I don’t want anyone who doesn’t want me.
– Oprah Winfrey
Regardless of what you’re writing, a lot of hard work goes into putting together a manuscript. A thousand paper cuts, dead ends, and licked envelopes later, you’re hoping that an agent or editor is going to pick up your piece out of the slush pile, read the words you slaved over, and immediately sign you. Days, weeks, and months go by—normal, considering the rate at which manuscripts are read in any house—and you either hear nothing or receive a response that was not what you wanted.
Why was your work rejected? Though I don’t know for sure in each specific case, here are some common reasons other manuscripts haven’t made it.
1. Writing Quality
This is the last reason anyone wants to hear, but let’s rip the Band-aid off, because this is the number one reason a piece is rejected: the writing quality is not up to par with a particular agent or editor. This can range from personal preference (an individual editor may not like dialogue-driven stories, flowery language, etc.) to, yes, just plain bad writing. Quality of writing not only includes word choice but all the technical aspects of your story, like pacing, characterization, and believability.
With regards to picture book submissions I’ve read in the past, writing quality problems I’ve come across include issues with meter and rhyme in poetry, unrealistic dialogue and behavior (particularly for child characters), and language that is either too advanced or too simplified for the target audience. As for teen and adult writing, common issues include the above problems as well as new issues that arise from having a longer page count, such as describing every single detail, action, or character before even getting into the plot’s catalyst. Before and during your writing process, be sure to read lots of books that target a similar audience to the one you hope to reach, so you can gauge how your writing matches up. Take note of tone and techniques other authors use that make their writing effective.
2. Writing Premise
Sometimes the writing is great, but your topic isn’t a right fit. This ranges from something as obvious as sending an adult manuscript to a children’s publisher (you’d be amazed just how many of these submissions I’ve rejected) to sending a piece that won’t stand out in the market (see my notes on trends). Again, it can be personal preference on the agent’s or editor’s part, but this can be a big marketing point as well. If a house doesn’t feel like your book can sell, they won’t bite. You may want to do your research on niche publishers if you have a book topic that doesn’t necessarily appeal to the masses. If you have a book you think could sell well mainstream, definitely read the bestsellers and keep up with trends.
Originality is the biggest issue that falls under this header. Personally, I’ve read through dozens of picture book pitches whose protagonists are based their authors’ pets. If you want to write about dogs, great! That’s a classic topic that will always interest kids—just make sure that your dog does something unusual. Think about the dog protagonists already out there: Clifford, Snowy, Spot, Kipper, Wishbone, Winn-Dixie, White Fang, Biscuit, Sally, Ribsy, Old Yeller, Shiloh, Sparky—and those are just the names I can think of off the top of my head! A slice-of-life story on a dog isn’t going to sell, plain and simple, but a dog who does something unusual—like flying a rocket ship to the moon, or saving someone who can’t swim from deep water—piques curiosity.
3. Author Self-Indulgence
As their titles suggest, editors help authors edit their work. If an editor sees potential in a piece, he or she is going to be more willing to take on a little extra editorial work to help the book succeed. However, editors aren’t fairy godmothers! If the piece in question requires really extensive editing to reach a certain goal, editors will probably pass on it. Agents also frequently work with authors to polish mss before forwarding work to editors, so they may be willing to do a little more cleaning up, but not much. Don’t finish your manuscript and send it out the same day expecting agents and editors to do all the revising!
Edit your work as many times as possible before sending it out to agents and editors; even if you are a great writer, never think that one or two drafts are sufficient. There’s no set number for how many passes you need to make, but revise the manuscript until you feel it’s the best you can do, then send it out. I’ve read plenty of manuscripts that read like first drafts or had passages that felt like the author just got caught up in his or her own writing and wasn’t putting the story first.
There are hundreds—probably thousands—of reasons why manuscripts are rejected every day, and they range from common mistakes to specific problems with an individual piece. Writing quality, premise, and the author’s self-indulgence are the three biggest reasons I’ve noticed, but these are by no means the only reasons work is rejected. Keep them in mind as you write, though, and avoid these pitfalls!