Why Your Manuscript Might be Getting Rejected (And What You Can Learn From It)

Rejection stings, but for most of us it’s an inevitable step on the journey towards becoming a published author – in fact, this has got to be one of very few industries where you can actually celebrate the way in which you were rejected – radio silence, not so good (but extremely common), personalised rejection – rare, and highly encouraging! As defeating as it might feel at times, there’s quite a lot we can learn from the experience of rejection…  

Why were you rejected? Here are some factors within your control: 

It’s your first time 

Though the completion of your first full-length manuscript is a wonderful achievement likely to have been borne out of years of dreaming, good intentions, a huge amount of procrastination, and a hefty dollop of commitment and dedication, the reality is that a first novel is still something of a training ground. Like any new skill, you get better at it the more opportunity you take to practice.

Your first manuscript is a good measure of your early development as a writer – you’re likely to have written the last half to a considerably higher standard than you began. I recommend attacking the first half of your first novel with fresh (and more experienced) eyes to ensure it all reads to a consistent standard. If you happen to leap straight into a new project before going back to revisit your first, all the better.

You’ve queried too soon 

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to polish your manuscript to the highest possible standard before you query an agent/editor. It should read as if someone could pick your novel up in a book-store tomorrow and wouldn’t notice anything amiss. The moment you send in something that isn’t quite up to scratch, even if it has enormous potential, you risk burning bridges for that project with that particular agent/editor, and they may have been someone you really hoped would represent you. It’s a risk not worth taking when a little (ok, a lot of) patience and reflection could take you a long way.  

Your query package isn’t up to scratch 

Putting together a query package requires a whole new skill-set from you as a writer. You might be surprised how much harder it can be to write a one-line hook, 250-word query, or a 2-page synopsis than it is to write 80,000 words of prose. It needs to pack an immediate punch otherwise a time-poor agent/editor is unlikely to be inspired to request more of your manuscript. This is their very first introduction to your voice as a writer and to the premise of your novel – you need to succeed, succinctly, in enticing them to read on. There are all sorts of services out there you can pay to assess your query package, but I think you can achieve a lot yourself simply by developing your skills through practice and experience. If you get stuck, giving your project a rest before coming back to it after a good chunk of time has passed can often generate new ideas, and it can’t hurt for someone objective to look it over.

You haven’t done your homework 

Have you accidentally queried your thriller with an agent seeking romance? Are you sending out a 60,000-word fantasy novel when the expectation might be for a more marketable wordcount of 100,000 words? Have you sent out 3 sample chapters and a synopsis when you’ve been asked for nothing more than a hook at this stage? Have you gotten key details mixed up whilst making multiple submissions? Don’t offer a prospective agent/editor a reason to stop reading – follow their guidelines to the letter. And if you can, personalise each submission to make it more professional and memorable (you can always keep a basic template to work from to make some adjustments to with each query – and keep track of who you’ve submitted to and their estimated response time so you don’t accidentally query the same person twice).  

You have misrepresented your work 

I once made the mistake of identifying my manuscript as a romance novel when it was actually romantic women’s fiction, because it took time for me to get my head around the nuances that distinguish between those two genres. I then queried it as a romance, with the feedback being that they were looking for a greater emphasis on the romance element of the story (whereas in women’s fiction, the focus is as much on the heroine’s journey as it is on the romantic element). Be clear in advance of your genre and comparable titles, and choose the agents/editors you wish to approach accordingly. You need to make certain you’re finding the right prospective home for your project, and this will reduce the likelihood of rejection on these grounds.

Your manuscript is almost, but not quite, hitting the mark 

You may find yourself the recipient of a personalised rejection, a rejection following a request for more chapters or a full manuscript, or perhaps even an offer to revise and resubmit. When you’ve been querying for long enough, you’ll learn this is actually a pretty privileged place to be – it’s a positive assessment of your potential as a writer and a strong indicator that you shouldn’t give up. It may be that you haven’t found the right fit just yet, but you’re close and should keep on querying, or it may be that you can take this as encouragement that you have the skill set to start a new project and see where that one takes you. Personalised feedback is gold dust – I’m not aware of any other industry in which a rejection of this nature is something to be happy about, but trust me, it is! When I reached out to one well-known author for advice following an invitation to revise and resubmit, I was met with the words: ‘Congrats on the personalized rejection – those are rare.’ Keep going!

