There's a reason most agents and editors send out form letters when they're rejecting material. It's not just because form letters save time. It's because most of them have learned, through bitter experience, that even the most tactful suggestions and the most constructive criticisms are too likely to earn them a nasty note — or, worse, a nasty phone call — from the writer.
This is unfortunate, because it sets up a Catch-22 for everyone. Agents and editors rarely offer genuine critiques because they don't want to waste their time giving advice to someone who may not appreciate it and who, likely as not, will take offense at it. Writers collect a pile of rejection letters, all saying more or less the same thing, and have no idea why their book idea isn't going anywhere. Without the input of professionals in the publishing business, writers don't know what to change in their proposal or manuscript to make it more salable, and agents and editors don't get the quality projects that might be worthwhile because writers don't get that input.
When you do receive comments along with a rejection, you have to decide first whether you think the criticism is valid and then whether you want to make changes based on the comments. These are entirely your decisions, and that can provide some balm when the soul is bruised.
The Value of Comments
Many writers expect personalized comments from agents and editors and are offended when they receive a form rejection letter. Worse, many writers who do receive comments don't understand the true value of those few words penned at the bottom of the standard rejection. An agent or editor who has taken the time to jot you a note about your material — assuming, of course, that the note is constructive and helpful — has given you a rare gift that most aspiring writers never will receive. To take this gift in the spirit in which it is intended, place yourself in the agent's or editor's chair for a moment.
Agents and editors receive an astounding volume of submissions every day. Because their business hours are consumed with the myriad duties surrounding existing clients and pending projects, the typical agent or editor spends her evenings and weekends going through the never-shrinking stacks of proposals and manuscripts from unknown, would-be authors. Probably 99 percent of those submissions will receive the standard rejection. But it is that 1 percent that keeps agents and editors reading; they are forever looking for that promising proposal by a talented new writer that merits further consideration. The ones that show potential but aren't quite ready for the market yet are the ones that receive personalized comments.
What an agent or editor is really telling you in her comments is that you have caught her attention, enough to make her take a break from the routine of reading and rejecting and write you a note. She's offering you her professional advice, at no cost or obligation to you, and most likely she's doing it on her personal time. Even if you don't like what she has to say about your work, it's important to understand the generosity she has shown in sharing her time and her experience with you.
Most of us slide headfirst into defensive mode when we receive criticism of any kind, whether it's about how we fix dinner or how we write; it's a natural human reaction. Some forms of criticism are harder to take than others, of course. Constructive criticism, which offers suggestions for improvement, usually is less emotionally provocative than criticism that doesn't include such helpful advice. In the course of your writing career, you're likely to run into both kinds, so the first step in dealing with criticism is to learn the difference between the helpful and the not-so-helpful kind.
It's one thing to say you should shrug off unhelpful criticism, and it's another to put it into practice. Try thinking of it this way: Agents and editors who make sweeping, unhelpful remarks are not the agents and editors you want to work with anyway. Keep searching until you find one willing to offer constructive suggestions.
Unhelpful criticism comes in the form of broad, nonspecific statements attacking either the project or you: “This idea is terrible,” or, “You'll never be published.” You can't respond to this kind of criticism because there's nothing to grab hold of. If the critic doesn't give you an inkling of exactly what he thinks is wrong with your material, you have no roadmap for making changes. Your best option in this case is to shrug it off and move on to other agents or editors.
Constructive criticism does give you something to grab hold of. If an editor rejects your novel with a note that the beginning chapters don't do enough to draw in the reader and set up the rest of the story, that's something you can examine and, perhaps, change. If an agent says your nonfiction proposal needs to be more tightly focused for a specific market, that's advice you can act on if you choose.
To Change or Not to Change
You are the final judge of whether the changes suggested to you should be implemented. The proposal or manuscript, after all, is your work. Sometimes writers feel that the very essence of their work would be destroyed if they made changes according to an agent's or editor's fancy. That's a valid point of view, but sometimes it carries a high price: failure to get published.
How can I tell if criticism is valid?
Lots of constructive criticism is subjective; you may run into an agent or editor whose tastes simply don't match yours. However, if you receive the same type of comment time after time, this is a good indication that the criticism has merit, and you should take another look.
The trick is figuring out what is important to you and to what degree. Think about the discussion in Chapter 1 about the passionate project versus the business project. If you're like most writers, there will be situations where protecting the integrity of your work is more important to you than getting published, and there will be situations where the opposite is true. The good news is that this determination is entirely yours, and it will be entirely yours for every single project throughout your career.