The 5 Reasons Your MS Keeps Getting Rejected

Ever wonder why you keep getting all those form rejections from agents and editors?

When I was in college, there was a guy in my Early American Lit class who complained that he didn’t understand why the teacher even took his papers, she ought to just carry a big rubber stamp so she could stamp “C-” on his right there at his desk.

This is a very hard way to live, people, and yet it’s the way so many aspiring writers do.

Therefore, without further ado here’s the brutal truth, from an independent editor who loves you:

  1. Your story is badly-written.

    You haven’t bothered to pay your dues. You thought you were going to fly through writing a book like you flew through your wedding, high as a kite on the excitement and with no idea what you were going to do about it afterward. Years and years of sweat and tears and patient toil did not even occur to you.

    Go to the library, go to your local community college, go to your mother’s bookshelves, and find the classics. Read them. Not, you know, antiquated language like Cervantes or that pantywaist Hawthorne or difficult language like Faulkner or Joyce or Gertrude Stein (for god’s sake, not Burroughs). But straight-forward writers like Dickens and Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor and Dashiel Hammett and Edith Wharton and P.G. Wodehouse and Isak Denisen and Ivy Compton-Burnett and Maxine Hong Kingston and Raymond Chandler and Elizabeth Bowen and Irene Nemirovsky and Conrad and Updike and Bellows and Saligner and Kerouac and Graham Greene and, if you can take his subject matter, Paul Bowles. Read books in which every single word was chosen specifically for where it is. No getting down the general gist. No leaning on popular culture to hold up the sentences. No hoping the reader won’t notice. Every single word. Read books that were—as they once were in all the major American publishing houses, although they really aren’t much anymore—well-edited.

    Sit yourself down and study those sentences. Learn how to choose every single word specifically for where it goes. Learn how to be even better with sentences than the greats, because you’re probably not going to get edited. (You’ll fail, but, you know, too bad for you. These are the times you live in.) No cheating.

    Do this forever.
  2. Your story is badly-plotted.

    Who is this character all alone in the hook? Why do they disappear forever on page 10? What’s with the guy with the mustache on page 37? Where did the heroine go? How come the hero doesn’t appear until page 214? Why is that dog always underfoot? You pantsed this damn thing, didn’t you?

    Take apart your favorite classics to find the essential building blocks: hook, conflicts, faux resolution, climax. Find them. They’re there.

    Sit down and learn how to design a proper plot. Do not get up until you have.
  3. Your imagination is unoriginal.

    CLICHE CLICHE CLICHE. Stop it! You’re making professionals in the industry hate you!

    If you don’t want to learn to develop your imagination, fine. Don’t. Nobody’s forcing you to try to get published. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head and walking you and that stack of queries out to the mailbox. “Mail those, or I shoot.” You’re a free agent.

    Take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I really, at heart, a professional writer? Do I really want to spend the rest of my life digging deep, deep into the world around me for the things I didn’t realize I see or hear or think or misunderstand and then pull them like worms out of their holes out onto the paper, where I can spend about seven years arranging and rearranging them until they say something they didn’t say out there where anyone could see them? In the correct order? So they satisfy NOT my secret eternal longings but those of a whole lot of anonymous readers out there I will never get a chance to know? And also, by the way, learn to play the whole, long, convoluted, difficult business game that goes with publication these days—not just to play it, but to become an expert at it? Really?

    “Or do I just want people to pay attention to me?”

    Because there are all kinds of great ways to get attention besides throwing a few words on paper and trying to pass the buck.

    Reality TV springs to mind.
  4. Your story is well-written, your plot is well-structured, your imagination is great. But. . .


    Oh, so sad. Boo-hoo. You’ve had a hard life. Me too. The agent too. The acquisitions editor too. The publisher too. We’re a bunch of sad sacks. The publishing industry’s full of ruined humans.

    This one is hard to combat. This one is a real stickler. Because, let’s be honest here, we all feel sorry for ourselves sometimes. You know what’s a good thing to do at those times? Walk away from the page!

    And when you come back, sit down and begin to take simple, impartial, non-judgmental notes on the details of the world around you. Cart your notebook with you when you go places, not so you can jot down profound thoughts and exciting truisms (they’re all going to read like so much uninspired nonsense when you get home anyway), but so you can stop constantly and take notes on the places you go and the people you see. I don’t bother writing down scraps of conversation—people rarely say anything particularly noteworthy in public. (God knows, I save all my best lines until I’ve got my audience cornered in private.) But record the world. This is the world you live in. It’s the world your characters live in, too.

    You are here to give it immortality.
  5. You’re one heck of a writer, and you’ve written one heck of a book. But you know what?

