So after writing the perfect query letter, you’ve gotten in touch with agents and publishers. You’ve been waiting anxiously to hear back. Finally, you get an email—but not the one you wanted: we regret to inform you, the message begins. And while this letter may be very polite and non-judgmental, it probably won’t be especially helpful. Due to time constraints, a lot of agencies won’t actually tell you why, exactly, your manuscript was rejected.
Whether you’re a writer just beginning the querying process, or an old hand trying to re-strategize after being rejected during your previous try, it’s important to understand common flaws that might be the reason why your manuscript was rejected. This can help you make sure that the manuscript that you send out is the best that it can possibly be.
So here are a few potential reasons why your manuscript was rejected:
1) You didn’t follow the rules.
Every agency and publisher has their own set of submission guidelines. Comb the company’s website in order to locate these requirements. If they ask for ten pages, send ten pages—don’t send an extra page or two because “wait, this is where it really gets good.” If they ask for the first three chapters, send three chapters exactly, no more, no less.
2) You didn’t proofread.
Nothing disengages an agent or editor more than sloppy writing. Check your work for typos and grammatical errors. While a few misspelled words or comma splices might be okay—after all, no one expects you to be perfect—a ton of these mistakes make you seem thoughtless and unprofessional. Find a beta reader who will look through your work and catch these mistakes. If you need to, hire a professional copy-editor.
3) Your manuscript is too long or too short.
Know the industry standards for your genre and target audience. Adult novels are typically between 70,000 and 90,000 words; however, fantasy and science fiction can get away with being a bit longer, and romance novels can be a little shorter. YA novels are usually between 55,000 and 70,000 words. To make sure that your work is the right length, compare your manuscript to other recently published books by debut authors in your field.
4) Your book starts with a prologue.
Many agents flat-out hate prologues. Why? According to author Dan Koboldt, it’s because many prologues are just plain unnecessary. They often include irrelevant backstory that would be more effective if it was organically weaved into the body of the novel. Consider ditching the prologue in order to start your book right in the meat of the story.
5) Your protagonist is unlikeable.
To be clear, there are plenty of books on the market with anti-heroes that are weak-willed, mean-spirited, or incompetent. That’s not what I mean by likability. Your main character has to be someone that the audience cares about, relates to, and roots for. Admittedly, this is an amorphous quality that’s difficult to pin down. My advice? If your beta readers tell you that they have a hard time connecting to your protagonist, it’s time to go back and reconsider your characterization.
6) Your characters are flat.
Your book should be populated with people, not caricatures. Make sure your characters are complex and nuanced. One exercise you can try: create character sheets. Try to figure out the background and motivations of your most important characters. Are any of them a little too one-note—i.e. Character X’s only motivation is an irrational hatred of the protagonist; Character Y only exists as a romantic interest, etc. Flesh out your characters until they feel less flat and more real.
7) Your book doesn’t have a plot.
What’s your book about? If you can’t answer in a single sentence, your manuscript might be missing an actionable plot. Other signs: uneven pacing, a missing antagonist, a lack of conflict, a brief and shallow climax (aka the anti-climax), an abrupt conclusion.
8) Your tone is…unpleasant.
Let’s not sugar-coat this: manuscripts that are blatantly racist, sexist, or bigoted in any other way goes into the reject pile. Usually, a good beta reader will be able to tell you when you’ve crossed the line.
9) Your book is too complicated.
While established authors can get away with publishing books in experimental formats—for example, Mark Z. Danielewski’s recent The Familiar, an 800-page tome that is the first of a 27-book series— new authors have to be a little more conventional. Frankly, complicated books are harder to market and sell, and your work might end up being rejected out of necessity.
10) Your book just wasn’t a good fit.
Maybe that agent just isn’t representing psychological thrillers right now, or that publisher already has a full line-up of military science fiction. As I’ve said before, research can help you target agencies and publishers who would be interested in representing your work.
However, even publishing professionals who work in your genre aren’t going to like every genre-appropriate manuscript that slides across their desk. Personal tastes are just that—personal. Unlike other items on this list, this isn’t something that you can prevent. All you can do his keep your chin up and resubmit to a different agent or publisher.
The final verdict?
Rejection, unfortunately, is a core aspect of being a writer. At the end of the day, you might never know exactly why your manuscript was rejected. However, don’t let rejection kill your spirit or soften your desire to publish your work. The best thing for you to do is use rejection as an opportunity to learn and grow.
What do you think? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are struggling with rejection?