Editors Blog

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”).

 

1. LAME START

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.

2. ERRORS OF IGNORANCE

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.)

3. OVERLY LONG PROPOSALS AND MANUSCRIPTS

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.

4. MARKETING, PUBLICITY & SALES IDEAS

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?)

5. COVER & INTERIOR DESIGN IDEAS

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.

6. THE HARD SELL

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.)


2014-guide-to-literary-agents

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:

 

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

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.”

    See?

    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,

    Jeremy

  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!

  26. writing202

    Great article and tips. I recently reviewed a writer’s proposal and gave similar advice. She couldn’t believe how wrong I was. I only wish I had this article as back-up. Thanks!

  27. MountainMama

    I am writing a children’s book and the same rings true…the first paragraph must grasp the child’s attention or they will put the book away. Thanks for all the useful tips.

  28. KelinaJ

    Good advice. It’s the sort that people will say, “Well, that’s just common sense!” Well, it is, but most people won’t think of it until it’s pointed out. Nice job doing so. Good luck with the book.

  29. mikaxelise

    Great article. I agree that people shouldn’t try to make suggestions for cover designs, but for a designer like myself, I would love to be able to create my own cover.

  30. hcardenas899

    Wow. I am so sick of hearing how busy editors are. Like everyone else isn’t? They are busy because there are so many writers and such a huge need for written communications. Being busy isn’t a badge of honor, it’s part and parcel of our modern workday. Advice to keep a proposal and manuscript to a reasonable length that can be read in 30 minutes is good, but not because editors are so busy – because you want to throw them to the floor with your incredible craft and get them wanting more, more, more so they contact you and you can develop a collaborative working relationship. Because great writing only needs a short intro like that.

  31. Patsy

    Thanks Chuck. I read your tips and took them to heart. I feel pretty pessimistic about getting my book published in this day and age. Too many people think they can do it. And if you’re already famous, you’re in. Well I’m not famous but I have a good book. Maybe your tips will help me get it read by someone that can lead me to the next step. Most of them I had already heard through other sources (and, well, common sense) but you explain the ideas very well and I’m now a little more motivated. I had to laugh at #5 because I am a retired graphic designer and it’s hard to turn this part of me off when it’s “my baby.”

    1. JennY77

      Actually I was wondering about #5 myself I have artwork that I want to include in my book so the readers could get an idea of what some of the fantasy creatures that exist within my world might look like. I thought a few portraits of some of the main characters who are not human might help the readers imagination along. I also want to include maps because my characters move through multiple locations in my piece of fiction. Is it a bad idea to include your own artwork?

      1. Andrea

        Not at all :))) adds a visual delight to your plot… I myself haven’t done any such thing, but I recently came into possession of a collector’s edition of all Poe’s works, WITH drawings for each and every one of his poems and short stories, done by more or less famous artists… and it’s a real gem. It is close to impossible to make his oeuvre more enjoyable, but these darkly appropriate drawings actually managed to do so…. Hope this helps! :)))

  32. Jeffire

    okay, so like, krissy, grate artical, loved it, absulootly love it, so like i’ve got a 59 page proposal i want u to read, can’t miss, man, solid gold stuff here, have the cover all desinged myself and a promotin campagne all worked up but u did’nt leave yr address–drop me a vine and i’ll let you in on it. Hey, keep writin, The Experts sounds like a grate read.

  33. chrisee

    Guess I’m surprised to think that a book proposal is going to take 30 minutes worth of reading. My eyes would have glazed after 10!! But that aside, thanks for the tips. They’re all solid.

  34. slbainton

    Chris, excellent advice. I would add 3 more reasons, however. First, if you have a successful existing platform (current success in your business, part of a hot public story, etc.) it becomes harder for editors to reject outright your proposal; second, besides a great hook, you need ‘heart’ in the piece. The recent movie, ‘Marigold Hotel’ was initially panned by many critics. This great, charming movie has now achieved over $100m in sales due to its authentic focus; third, great characters can act like irrepressible sales agents for your book. Consider ‘Confederacy of the Dunces,’ and ‘Jaws'; it is difficult for astute editors to reject such singular portraits, such out-of-the-ordinary people. We cannot help but be captivated by such fascinating figures. In short, editors can sniff out that which is not genuine, that which is not heart-felt. In short, don’t worry so much about rejection. Write from the beauty that lies within your own heart…and then share it with the world.
    Regards,
    Stephen Bainton
    http://www.mrmarketing.com

  35. pjohna

    Thanks for the good advice – all common sense stuff, at least if one has the slightest empathy with editors. How about advising us on a really hard one: Titles. I am currently gestating an embryonic novel. It’s called “The Gypsy”. After one has read the novel, one can see why this title works at several different levels and works well, even compellingly. Is this enough to grab an editor BEFORE he’s read the novel, or does he groan? I COULD work in some of the story line into the title; it’s quite dramatic, but do I HAVE to? I like keeping things lean if I can.
    HELP!