Author platform 

Nowadays, you’ll often be required to provide your social media links alongside the manuscript you’re querying. How does an unknown, unpublished writer develop a significant social media following in advance of securing a publisher? There are endless blog posts out there about this particular topic, because whilst it seems counter-intuitive for a writer to have an established following prior to building a readership, in this saturated industry you’re likely to be required to be just as active a marketer of your book as your publisher, and an established social media following offers an immediate avenue for you to promote your book together. You could begin with whatever social media avenue appeals to you most – I’m most comfortable using Facebook so that was my starting point, and I’ve recently ventured into Instagram (by ventured, I mean I just Clarendon everything and hope for the best), and lasted about 5 minutes on Twitter which just wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s highly competitive, but to begin with you could establish a presence, if not a following, on social media, and you might also like to set up a writer’s website where you can add links to samples of your writing and/or your blog (WordPress is wonderful for this if you’re a bit of a technophobe, it makes it super easy). If self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to you, the whole social media scene can be a bit uncomfortable, especially in this ‘if you don’t follow me I’m going to unfollow you’ sort of culture – my advice would be to just think of it as signposting people to your business as essentially, once your novel is published, it’s as much a product as it is a labour of love! And down the track, your social media presence might serve as a place for people to find out a little bit more about their new favourite author and their forthcoming books. The more diligent you are about posting consistently, the more likely you are to slowly develop a following over time.

Why were you rejected? Here are some factors beyond your control: 

Market variability 

I’m an avid reader of women’s fiction and romance, but lately I’ve noticed a common recurring theme – many of the more recently published novels I’ve devoured seem to feature a dog – either the heroine has one, or the main love interest has one, or both – and the hound is often utilised by the author as a bonding tool to bring the couple together. In fact, dogs seem to be all the rage at the moment, with cafes everywhere catering as much to our furry friends as to their human counterparts – so it’s doubtful this is a coincidence! This especially seems to be the case back home in the UK with an increasing number of cafes advertising themselves as dog friendly, and some even going so far as to craft their very own doggy menu!

This trend puts me in something of a quandary, because my first novel features an unintentionally polarising magical cat. Nothing against dogs, but I’m allergic to them and have always preferred the company of a feline friend. So, should I write out Mr Socks from my novel and replace him with a dog to better fit a market trend? Nah, because by the time I’ve done so dogs could be so last year. Cats might even be in, and who knows – perhaps Mr Socks will be the one to pave the way? In a nutshell, there’s little point in intentionally writing to a particular market – we all know the road from idea to publication can be a long and bumpy one, and by the time you have a finished article, the market is most likely to have moved on.  

Personal taste 

Sometimes rejection comes down to nothing more than having failed to meet an individual agent or editor’s personal taste. There isn’t really anything you can do about that other than be very careful that you’re querying whichever agent/editor seems the best fit for your genre, who potentially already represents similar works, and who is actively seeking works of that genre.

Fierce competition 

If a particular agent or editor likes your work and goes so far as to offer you positive feedback or a critique, keep in mind that even though the rejection itself might be disheartening, they can only do justice to representing a limited number of authors at a time and may have no choice but to bypass your work on this occasion. Editors are often working with a very select, short list of authors and they need confidence they can sell those books. Books often don’t earn back the money spent on them, so the publisher is carrying a lot of financial risk when investing in a new, unknown author. The bar that persuades them to do so is high.

Wrong place at the wrong time?

Perhaps you believe that faith, karma, or Lady Luck might play a significant role in your rejection or success, if so, these factors are likely to be beyond your influence, but there’s no harm in hoping they’ll factor in a successful query outcome for you down the track.

Form rejection or radio silence 

This final point sits on the fence, because the aspect of a form rejection or radio silence that is beyond your control is the fact that neither of these responses, or lack of them, offer any indication on precisely where it is you might be going wrong, so you’re left with little indication as to how to improve your query to maximise your chance of securing an agent or editor’s interest. If you’re fortunate enough to receive feedback, it’s likely to be open to interpretation and might not give you the clarity and sense of direction you were hoping for.

On the other hand, if you’re receiving form rejections or radio silence more often than not, there is probably a message inherent within that – to reassess your query package. The hard work unfortunately doesn’t end with the completion of your manuscript – learning to hook and entice an agent/editor within the concise few paragraphs afforded to you in a query letter or synopsis ventures into a whole new territory of your creative writing abilities. It would be great if your manuscript could standalone and speak for itself, but the query comes first, so treat it with as much diligence as you would your manuscript (edit!) then query again in small rounds, and see whether your changes effect the response you get.

For me, rejection has played a significant part in shaping up my first novel to a publishable standard. Those initial rejections taught me so much – from submitting too soon, to an inadequate query letter, to a lack of clarity on genre. And, after polishing my manuscript and query package based on what I’d learned from the experience of rejection, my first request to revise and resubmit and the positive personalised feedback I received along with it taught me that I was on the right track, that I just needed to keep on querying. For this reason alone I recommend querying in small rounds, tweaking things in between rounds before querying again. There are definitely a lot of positives to take from the experience of rejection that might ultimately pave your way to eventual publication!  

How has your experience of rejection shaped your writing journey? 


2 thoughts on “Why Your Manuscript Might be Getting Rejected (And What You Can Learn From It)

  1. Oh yeah, at the end of the day, whatever happens after we submit is beyond our control, and we should focus on what we can, such as continuing to produce good work, and continuing to submit. Great post here. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Stuart, you’re right! All the best to you with your writing 😊


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