    You’re a little peanut. Floating on a very big, very rough, very, very, very littered sea. Everybody out here’s a peanut. (Except the folks on the NY Times best seller list, who are lying on deck chairs on a cruise ship on the horizon, trading witticism about litter on the waves in the golden sunset. Stephen King is the one wearing the captain’s hat.)

    If we all got together, we could squish ourselves up and make peanut butter.

27 thoughts on “The 5 Reasons Your MS Keeps Getting Rejected

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    Really enjoyed having these hard truths down in black and white. Thanks for the honesty – and the humor!

    For the record, I like my peanut butter crunchy so let’s not puree ourselves too finely.

  2. How refreshing to hear the naked truth in this funny, poignant way, Victoria. Art is hard work, writing is art, and there is no country like America where the fierce spirit of democracy makes everyone a writer. The blogging culture doesn’t help…
    I would add to your recommendations the great writers who present difficulties to our reading as their language can trigger serious awareness and learning: Henry James or Nabokov and Gertrude Stein are very readable and tons can be gained from the experience of engaging with them. This said, everyone will have role models and muses to add. An easy, sweet and brilliant one: Jane Austen! Any day.

  3. Kathryn says:

    A while back, you’ve could have added this one in regard to me:

    6. You won’t listen to your editor!

  4. Thanks for this, it made me laugh!

  5. Victoria says:

    Renate, I just saw your site and the photobiography of Stein. No wonder you’re interested in her work!

    Stein can be quite daunting for beginners, as can most of the greats who worked from within their own cutting-edge literary theories. Frankly, Virginia Woolf—while a genius—produced boring novels. Stein was a phenomenon, but I do not recommend her for beginners who just need to learn how to write clear, clean stories in simple, detailed, straight-forward scenes.

    I also deliberately steered clear of James and Nabokov. I use James to illustrate a couple of important techniques in The Art & Craft of Fiction, but, again, his language—while impeccable—can be thick wading for beginners. (I have a theory about that based on his passive-aggressive friendship with Edith Wharton.) I do have a piece on the structure of “The Aspern Papers” that’s going into my next book on fiction.

    And Nabokov. . .well, you’ve just got to take a lot into account when you read Nabokov. Extraordinary stylist though he was.

    I left out Austen—as much as I love her and as much as I use her in The Art & Craft, particularly for dialog—because her language is kind of stilted for today’s beginners, meaning you have to understand how to translate that into simple modern sentences. Ditto for Emily Bronte, whom I also consider one of the all-time greats of the greats.

    I also left out the Russians. Dostoyevsky was a genius and a wonderful writer, but, man, those novels are looooooong.

  6. Victoria says:

    Kathryn: ref: listening to your editor.

  7. “Not, you know, antiquated language like Cervantes or that pantywaist Hawthorne or difficult language like Faulkner or Joyce or Gertrude Stein (for god’s sake, not Burroughs).”

    Why on earth not??

    With all due respect, this seems a little condescending.

    I’m an editor and teacher too and know that there’s plenty of bad work–and, specifically, bad, pretentious work–out there. But I don’t see how setting out rules on what aspiring writers should and shouldn’t read is going to help do anything but further dumb down–and numb down–literary culture.

  8. Victoria says:

    Yeah, Cara, I figured English teachers would object to that.

    Why not? Because there’s a huge disconnect out there in the minds of a lot of aspiring writers these days between “literary writing” and “our writing.” Haven’t you seen it? I hear it all over the place. A serious sense of antagonism, of “you traditionalists think you’re so hot. Well, you sure don’t rule the industry anymore, smart guys.”

    And they’ve got a good point. Particularly in this era, when the craft of beautiful line editing is dying on the vine. Trying to teach aspiring writers to appreciate a style of writing completely removed from the way they live and speak in the world, as if that were good simply by virtue of being traditional, is condescending.

    I really want aspiring writers to understand that good writing is good writing. And the only way for them to learn that is by reading great writing they can understand with the skill set they have right now. Once they learn it, though, the whole world of literature—including Faulkner and Joyce and Stein and even Cervantes—is open to them.

    And that’s the goal, however you get there.

  9. Victoria says:

    Now wait, guys. Are Marisa and I the ONLY ONES who are going to be peanut butter? Because that’s not going to make a whole lot, you know.

  10. James Baron says:

    Not a peanut yet…but hope to be one someday. I am currently working on writing four novels this year, in four different genres. I finished the first draft of two of them: YA/Teen and Children’s. I am currently working on the Sci-Fi and the Thriller while my editor/proof reader works on the first two. It is quite a challenge and I am learning to kill your darlings—which can be tough.

