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.
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!
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 says
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.
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 says
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.
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.
You are one class act, Mr. Bransford. Your positive tone and respectful attitude are refreshing and appreciated.
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.
"…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.
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 says
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 says
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.
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 says
Well, if those partial are unnecessary for you then you should not accept them.