6 Reasons Editors Will Reject You

Before I wrote my first novel, The Expats, I spent nearly two decades at various arms of publishing houses such as Random House, Workman, and HarperCollins, mostly as an acquisitions editor. But a more accurate title for that job might be rejection editor: while I acquired maybe a dozen projects per year, I’d reject hundreds upon hundreds. And while it may not be possible to pinpoint what exactly makes for a great manuscript or submission, it’s pretty easy to identify some of the avoidable mistakes that can virtually guarantee your project will get relegated to the circular file. See these mistakes below…

GIVEAWAY: Chris is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Lynn33 won.)



Guest column by author Chris Pavone, author of the buzzed-about
novel, The Expats (March 6, 2012, Crown). The thriller debut received
starred reviews from Booklist (“A must for espionage fans”), as well as
Library Journal (“Brilliant, insanely clever, and delectably readable”),
as well as Publishers Weekly (“Fans of John le Carre and Robert Ludlum
will welcome [this] meticulously plotted, psychologically complex spy thriller”).



Whatever’s good about your book should be good on page 1, or very few editors are going to get to page 2. If you can’t figure out how to make the beginning of your book compelling, you’re probably not writing a compelling book.


Although no one loves a typo, it’s close to impossible to eradicate every single little mistake in a manuscript. Typos are usually forgivable (except in a query letter). But what’s not really forgivable is using words or phrases whose meanings you obviously don’t understand.

(Writer’s Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)


Editors read tens of thousands of pages of submissions per year, in their spare time. On weekends, at night in bed, on vacation. If you think any one of them wants to read a 90-page book proposal, you’re out of your mind. Whatever you need to say in a book proposal, say it in less than 30 minutes of reading time. I honestly can’t remember ever rejecting a single proposal for being too short (and I acquired a few books whose proposals were 0 pages long). Say what needs to be said, not more.
As for fully written manuscripts: an editor once confided to me that she refuses to read manuscripts that are longer than 400 pages. None. Automatic reject. And although her stance is the exception, she might be the exception who would acquire your novel if you could trim 150 pages of flab.


Many writers feel compelled to include a section of business-oriented ideas in their pitches or proposals. “My book should be merchandised in the front of the store, in a stack next to the register.” “Window displays would be a natural fit.” “The Today show and The View are perfect publicity venues for this book.” “You know Restoration Hardware? Or Starbucks? They should put my book on their coffee tables.” These are not helpful, actionable suggestions. They’re insults to everyone who spends their professional lives making and selling books.

(Can you re-query an agent after she’s rejected you in the past?)


If you managed to procure a try-out to pitch for the New York Yankees, would you show up to the stadium and present the scouts with a redesigned uniform (“Pinstripes are so 1977!”), and a proposal to move from the Bronx to Coeur d’Alene? Of course not. Shut up and throw your best fastball.


Editors are hoping—they’re desperate—to love it. Every time they pick up a new project, what’s in the front of their minds is, “I hope I love this.” It’s their jobs to find something new to love, and their careers are doomed if they can’t. But here’s a type of thought that never, ever pops into an editor’s head: “Oh, well, Joe Schmo says right here in his query letter that his debut novel An Incredibly Great Book is unputdownable and that he’s the next John Grisham, so we should probably just write the eight-figure check now, before he signs with Amazon.” Don’t tell editors how great your book is. Just make it great.

GIVEAWAY: Chris is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Lynn33 won.)


The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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97 thoughts on “6 Reasons Editors Will Reject You

  1. rutlandwriter

    Loved the tips. Agents and editors really hold all the cards. It’s impossible to know what an agent is feeling in the particular moment that they may read your query. I suppose that makes rejection eaiser….

  2. Richard Mabry

    Great tips. One of the hardest things to learn (and keep practicing) is to write clean, write simple, write short. I like the quote from Blaise Pascal, who said, “I have made this letter rather long as I did not have time to make it shorter.” A thirty-minute proposal? Makes me tired just reading about it.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. dtapley

    I’m the next Hemingway! Here’s a sample:

    “And then she died.

    In the rain.”


    I’m sure any editor would be pleased to accept my excellent manuscript! It’s really excellent! And I’m an excellent writer!

    You can tell by my subtle use of exclamation points!!!!!

    So… (note my excellent use of the ellipsis… or the used of three periods to simulate an ellipsis…), PLEASE pick me — the most promising up-and-coming writer of modern times — as the recipient of a copy of your book!

    You won’t be sorry!

  4. Bryce

    Whew! Made it in under two weeks.

    Great tips. Some even new! You forgot never using exclamation marks, which I don’t ever do in real life, but tend to pepper comments pages with…sometimes ever three for emphasis!!!

    PLEASE choose me to receive your book. I lived as an Expat in France for a year (so I’ve paid my dues) and a year in Scotland and nearly two years in the Netherlands. Got a great idea for an espionage novel in Scotland, but never started it. Perhaps Expat could inspire me!

    Thanks for the insight.

  5. tdaniels

    Chris – Thank you for speaking out of your experiential journey, pouring out some pieces of wisdom. At the core of good writing is life. What you wrote, “6 Reasons … “, are potent guidelines: get a good start; treat the English language and the writing craft with GREAT respect; don’t be a bore, for time is invaluable beyond measure; stick with the writing; don’t tell others how to do their jobs; and don’t tell others how great your writing is – – – talk is cheap … just write, and write well.

  6. Debbie

    This was actually encouraging. As a new writer, I need to learn everything I can to get my first Novel published. It’s good to know I’m doing some things correctly! Thank you!