  36. lomahuh

    Thanks for these very useful tips. It sounds like, basically, just focus on creating a quality product, then treat the potential buyer as a human being — respect their time and intelligence rather than trying to pump yourself up to dazzle them. I’ll keep these in mind when I’m ready to submit my book.

    I was an expat for a few years and look forward to reading your novel soon!

  37. Netsie

    The Expats: Intriguing title…no idea what it meant. So I googled it. Interesting start….’follows a former CIA assassin who tries to put her past behind her and make a new life with her husband…” (NPR.) Well…we all know that won’t happen easily.
    That’s all you’d need to say in a book proposal? Add how everyone’s lying about almost everything and keeping secrets, even from the most important people in their lives.
    Already want to read more. Love all those devious sneaky types. Just check for typos and you’re done.

  38. CherylOD

    Succinct, bracing advice. Thanks. I’ll heed it, even though publishing seems grim indeed these days. Keep hearing from 30-year veterans that the unknown has no hope or future in publishing, editors and agents are hoarding their name-brand authors, jettisoning midlisters, not considering queries — they’re in survival-mode. A newcomer must sound like a bestseller author or it’s Goodbye Charlie. I keep praying literacy makes a comeback, “The Shallows” and research like it points to an alarming nosedive in attention spans, (and R.I.P. literacy). There’s too much supply (writers) and too little demand (readers). Your book looks really terrific, I still love espionage thrillers like “Eye of the Needle” and others. Best of luck to you.

  39. fetterslopez

    Aren’t these common sense items? Just thought, I’ve heard them bantered about for a few years at least. Yes, rules are made to be broken, but somethings are common sense and why would you. Thanks for putting it out there all the same.

  40. msproulx

    Great advice! It is amazing and at the same time scary to see how many proposals an editor reads each year. Hope to be in the chose one at some point. Will definitely consider these tips.

  41. Su@dreamweavernovels

    Love this list. Most of it I figured or learned already, but it’s all good to know. And would have been even more helpful a few months ago when I started this journey. Will be a great resource for beginners in the literary field. Thanks!

  42. lawrencechristie

    Really enjoyed the article, Chris. Your book sounds terrific. My kind of book! I’m headed to Amazon to check it out. Thanks again for the great tips!

    Christie

  43. lynn33

    I like what you said about making the editor’s love it instead of telling them they’ll love it. And, that said, we have to write something that they’ll love without losing our integrity as a writer. Sometimes, I get lost in my book’s world, but forget that I’m writing for an audience and not just the characters on the page.

    Thanks as always for the great tips!

    1. JennY77

      @lynn33 I know what you mean about getting caught up in your book’s world. I’m writing a sci-fi book and when I write I see the action taking place as images in my head, like I’m watching a movie of it, but then I forget to add all the details I see, forgetting the poor reader isn’t seeing what’s in my head.

  44. r.a.savary

    The most helpful and hopeful tips I get regarding queries and obtaining an agent come as emotional or inspirational insight, rather than knowledge. When I read something about the mental aspects, the correctness of what I’m doing (or not doing) I think, “Yeah, that makes sense,” or, “What an idiot! No wonder they weren’t interested.” But as as an aspiring author, I go through times when I see those mistakes – mistakes which I previously though nonexistent; at those times I need something to make me believe, once again, that my goal is attainable. Whenever I hear someone talk about how an agent or pubisher is deperate to love a new submission, what they are really saying to me is they want to believe in my book – and me, as much as I do; that gives me what I need to rewrite my query or whatever edits I need to do in my book.

  45. PaulaCampos

    Chris, you re-energized me and my dreams of getting published. I’ve always felt strongly about having an attention grabbing start to my work and that I must credit from public speaking courses years ago in college. I am finally at a point in my life where I can dust the
    Keyboard off and clear the cobbwebs and write. Thank you so much for for the inspiration!

