Why Manuscripts Are Rejected: Guest Blog by Chuck Sambuchino

Today’s guest post digs into why manuscripts are rejected, and comes from the fantastic Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest and Guide to Literary Agents blog and book fame. He’s celebrating the recent release of this fabulous book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK: DEFEND YOURSELF WHEN THE LAWN WARRIORS STRIKE (AND THEY WILL). Here, he shares the reason that you have a rejected manuscript on your hands, and I wholeheartedly agree. While I have posted on this topic a few times (like this post that addresses the question, I wrote a book, now what?), maybe Chuck’s take will finally make folks listen. 🙂

why manuscripts are rejected, rejected manuscript
Don’t give in to the “frustration submission.” Chip away at those problems until they’re corrected — THEN your work will be ready for agent eyes.

Why Manuscripts Are Rejected: Three Reasons

why manuscripts are rejected, rejected manuscriptWhen agents review pages of your manuscript, they may reject you for one of three reasons.

  1. They may realize that the story they’re reading is in a genre or category outside of what they handle. Rejected manuscript.
  2. Poor writing skills: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Rejected manuscript.
  3. A writer’s story just plain isn’t ready yet. In other words, it’s good—but simply being good doesn’t cut it. A piece of fiction has to be great to catch an agent’s eye.

Is Your Work Ready?

One of the main reasons why manuscripts are rejected is that writers turn in their work too early. As a writer myself, this is a problem I sympathize with. We work on a story for what seems like an eternity and then you get to a point where you just say, “If I read this darn thing one more time, I will KILL SOMEBODY. I am so sick of looking at this thing that my eyeballs hurt. I am going to send it out and take my chances.”

So you’ve decided to send it out. But is it ready?

When is your work really ready? By that, I mean: When is your manuscript edited enough and polished to the point where you can confidently submit it to agents? I used to think there was no answer to this question, and that each project was so vastly different that it would be misleading to address the subject. But I was wrong.

If You Think It Has a Problem, It Does

The best answer I can give regarding why manuscripts are rejected is this: If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready. When I have edited full-length manuscripts (some for SCBWI friends and others on a freelance editor basis) and then met with the writers personally to discuss my thoughts, a strange thing happens. When I address a concern in the book, the writer will nod before I even finish the sentence. What this means is that they knew about the problem and suspected it was a weak point in the story. I have simply confirmed that which they already knew.

For Example…

  • “This part where he gets beat up—it doesn’t seem believable that so many kids just took off school like that.”
  • “If the main character is so stealth, then how come he gets caught by the bad guys here?”
  • “The story starts too slow. We need more action.”

A Manuscript With a Problem Isn’t Ready For Agent Eyes

In my experience, writers all seem to know many of their problematic issues before anyone even tells them. So all this brings me back to my main point: If you think your work has a problem, then it more than likely does—and any manuscript with a problem is not ready for agent eyes. If you find yourself saying, “Hmmm. I think the map just being there in the attic is kind of too lucky for the kids,” other readers will likely agree with you—and that is a great example of a typical problem. And every problem needs to be fixed before you submit to agents — or you’ll end up with a rejected manuscript.

This shows the importance of engaging beta readers for a manuscript critique—friends who will review the work once it’s written. They will come back to you with concerns, both big and small. You address the concerns in your next revision and send the work to more readers. Once readers stop coming back with concerns, you’re starting to get somewhere. If you think you have issues, or multiple critiquers agree on a problem, then you’re not ready for Querytime. When you and your readers can look at a book and say that all concerns are adequately addressed (and it therefore lacks any major problems), then and only then will you be ready.

My manuscript critique services will help you resolve problems in your work so it’s ready for agent eyes.

36 Replies to “Why Manuscripts Are Rejected: Guest Blog by Chuck Sambuchino”

  1. Excellent. I’ve been asking myself the “how do I know it’s ready” question. This helps a lot!

  2. Wonderfully said! I think people will listen this time (ha, ha, Mary).

    Thank you, Chuck and Mary!

