ryan field said...

I like vague. I wish book reviewers were vague sometimes :)

Rehman said...

Impressive, really.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Nathan. It can be hard to be honest and kind at the same time, somehow, you manage to do it. A great reminder that REJECTION is not always bad.

GeeGee55

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm glad you explained it. Most writers scour these letters looking for a clue, and if nothing stands out that was necessarily wrong, a vague rejection makes sense.

Emily Casey said...

I appreciate rejections that mention some reason for the rejection, whether or not it's vague. Something along the lines of: 'the voice didn't grab me' or 'the characters didn't jump off the page' or whatever is fine. If I get more than one rejection that says, 'the tone isn't working for me', then I know that's something I need to work on.

Sara Martin said...

I was wondering something about matching your book to the right agent. I appreciate that agents, in general, only take on projects that they feel really passionate about. I can imagine there are probably a fair amount of books where an agent likes the writing, likes the book, but just doesn't LOVE it. In those cases, do agents ever refer the work to a colleague for whom that story might be a great fit? Do agents ever make such suggestions in rejection letters? Just curious...

CFD Trade said...

Well, it would really be nice to find a good sounding board for your work like a mentor. Freelance editors nowadays are really not practical. What do you think?

Kathryn said...

I understand. I'd get annoyed when I see the form rejection since I'd be wondering if there's something right in front of my face that I'm missing and the agents would just rather be polite than point it out. Still, your point makes sense and it's good to keep in mind that there's a lot of subjectivity in this industry and if it's not right for the agent, then it's not right for the agent.

Levonne said...

That makes absolute sense. I have received over 100 rejection letters from agents. I've been hard at work. Haven't received an acceptance letter yet.

Tessa Quin said...

I have a question for you; how many requested full manuscripts do you reject vs. approve and sign?

Francine said...

Hi,

I've always imagined a literary agent's desk as a bit like a lottery drum - pull one from the masses and if the title and first few lines grab one by the throat give it a quick browse, and if totally hooked after that give it further consideration.

Why would you do more than that, I don't in a bookshop when buying. It either gets the thumbs up or big downer!

best
F

GhostFolk.com said...

Hi, Margaret.

I have a critique group for crits. I don't need a critique from an agent or editor who is saying no. When the publishing pro says "yes," THAT'S when I want my critique (i.e. editing letter).

And may I politely disagree with you?

My first published novel was rejected with a few notes (on what specifically in the book didn't work for him) from an editor who read the full. I revised immediately and changed specifically what he didn't like and sent the Ms back.

The book was published and received an Edgar Award nomination. It's o.p. now. I did four of them in that series and it was a nice little run.

May I point out that the editor did not suggest changes nor did he suggest I resubmit. He just said what he didn't like. I did the changes and resubmission on my own. In fact, without telling my agent.

The Decreed said...

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with the majority here. While it's true that agents say jump and writers grab a pogo stick, it's hard for me to buy this argument from you personally, Nathan; you, the one who holds query critiques and page critiques weekly and dishes the best criticisms of everyone who comments. I find it hard to believe you don't have some idea on most if not all partials you look at. Other agents, I dunno, but you?

It may have something to do with your confidence in your advice, but--in my humble, poorly informed, altogether worthless opinion--not your ability or insight.

Laurel said...

Thanks for the insight. I know people who've done edits based on any scrap of feedback from an agent and the problem with that is you end up writing for that one person. If you're lucky enough to get responses/feedback from multiple agents and you can see a trend then it's time to take another stab at the MS.

LM Preston said...

Since I've gotten my share of the vague form letters, I'm glad to see why. Also, I'd venture to say, the writer won't make tons of changes based on just one agent's feedback. Someone's trash maybe another's treasure.

Anonymous said...

I thought your rejection on my full was very helpful, Nathan. It also helped me see how taste varies when I got other rejections on my full from other agents who all cited different reasons.

Anyway, I plucked up the courage to ask one of them for more information, and he did a very nice redline of my first 50 pages, and asked me to rewrite.

Lynette

Anonymous said...

You are one class act, Mr. Bransford. Your positive tone and respectful attitude are refreshing and appreciated.

Holly said...

Look, as long as your form rejection letters include all those cryptic clues about the treasure buried under the streets of San Francisco, nobody will mind getting them.

Anonymous said...

"...If I get more than one rejection that says, 'the tone isn't working for me', then I know that's something I need to work on..."


I wouldn't count on it -- especially if it's only for a partial or a few pages pasted in. A LOT of agents have form rejects that say, "I liked the concept but not the voice, blah, blah blah." BUT it's their standard form, they send to everyone. Then you've got all these rejected writers trying to fix some arbitrary thing that isn't really wrong.

Dan said...

I got a response to a query which said, in its entirety:

"Why, God, Why?"

What, if anything, should I read into that?

Dawn Maria said...

Thanks for this insight Nathan. I had two form rejections on partials and I took them very hard, mostly because they weren't personal. Seen from this perspective, I will calibrate my expectations to a more realistic level next time. I wish I had read this post last fall, it would have saved me a lot of heartache!

Nikole Hahn said...

And I don't expect more than a form letter, but getting something personal on it is like recieving an early Christmas present--it's called hope.

Still, I would rather recieve vague feedback than wrong feedback. As a writer, I don't fault you at all.

Great blog!

Marjorie said...

Dan:
Funny! I once sent a short story to a magazine in the morning (regular mail) and the material was returned with the rejection on the same day!

360 feedback said...

Well, if those partial are unnecessary for you then you should not accept them.

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