  46. Creep Bank

    Mr. Pavone

    You offer realistic advice. I’ve made all the mistakes and errors anyone can imagine and then some.
    I’ve corrected “everything” over and over again. Spent a plethora of money on editors, pitches, writing conferences, college courses. What “one” corrects and tells me to do, another tells me not to do. I always receive the same rejection advice–“absolutely love your book,” “would love to publish it but you’re an unknown, and my favorite one I will never forget: “Keep writing the series. When the economy improves in five years, I know I can really do something for you and your entire series. Keep me posted and in mind.” (Don’t cha just love Catch-22 syndrome people?) As a close professor friend of mine stated in his most recent work: “We love to worship writers, especially if there’s money to be made, then we hang them out to dry.” No wonder American writers are different than British authors. Well, what have I learned from all this advice: “It is essential to the unknown writer’s survival that when the Fortune Hunter’s Lady knocks, do not answer.” Yes, success is not magic, luck is only a state of mind, and thus I move on through the scripts of my life.

  47. MauzeWriting

    Wow. I knew most of that, but some were ideas I’ve seen presented in examples on how to hook an agent. Mostly ‘The Hard Sell’ one. I’ve always read that I should express how great my book is in my query. This does make more sense though. Thank you for making this list! It was very helpful.

  48. Alexandra001

    Hoping to win this giveaway, hoping to get published.

    Just a hopeful writer.

    Thank you for the usable tips.

    MAKE IT A READABLE book!

    Got it.

  49. nash62

    Would an editor really sit still for a 30-minute (or reading equivalent) book proposal? If so, their job is even more difficult than I realized. Thanks for giving us these guidelines. I’d love to find out how you avoided them in The Expats.

  50. Ishmael

    Great tips! They seem like commonsense (and basically are), but I can see how thousands of people make these mistakes. Thanks for reminding us what NOT to do. Best one up there: Lame Start. One really never does get that second chance to make a first impression.

  51. Khara H.

    Thanks for these tips … both I and several writing friends have been working a lot recently on getting works together to send out with queries and book proposals, so this will definitely be an invaluable, and much shared, resource!

  52. shadesdown2001

    This is one of the many reasons why I love this website. It is very educational. Who needs a library of books to learn the Do’s and Don’t’s of writing skills? I have spent countless hours fumbling through page after page on this Writers Digest website getting ALL the material I need to write the perfect book, query letter, proposals, etc… I highly recommend this website.

  53. SimoneSays

    I love brutal honesty, so thank you for these tips.

    I don’t want to write a book proposal. I’m probably going to say that in my query letter. That and “thank you for reading the first page of my manuscript, I hope it’s the next thing you love.”

  54. jasonzalinger

    “Shut up, and throw your best fastball” is clearly the title of Mr. Pavone’s next book on how to “pitch” a book. The baseball metaphor works for me, and I suspect it would work for many. Thank you for great advice. Batter up!

  55. TCW

    Thanks, Chris, for the insider advice. I’m excited to read your book. With regard to your point about a lame start, I’d love to know how editors feel about prologues. It certainly seems like agents are loathe to consider any book that starts with a lot of backstory, but if the prologue is succinct and drives the plot forward (a literary “amuse bouche,” if you will), could an editor get past the fact that it exists? Between a prologue and a flashback, which is the lesser of two evils?

    1. Icewall42

      I would guess that some editors might say to a succinct prologue: “Why isn’t this Chapter 1?” I’ve done a fair amount of editing work (professionally in non-fiction, unprofessionally in fiction), and when I come across a prologue, I either freeze solid or start wondering the same thing. The former, because prologues are often used for entirely the wrong reasons (backstory/history lessons, ugh), or they just don’t start the story quickly enough. The latter, mainly because the author went out of their way to call this thing a “prologue” for, presumably, some reason, even though it reads like Chapter 1. This isn’t to say that a prologue can’t be written successfully–I just can’t bring any good ones to mind at the moment. I even axed the one I had for a novel, and simply started at Chapter 1. I feel it reads better that way (results may vary). As for flashbacks… you’ll find widely varying opinions on that front.

  56. MissScarlett

    A thirty-minute proposal? I’m surprised editors read as many as they do. My eyes glazed over just reading ABOUT the proposals, much less at the thought of actually reading one. Thanks for the suggestions. They help a lot.

  57. S_Lucero

    I honestly thought book proposals were supposed to be like query letters, not novellas. And hardselling a novel? In every single guideline for writing queries that I’ve read, that’s a red-flag for instant rejection. Do some people still suggest putting things like “I’m the next (whoever)” in their queries?

    All-in-all, a good list, especially for those of us who will be writing our first queries soon. Thanks.

COMMENT