  3. Great post!

    I think the gray area – at least, for me – lies in that space where I know that an agent will have edits, and I know that an editor will have edits, so I wonder, “Is this good enough for an agent, who I know will want me to make changes anyway?” Or in other words,”Am I being nitpicky, or is this a PROBLEM-problem?” Because I know from author-friends that there are still things they would want to change in their published books, still improvements that they would have made, if they had had another month before their deadline. I know from people who have been published that they never feel that their work is “done” – but if they had listened to that voice, they would never have sent it out.

    I guess for now, I should just listen to that inner editor!

  4. Thanks, Chuck, for defining “ready” so clearly.

    Writers with many manuscripts (e.g. picture book writers like me) also need to ask themselves — which manuscript is MOST ready (or MOST LIKELY to be a match for this particular editor/agent?) Also tricky.

  5. Kelly Andrews says:

    I second Istha — I feel the same. Additionally, there are other things that I LIKE that I know are “wrong.” I don’t want to change them so I hold onto them as long as I can.

  6. Chuck, your words are so wise and soooo true. Too often, writers turn a blind eye to it, though. Sometimes, writers plays an elaborate game of reject-o-mancy. Instead of looking at how the manuscript could be improved, they insist the agent was wrong, not the right fit, etc.

    Or they follow up too soon and try to spin a rejection into an acceptance.

    Rejection stinks, but it can be the catalyst for growth, too. You can exploit rejection and learn from it.

    Thanks again for the top notch post!

  7. Sometimes it’s hard to get frank beta readers. That was one of my problems with my first manuscript. Most everybody told me they loved the plot, so I thought I was ready to go. I had no idea the voice was flat until I started querying. Thanks to the feedback from some kind agents who were willing to take the time to tell me, I know how to fix it. I just don’t want to . . . yet. i”m still on burn out from it. What did I do? Start a new novel. Great therapy.

  8. Thanks this was helpful. I agree. There is a voice deep down inside whispering, ‘hey that’s not right yet’ and I used to ignore it. But tackling those icky places in your MS and making them shine really is an exciting thing.

  9. I was starting to suspect that last one…where if I think something’s lacking, readers certainly will too. Maybe that’s why you should just put the darn thing down for a while.

    Thank you Chuck!

    And thank you Mary…I have a new blog to add to my blogroll! 🙂

  10. I’m with Ishta. Although, yes, you should try to fix the things you see as wrong, you may never get to a place where you think everything has been fixed. I’ve yet to meet a writer who thinks everything is perfect with their manuscript, at any stage in the process. Like Ishta, even my published friends have things they know they should’ve changed. The good writers I know are always critical of their own work.

    Also, sometimes we send things off with iffy points because we’re not sure if it’s just us. I’ve given things to my beta readers and critique group that I’m not sure about, but they aren’t always bothered by the same things. There are even things I’ve changed based on my sole opinion only to find that it was a poor change. So, even if I’m unsure about something, I’ll hold off “fixing” it unless I find it bothers someone else too.

  11. This is so true, even with editor feedback. Sometimes an editor will mention a reason for passing and what they say gets the author nodding because they suspected/worried there could be a problem with that part of the book before sending it out.

    If we question whether something is strong enough, then the answer is always to make it stronger, not hit send.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  12. Great post! It’s so true that often the problems people find when they read the story are ones I could see (or at least, should see).

  13. Gail Shepherd says:

    Funny, Nathan Bransford is talking about this subject today too: the “sneaking suspicion” that something’s wrong in your ms — which you ignore to your peril. The ego is about as difficult to manage as a rampaging garden gnome!

