“The Great Unspoken” – Why Agents Don’t Critique

by Karen Ball

There’s a secret agents and editors share. Something they seldom discuss with each other, and never with writers. It’s something they dislike. Intensely. It ties their hands when it comes to guiding writers guidance. It’s the #1 reason they turn down proposals, and the #2 (and sometimes #1) reason they’ve gone with form rejection letters. It’s something many inexperienced agents and editors try to change—I know I tried to change it, both as an editor and as an agent. I still try from time to time, but like most editors/agents, so far I’ve had to accept it’s inescapable. And trying to change it costs too much—in time, effort, and heartache.

It’s something we all know. And something we can never say to writers.

It’s something writers always tell us they want to know, but when we speak it, what we get in response, by more writers than you can imagine—and I’m talking about all levels of skill and experience and professionalism—is indignance. Outrage. Sometimes vitriol. About our knowledge, intelligence, and, believe it or not, salvation.

No, that’s not hyperbole. There have been times, when I’ve dared to utter The One Great Unspoken, that I’ve been told I’m stupid, insulting, arrogant, and, yes, unChristian.

But I’m going to try again. I’m going to speak it here, to you. Because I want you to know how we agonize over what we say to writers. How we wish we could just be up-front on this count and know that when we did so, writers would trust that we’re not trying to put them down or put on some false superiority. What we’re trying to do is help them. And be faithful to the task we’ve been given by our employers. Because when we accept a manuscript, we’re making a commitment on behalf of our employers to invest a major amount of money, time, and manpower.

So here it is, The One Great Unspoken. The tacit, time-tested truth many agents/editors hold to:

Thou shalt not comment on a person’s writing inability.

Notice that says inability, not ability. When someone’s writing is good, just not right for that editor or agent, it’s far easier to respond to that. And that’s far easier for a writer to hear than, “I’m sorry, but your writing just isn’t ready for publication.” Or, if we’re totally honest, “I’m sorry, but writing may not be the right career choice for you.”

Please note, I’d never tell someone not to write, period. But not all stories are meant for publication. That’s just one of the many reasons God gives people the task to write. But I also don’t want to give false encouragement. I think it’s wrong to do so.

Before I go on, I want to know what you think about that. You writers, be you new to the craft or someone who has been working hard at it for years—tell me: is saying that cruel, even if it’s the truth, even if it’s said with the utmost kindness? And please, don’t tell me: “You can’t make a statement like that.” Of course I can. It’s my job to decide whether or not someone is ready for publication. And in the process of doing this job, I’ve seen utterly beautiful writing. Writing that makes my heart ache because of truth and power it contains. And I’ve seen a lot of material that is not only not ready for publication, it’s flat-out awful. Painfully so. But do I think the writer of beautiful prose is better or smarter than the other writer? No. If I say someone can’t write professionally, it doesn’t mean I think the writer is awful or stupid or anything negative. I just think they can’t write. Not professionally. I’m not criticizing them personally or spiritually, I’m stating a professional opinion. One I’ve spent over 30 years developing.

But let me—or any agent or editor—dare to say that, and suddenly, no matter how kind we are in saying it, we’re terrible, mean-spirited, cruel, and arrogant. Hateful, even.

So you writers tell me, what are editors and agents to do?

One caveat: this is not the place to tell me what a terrible person I am, or what a bunch of meanies agents and editors are. This is your chance to give me—and the agents and editors out there—honest feedback on what has been a troublesome issue for years.



138 Responses to ““The Great Unspoken” – Why Agents Don’t Critique”

  1. S. Kim Henson December 5, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    I don’t think I would have ever been published if the first editor I submitted to hadn’t made it very clear that my writing was not publishable. She didn’t say those words, but when I asked if we’d be critiquing my article the second evening of a class she was teaching, she said “no” in such a way I knew. I’m forever grateful for her honesty and guidance even though that season in my writing career was painful.

    I have no idea how to fix the problem of others not wanting to hear the truth, but that happens in any line of work (I used to supervise interns at a college – most of them didn’t like feedback either). Yet, I’m still surprised how many writer friends I’ve heard say they’re going to self publish to avoid being edited or they don’t need a writers group with a bunch of people criticizing their work. I’m sure it’s tough for editors and agents because we can be a tough bunch to deal with. Thanks for sharing your side.