    Thanks for sharing, Victoria.

    Continuing on my write of passage,
    James Baron

  11. This is a good list. I also posted a similar post from Editor, Wendy Loggia on 7 Reasons Why Your Manuscript Gets Declilned:

  12. Jane Steen says:

    Can you hear me cheering from here? Especially about the writers who feel sorry for themselves. Oh, those bitter and twisted writers who’ve decided that everyone else is wrong and that they’re not being published because the whole world has somehow lined up in a conspiracy against them. The path of literature is littered with the corpses of unacknowledged Great Geniuses, guys. Get over it and go write marketing copy for a few years.

  13. A comical look at the way it should be.. a great read.. just like my novels posted on LOL

    found u in twitter tweets from elizabeth craig.. going to RT this blog.. Awesome stuff here 🙂

  14. Glynis Smy says:

    An informative post, thank you. It ties in with mine. I have shared how I consider my edits might have improved.
    I am realistic, I am sure I won’t be published. I do know one thing though, I will be finished. My MS will be as polished as I can get it.

    By coincedence, I have just picked up Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. It is next on my reading pile.

    Little Peanut made me smile. In school the boys teased me with that one. I was flat chested. LOL, it seems it will stay with me now.

  15. June Sengoiehl says:

    This is very true and worth saying. One of the myths of writing is that all a person has to do to sell anything is write it down once. Many beginners don’t understand these truths so it is important to
    say them.

  16. John Dray says:

    That reminds me of a half-day I spent in a publishing house. Hysterically funny, but also grimly depressing, was listening to a man who was trying to get published. He had researched the catalogue of the publishing house and was sure that his book would fill a gaping hole. Not only that, but his book represented the direction in which the publishing house should be moving. Further, if they did not publish his book they would regret the millions of pounds that they had not earned from him.

    After the protracted phone call had ended, the member of staff who had been listening to the monologue said that the book was not very good. It would almost certainly never be published. Unfortunately, there was no way to give feedback to that author as they were not listening.

    If only that potential author had listened instead of telling.

  17. Victoria says:

    Yeah, this happens largely because the marketing industry has infiltrated the writing community to such a huge extent, thanks to the blogosphere (and the fact that aspiring writers part with a

  18. I’m trying to break in right now and it’s HARD. I DO feel sorry for myself a lot, but never because “everyone’s against me.” I know it will take a lot of hard work and I’m learning as much as I can, to give myself an advantage. It’s not realistic to think that I can waltz out the door and have a book magically appear on the shelf–although everyone I know seems to think that. Would that it were true!.

    The peanut thing was cute. Thanks for the laugh!

  19. lisa says:

    That’s it. I’m taking the easy way out: I’m gonna stow away on Captain King’s yacht and lead mutiny and murder in such spectacular fashion as even he could not dream up. Then I will be Captain & NY Times Queen.

    As you were, minions, peons, peanuts, whatever you wish to be called.

  20. Glynis-I-am-realistic-I-am-sure-I-won’t-be-published,

    Realism is good. Writing is hard work. Publishing is equally hard. But not an impossible dream. Educate yourself, do your research, read, write, and persevere.

    I didn’t give myself permission to really try until I was, ahem, a bit older. But in the past 12 months I’ve written three novels, polished one of them, found an agent, terminated my agreement with that agent after 10 weeks, found another agent, and now my novel goes on submission next week.

    A good story well-written will find its way. You can read my how-I-found-my-agent post if you like at

  21. Linda Carson says:

    So right. Sometimes we writers see ourselves as SO PRECIOUS, so special, holding something the troglodytes of the world can’t even dream of. If someone frowns at us, we crumble. Don’t they know how special we are?
    My blessed stepdaughter read 45 pages of my brilliant work. She sighed. She poured a glass of wine. She said, “Does this character ever get to think? She’s lovely, but why is she doing this stuff?”
    I didn’t crumble. She saved me from hearing the truth from the evil world who doesn’t appreciate my genius. Rewriting now.

  22. Randi says:

    Thanks for the great information. It’s a long road ahead and we all need the support you offered! Randi

  23. Margie Borchers says:

    Well said.
    Now add #6: Timing and Chance

  24. John Wiswell says:

    If this is brutal, it’s far from the most brutal. A lot of editors/agents/litjocks write caustic “helpful” materials that are far ruder than this. This is brutal in service of clarity. As a writer with no agent, I really appreciated it.

  25. Loved this. I’m surprised you didn’t get MORE angry responses–! Whenever you try to tell someone that writing is a whole lotta craft and, yanno, not so much everything else, they just don’t want to hear it. Thanks for sharing.

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