  14. Good Stuff!

    I just wanted to add a few more comments about the freelance editing thing. Just stuff that has been flowing through my mind. A major reason I chose the freelance route was due to my working full-time, raising two kids by myself, and finishing my bachelors. Can I edit? You bet. I’m an English major. Did I have the time, maybe, another year or two. But there’s more to it than that.
    I had attended 3 conferences, 08, 09, &10 in NJ. Got a first page session–good feedback. A handful of pro. critiques via the conferences and one dinner in 09. And I participated in a critique group, which also gave us another pro. critique. A lot of good feedback. Lots of different suggestions. Although it was a WIP, (LOL–my fantasy was that it was closer to done!!) I had received differing ideas/opinions on crucial parts of the story and not just from the pros. Other writers and professors at my college gave some advice. I am thankful for it all. While I took some tips from everywhere (including Mary’s–thank you!) there was one critique that seemed to speak to me the most. I kept that one close by all the way through.
    Finding a good editor seemed like a natural progression from the other steps I had taken. Fortunately, the SCBWI has a list of freelance editors who had either published or edited children’s books. That is where I found an editor.
    I think it has worked out very well (only time will tell,) and I’ve learned quite a bit from that well-published children’s author.
    Again, great info. on your blog. I appreciate it!

  15. Great post. You’re right. I almost always know when something is wrong with my MS. When I first started writing years ago I used to ignore this little voice in my head. But now, after reading hundreds of YA books, when the voice in my head says there is something wrong, I listen to it and try my best to address the problem. Happy Halloween!

  16. Thanks for making “not ready” so clear, Chuck. I’ll keep that in mind as I ready my manuscript.

  17. This post is very insightful. Writers cant lie to themselves about a problem in the story.
    Thanks for this post. 🙂

  18. Natalie Aguirre says:

    Great post Chuck. I think most of us have fallen into querying agents or publishers too soon. Sometimes no matter how much you work on a manuscript it’s hard to know if it’s ready. Having good beta readers is so helpful like you suggested.

  19. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone in feeling ‘is it really ready’, and how many more times shall I ‘polish’ it and is it possible to overpolish?

  20. Sometimes I know there’s a problem in my manuscript, and a critique partner explains it to me in a way that helps me understand how to fix it. That’s a good thing.

    Sometimes I don’t know there’s a problem, and a critique partner shows me that a problem is there. That’s a good thing too.

    But sometimes I think my story is good, and I disagree when my critique partner says there’s a problem. Or one critique partner says some aspect of my manuscript is awesome, and the other one says it is terrible. How do I decide who is right?

  21. I’m glad you put up this post. Once again, I started thinking about submitting my manuscript to agents, even though I know there is something that bugs me about it. This will help me resist!

    I feel like I’ve hit a wall in trying to figure out the problem. Several people have read the manuscript and a couple of them have made some general comments that dance around the edges of the problem, but nobody is saying, “Here’s what’s wrong – fix it.” So I keep beating my head against the story, hoping something will crack open (and let me tell you, lately it feels like it’s going to be my head!).

  22. I agree that friends should read your work, but make sure that you give your work to friends who are well read and willing to be honest. Sometimes, friends are a little too cautious about hurting your feelings. I usually say, “Hey, if you find an issue, let me know. I’d rather hear it from you than an agent.”

  23. Yikes, so true about recognising your own problems and being sick of the sight of you ms. *Blushes*

    I like Greta’s response, it’s great to be told what’s wrong to fix too. Sometimes you take on board a critique, make the appropriate changes and they’re not leaping up and down about it. That is the moment to stash it away somewhere for a while. I have a few stashed away that I am not allowed to touch for a while.

  24. Great post!

    Now we see why it can take years for a manuscript to be “ready.” When you’re banging your head against it, or you’ve stared at it for so long you can’t see it anymore, it’s time to put it down for a bit. Maybe a week or two. Maybe longer. When you come back, your eyes are fresh. And there’s some excitement that returns as well.
    Taking a break can give us the perspective to see how far we’ve come from first draft. My newest tactic? Put my problems in order from “most obnoxious” to “least” and attack them one by one, taking a small break between in necessary. 🙂

  25. Great post! You have to give your work the time it needs. Sometimes that means setting something aside for a while — which can be hard to do!