  2. V.V. Denman December 6, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    Love this post and all its comments.

    The thought of an agent telling me to give up on publication makes me cringe/shudder/vomit, but I would SO want to know. Good grief, I’ve got other stuff I could spend my time on, right?

    And as far as constructive feedback on proposals, I’m in favor of the tiniest bit of information. (Like I received from a respected agent whose name I won’t drop, but whose initials are S.L.) I respect the fact that agents don’t have time to critique proposals, not to mention its not their job, and I don’t expect a full explanation. Besides, if an agent pointed out everything, I’d go into a depression! But it’s amazing what God can do with a one line response. After stewing for a while, I begin to recognize the problems on my own.

    So, I guess I’m saying: you guys are doing a great job. (Even when we cry and complain.)

  3. Dina Sleiman December 6, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    Coming back to speak again from an editor role. I’ve only seen a handful of submissions that I thought to myself, “There is no amount of training that will bridge the gap between this person and publication.” And those people would have had a hard time passing highschool English. Most of the time, it’s a matter of dedication and hard work, and agents and editors can’t gauge that. I remember a time a lady in my local writers group brought a horrible manuscript for us to critique. I was shocked by how much was wrong with it because she’d already had a request from an editor at conference. But it turned out she was the fastest, most determined learner I’ve ever seen. I think she landed an agent about six months later.

    • sally apokedak December 6, 2012 at 9:09 am #

      Would you say the same was true of other talents? Do you think anyone can learn to sing well enough to sing professionally and anyone can learn to paint well enough to paint professionally?

      On the one hand I think anyone can learn to do any number of things, but I also believe that God has called us and given us ability to do some things well and other things…not so much.

      I will never be a football player. I know the rules, and I can throw and catch and run, but I can never play pro ball. I’m not physically capable of competing against the existing players.

      I wonder if because everyone who has been to first grade knows how to write and sing songs, that makes people believe they have a talent for writing and singing.

      Anyone with fingers is physically capable of writing and anyone with a voice is physically capable of singing. But that doesn’t mean we should attempt to be professional writers and singers. After all, anyone with hands and feet can catch and run with a football.

      I think many of us should write the way others play football: in the street, for fun.

      Or we can make a living as support staff. We can be coaches or water boys or sportscasters. Or editors or agents or booksellers or reviewers or teachers.

      • Dina Sleiman December 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

        I agree about the singing and painting, and it correlates somewhat, but I honestly do think there’s a little bit of a difference with writing. Maybe because it’s both an art and a craft. I’ve seen very talented artists who think they’re above learning the craft side, and they’re probably not going to succeed. And I’ve seen people who I personally don’t find very talented who plug away for ten or twenty years and manage to master a certain genre and get published.

        Of course, maybe it is the same as singing and painting because they all a modicum of natural ability and a whole, whole lot of determination, practice, and teachability.

        Besides, it’s not an editor’s or agent’s place to know who is or isn’t called. I certainly wouldn’t want to make that decision for someone.

  4. Andrea Graham December 6, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    We each own our own opinion and are free to choose to share it or to choose to keep it to ourselves if we think it’d hurt the person’s feelings more than it’d help them grow. In my view, though, the kind, humble assumption, if one can’t think of a single nice thing to say about a manuscript, is that it was just not to our tastes, unless the problem is glaringly obvious–not just that they don’t use the fiction writing techniques that we favor and feel produce the best quality of art, but their fundamental use of the English Language is itself deplorable. When we do see such objectively bad writing, it’s usually accompanied by an attitude that it’s someone else’s job to know how to spell and how to follow the rules of punctuation, word usage, and English grammar. They usually either think that someone should fix it for them or that they should be exempt. Our breath is wasted upon them. Otherwise, fiction writing is an art and what constitutes good quality art is subjective. We can only tell someone what its professional worth is based upon what works in our experience. Another professional down the road from another school of thought might possibly treasure our junk. Remembering that can help us communicate our honest opinion gently.
    For tactful, there is always, “I don’t think commercial writing is right for your voice. Have you thought about going literary?” LOL, I’m mainly kidding about that one. I’m fairly new of an editor, and I’ve already gotten told by authors in essence, “This is a literary piece, it doesn’t have to follow your so-called good fiction writing techniques.” Literary used to mean its quality of art was good enough to study in English class, not that you could be sloppy and do whatever.