  7. lgilb26862

    I agree 100% about lame starts. Too many books actually get published with what I consider lame starts. At this point in my life, I have fewer days left to read than those behind me. If a book doesn’t grab me in the first chapter, I am unlikely to continue.

  8. pmillhouse

    Thanks, Chris, for sharing the six steps to avoid when submitting. I think very few people understand what it’s like to be on the other side of that query letter. Your inside experience is valuable.

    Paula Millhouse

  9. delaceyw@yahoo.com

    Well said Chris. Sounds to me like a manuscript should be written like the advice you gave: Not too long, Interesting from beginning to end, something worth remembering and let it sell itself. Thanks for the insight.

  10. LittleBird87

    Am slowly getting to the end of my novel, and am becoming nervous as hell, too. What if all this time I’ve spent is for nothing?? Argh. Great to read your tips on NOT getting rejected, will attempt to follow every one of them!!

  11. writer5512

    These are very helpful for future writers like myself. This way we are ahead of the game and have more of an edge for when we get to the publishing point. These are great things to watch out for, as sometimes we want to explain the whole book to someone instead of letting them discover the story for themselves.

  12. michaelanson

    I think the idea I gathered from Chris Pavone’s advice is: stand out, don’t stick out. Nobody likes a pest or a blowhard. Let your writing speak for itself. I think the occasional, odd publishing story motivates wanna-be writers to follow suit. I’m thinking of how John Kennedy Toole wrote a book called “Condfederacy of Dunces,” but committed suicide before it was published. His mother schlepped it around to agents as a smudged manuscript, but when it was picked up, it won the Pulitzer Prize. We also hear about how Lisa Genova’s novel “Still Alice” was self-published, but found a market and hit the bestseller list. Besides these obvious exceptions, it still pays, apparently, to follow protocol when submitting your novel. Thanks, Chris, for the great advice.

  13. nuckles85

    These are great tips! I’ve always stressed myself on the expected length of a manuscript, and it’s great to see that short & to the point is the editor’s desire. Thanks so much for sharing this information with us!

  14. holdonwinter

    Well, Mr. Chris Pavone, these six rules should become a helpful checklist when editing my next draft.

    I must confess; I’m commenting for the free book. Maybe that is a bittersweet confession. In my defense, I am fairly new to Writer’s Digest Online.

    Best of luck to you,


  15. robinfritz

    Best piece of writing advice I ever came across was simple – take the first 15 to 20 pages of your draft and throw them in the trash. That’s where your story usually starts. Definitely jives with the first item in Chuck’s list.

  16. Anne

    I’m curious, did you mostly get letters and proposals from agents? Or directly from authors as well? I’m surprised that given all the information on how to submit a query letter or proposal, people are still audacious enough to think they’re smarter than that! Looking forward to reading your book!

  17. dwmillersf

    Great read. I particularly liked your comments about editors being hopeful and desperate to read something with potential. I always pictured editors as looking for any reason to reject a manuscript (not because they are heartless…simply because there are weekly tsunamis of submissions). But your article gave me a better perspective. An editor’s job is to find that gem. Really helpful. Thanks!

  18. DFranM

    Years ago, I was an editor at a small book/magazine publishing house. Maybe it was a 1980s thing, but often I received submissions with the proposal printed on brightly colored paper and/or typed in an unusual font. The writer was trying to get our attention, I suppose, but all it did was give me a headache. For the well being of all editors out there, I sincerely hope that THIS phase has passed.

  19. radulovich

    Lands sakes alive! I am amazed schools are turning out graduates who already consider themselves writers. Granted, a vivid imagination is a prerequisite for fiction, but in addition to educational instruction and great advice in the form of dos and don’ts, it would come in handy to have some living under your belt. Being seventy-two years old and having just written my first novel, I cannot imagine sitting down to write without a story (novel) burning a hole in your brain. Ergo, my comment is: yes, the opening is important, but not the end all. More important, my advice to readers is: perhaps the author’s opening is purposely trying to create a lull in line with the characters and the moment. How about giving the writer a true chance to tell their story? How about discovering that particular author’s style? Here’s to masters of the past who didn’t write clever, choppy sentences and would have been immediately rejected by the agents of today. Smile.

  20. rhenwilson

    Excellent post. I had no idea people would ruin their chances by trying to control the cover art. I hope they’re reading this though.

  21. authordonna

    I found your information very helpful. As a college creative writing instructor, for years, I told my students what too many agents had told me–include a marketing strategy in your proposal. You have explained the folly of that very well. I will be including your advice in my future lessons. Thank you.

  22. Quieezle

    I have to admit that I almost bypassed your article this evening because of how many other pieces of this nature that I’ve read, articles that seem to end up sucking the confidence out of my head so badly that all I am left with are fingers that freeze themselves in place around the end of my pen. I am so new to this world of writing that losing what little belief I have in myself after reading an article of so-called-sage-advice from a pro seems to be the norm, not the unusual. But not with you. I needed to hear what you had to say and am happy to have given you a chance…thank you for your frank and honest advice, it is greatly appreciated.

  23. MichelleAntonia

    Great tips. As a reader for a film production and management company, I know the feeling of wanting to love it all too well. Along with 1-3. But these things can never be stated enough. Thanks for the reminder!

  24. RobynLCoburn

    I’d like to win a copy of the book, especially if it’s for Kindle.

    I see similar errors from screenwriters, especially “this will be the greatest movie ever made” hyperbole. If those big stars are so interested, why are you pitching it so hard to little old me?

    Sounds like a lot of us could use an article on the difference between a query letter and a proposal.

  25. kheinitz

    Your comments make sense. Who would want to read long boring proposals, telling the person how to do their job when they are the experts? I would think anyone would find that insulting, no matter what occupation you have.
    Thanks for the tips!


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