  26. Thank you for this helpful post! I’ve known the temptation of wanting to send something out because I’m tired of rewriting rather that because it’s truly ready. I’ve learned to resist that temptation, but your post is a great reminder, since I have two things looming that I want to send out.

  27. Thanks, Chuck! This was great advice – wish I’d paid attention to it a year and a half ago. LOL The only thing that still pops up infrequently is, some folks like a faster beginning to my wip, but most folks feel the need to be submersed in my world before the battle scene. I’ve stuck with the slow build as it seems better to me and to most readers, but I’d be lying if I said that the 1/4 minority (I kid you not, it’s a statistical reality among those who have read it thus far) want to jump right into the action. I wish I knew if this was one of Abraham Lincoln’s “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” moments, or if there really is a problem.

  28. This the reason I held fast and resisted the urge to query my manuscript. I KNEW there were/are problems, little things that can easily be fixed that both my critique partners have touched on. Best to go with your gut. Great post, Chuck. Thanks for sharing.

  29. Great article, thanks Chuck. Such a revealing insight that writers are usually aware of the weak spots in their own stories.

  30. Awesome…and I will definitely check out you latest book..No wonder i was stuck and going around in circles…i couldn’t answer my writer friend the question of “you don’t have an ending?…you’re leaving the reader hanging and they want to know….yada, yada, yada…

    Glad to say that I have the ending! But most importantly, it doesn’t matter what the reader thinks about my ending…just that the writer is happy…then the reader is happy!


  31. Marleen Gagnon says:

    You are so right. I’ve been fighting with the first 50 pages of my book. They don’t feel right, and if I can see it so can an agent or editor. I don’t want to waste my time or their time. Thanks, Chuck.

  32. Agree, brilliant bloody post, mate, but how do some disgusting books get published? What? Get vilified by Oprah and whoosh, rules out the door on the basis of that notoriety? I recently read one book and in the first 100 pages, I was getting jealous, (it’s my genre – alien sci-fi) I was like this opens like a bloody rocket. Way better than mine! Then the middle came along and it became rife with a cliched jealous-jerk-jock and cheerleader-to-angelic supporter-of-the-geek high school romance that watered down the entire book. The author’s purpose was obvious – to foreshadow a decision our alien might make because of his affection for his human girlfriend. Then the ending/climax came. I almost threw the book at the wall. I still kinda like the book but I’m upset that I can spot this and the professionals didn’t! I think this writer definitely sent the book out too, soon. Arrogantly dispensed with Beta-friends. Agents took it and didn’t spot this egregious error, editors didn’t fix it either! I swear I cursed out loud in Borders at this book. Give me a bloody break! I was of course profuse in my apologies to bystanders. My outburst was extremely ungentlemanly. And just to throw some more salt in the face of serious Commercial Fiction writers, it’s becoming a Spielberg movie coming out in February 16th or something. Not even a year after publication!! If I were the agent, I would have tightened up the love part. Set it up, moved on and hurried back to the meat. And the ending, oh the ending! I would have definitely got the writers (30 of them from what I hear) to re-write the bleeding ending so it lives up to the astounding high octane launch. I meant it blasts out of the gates and then fades halfway down the track and crawls over the finish line. So while I agree with this post, I guess it doesn’t always apply. I’m not mentioning the bloody book. If you’ve read it, I’m 100% sure you agree with my assessment unless you’re 15 years old and I don’t mean that pejoratively. It’s a YA book. I’m upset. No, I’m flipping livid, mate. I guess it’s personal now that I’ve finally finished a query that took me 3 bleeding months to perfect. I’ve never had a reaction to a book like this before. I’m sorry, I just had to share with some writers. Am I being hateful, envious even? Am I wrong to be so angry? I mean I don’t wish this bloke any harm, but bloody hell, mate, fix the bloody ending!

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