  5. Jan Cline December 6, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    I am late to the comment line, but this really is a sore spot with me. As a conference director and leader of a writer’s group I am continually frustrated at the number of writers who are uninformed, by their own choice, about this business. When I start a job, any job, I always find out what is expected of me, what level of excellence I will be called to and whether or not I have the determination to do the job as required. I don’t expect the boss to compliment me when I don’t deserve it or accept my work if it’s sloppy or not up to par. Why is it any different for writers? I know most of us believe we have a calling and that maybe we get to thinking that somehow excuses us from pursuing excellence. But none of us were born with the ability to pen prose perfectly. I’m preaching to myself here too, so I hope I’m not offending. But I want the truth about my writing. How will I ever be worthy of this “calling” if I don’t deal with the advice of those who know more than I do? I don’t like criticism any more than the next writer, but I know it’s a blessing in disguise. I appreciate all you editors and agents who put up with us. Just be kind and I can take it. I CHOOSE to be better for it. Thanks.

  6. Megan B. December 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    There are so many comments here, I couldn’t read them all, so I hope I am not just repeating people. Here’s my two cents…

    When I started writing, years ago, I wrote some real crap. If someone had told me then that my writing wasn’t good enough, I might have stopped and lost out on a wonderful hobby. And then I never would have learned to be a better writer. Most of us suck at first, and some of us submit too soon (sadly).

    My other thought is, we writers are always told how subjective it all is. Bad writing is bad writing, but when you keep hearing “it’s all so subjective,” then it’s hard not to dismiss a comment such as “your writing isn’t good enough.” I think that’s part of the reason some writers react badly to that type of feedback, and put blame on the agent or editor.

    In short, if I were an agent or an editor, I would never tell someone that their writing isn’t good enough. I would just turn them down with a form rejection and move on. Which is what most of you do :)

  7. Eva Ulian December 12, 2012 at 5:48 am #

    I think agents are right to send out rejection slips without saying the work is not up to par; because a)the author will not believe it, tell a mad-man he is mad type of thing; and b) you know the saying, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, you never can tell what that person may go on to do. I do think, however, that it would be much appreciated by an intelligent author if you specify that the work is not suitable or right for your agency at the moment- which translated means you are not a bad writer but you are barking up the wrong tree.

  8. Leslie Miller June 27, 2013 at 7:15 am #

    This is a subject that really speaks to my heart. As a freelance editor, I’ve been asked to work on manuscripts that are so poorly written, I almost wonder if the writers are native English speakers.

    I have looked at manuscripts that were clearly first drafts, that the author could not possibly have even read through a second time.

    I understand having a story to tell and longing to be an author, but what I can’t understand is not being willing to work on the craft of writing. At all! And expecting the editor to somehow pull the book into publishable condition.

    I don’t believe it is an agent’s job to critique a manuscript or query. The time that takes is taken away from getting to the next query, which might be from someone who actually did put in the time to turn out a polished, well written book.

    But a wee hint of why the project was rejected might be considered, in this era of self-publishing, as a public service to all of us! After all, if you reject it without cause, that same writer will probably give up on agents at some point and decide to self-publish, inflicting their poorly written prose on the unsuspecting Kindle loving audience.

    How about a form rejection with a list of reasons for the rejection, and the agent could simply check the box next to the most applicable one?

    For instance:

    Intriguing but just not quite right for our agency.
    Too similar to another project we have in the works.
    Needs extensive polish and revisions in prose, character development, or plot to make it publishable.
    Needs better editing to make it publishable.


    Simply checking the appropriate box would not take forever, and could give the author a clue without actually telling them their writing is–as another editor friend of mine likes to say–criminal.

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