On Querying Agents: What’s a Personalized Rejection?

How do you know that a rejection is a sign to keep going? The personalized rejection can give you some hope.

With 113 rejections in this last round of querying, I’ve developed some theories about what constitutes an authentic and individualized response versus a template goodbye. 

So what’s a personalized rejection? A personalized rejection

  • gives you a sense of what’s working in your manuscript;
  • what’s not working for the agent or editor, that is truly out of your control;
  • and/or helps you see you might just need to carry on.

Here are some form responses and some personalized ones.


We’re sorry, but your project is not a fit for our agency at this time, so we will have to pass. Thank you for considering us and best of luck with your future queries.


Still a Form

Though there appears to be a specific reference to the manuscript in this one below, it’s a form response that really doesn’t offer a specific compliment.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider NO SMALL THING. I’m sorry to say that while there was a lot of creativity here, I didn’t connect with the writing in the way that I needed to in order to be the right agent to champion this work. As you know, these decisions are largely subjective and another agent or editor may have an opinion completely different from mine. Thank you again for thinking of me and best of luck with your future queries.


Thank you for reaching out! Your project sounds very cool, but unfortunately doesn’t feel like the right fit for me, as I don’t find myself especially drawn in by sports-themed storylines on the whole.


Thanks for your query. Sorry to say this is a pass for me. I’m particularly un-sporty and find sports-related things difficult to relate to. I’m the wrong agent for this.


“It’s Not You, It’s Me” argument in these two personalized responses can be taken as a go-ahead to look more closely for those agents who are “sporty.” It’s very helpful when you’re racking up rejections and see this glimmer of an indication that maybe it’s not all you. Maybe you need to narrow your focus. For example, in order to find “sporty,” I started looking for agents who had repped nonfiction sports as well as YA)

But ones like these, that are actual light at the end of the tunnel, are even better:

Thanks for reaching out about NO SMALL THING. I love your voice, but I didn’t fall head over heels for the premise on this one, so I have to step aside. I know it’s tough when your agent leaves the business, and I am certain you’ll be snapped up by an agent soon. And please know that I’d be happy to consider any future projects you may have.

This agent not only liked my voice, but she wanted to see anything else I wrote. That is not usually something you hear in form rejections.

Or even the one that comes at the end of an agent reading the full manuscript. (One that got 9 requests for fulls. This manuscript had already been on submission to 11 editors with my second agent.)

Unfortunately, AGENT X cannot offer representation at this time. While you’re clearly a very talented writer, the submission list for NO SMALL THING is fairly extensive and we’re not sure we have the editorial vision to give the book the edge it so richly deserves.

You will see a range of things in this business–agents who submit to over 30 editors, and those who won’t submit to more than 15. Knowing which kind of agent you’ve landed is important if you want your agent to query in multiple rounds several editors before stopping.

This is obviously only one opinion, and we wish you the best of luck!

The Coolest Kind of Form

I have to end with a form rejection that really summed up for me what are the challenges in this industry. As author and writing coach Lisa Cron (Story Genius) recently shared on the Literaticast podcast (with agent Jennifer Laughran) it’s damn difficult—and unfair—how few great books make it through the agent or editor gauntlet.

“97 out of 100 people who sit down to write a first draft don’t make it to the end…3 people out of 100 are going to make that first draft. When you take that 3 percent and winnow that down to the number that do several drafts and really decide to pitch to an editor or an agent…The statistic I’ve heard out there is that 96% of that remaining 2% get rejected….How many really great manuscripts never see the light of day…It’s a crap shoot. It really is a crap shoot.”

If that’s true (and I believe it is, as I shared in my Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business confessional), then this form response sums it up from an agent perspective:

Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that NO SMALL THING is a good fit for my list at this time. Please remember that the decision to represent writing is based on a lot of factors, which are often difficult to qualify. Passion for a project, connection with voice, current workload, market saturation, concept timeliness; all of these are considerations, in addition to the quality of your writing. If you continue to work on your craft, to query widely, and to research your potential agents and intended market, I am confident you will find the right match.

This agent was correct.

I did continue to work on my craft (a new project).

I did continue to query widely.

I did continue to research potential agents and intended market.

And eventually, I did indeed find the right match!

Thanks, Tara, for being “sporty”–and a great team player in this effort to launch NO SMALL THING!

How to Bake a Rejection Pie–A Poem in Honor of Short Story Rejections

In honor of losing yet another short story contest, I declare it time to write poetry. Found poetry, that is, since the following lines are excerpts from the hundreds of rejections I’ve received for my short story manuscripts. I think they make a rather sweet pie of rejection.

Image found at

Thank you for your submission.

We have carefully considered your submission.

We wish we could respond more personally to your submission.

We read your submission respectfully and with care.

Please know we read and appreciate every submission
and it pains us
a little
to be resorting to such a standard reply,
but submissions
keep coming in
and the hours keep
slipping away and
what is one to do.

We respectfully ask that you wait at least one month before submitting more work for our consideration.

We get a lot of submissions and can only use a fraction of them,
so please understand that this No most likely means
“Not Quite the Right Fit,” not “No Good.”

Because we read so many stories,
it is not possible for us to give specific feedback,
but, if you’re a relative beginner,
you may find something of interest here: Editors’ Input.

We receive many
compelling, (sic)
stories, but can only take a very limited number due to constraints of space and style.

We were literally shocked at the quality of so many of the entries.

Even quality work often has to be declined.

We appreciate your willingness to entrust us with your writing.

Our editorial staff and needs change for each issue,
so I hope you will consider submitting your work to us in the future.

However, we particularly enjoyed “Retrograde” and hope
you will keep us in mind for future submissions.

One of our editors would like to leave you some personalized comments,
so look for an email regarding “Retrograde” soon.

There was much to be liked in this story, and it got some good comments from our readers.
But alas, it still just didn’t seem to work for us.
I’d be happy to see you submit something the next reading period, which is now open.
Best of luck finding a home for this story.

Unfortunately this particular piece was not a right fit for The St. Petersburg Review,
but we were very impressed by your writing.
We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.

Iron Horse Review: About your manuscript (“By the Water”), our editors said: Okay, this story is very, very good. The father is rendered in great detail and is consistent, and the three boys are all clearly distinguishable from one another. The story, moving. At the end, though, the conflict with Jeremiah seems unresolved, and that conflict seems to be the most important, next to the protagonist’s own internal conflict. So we were just a little dissatisfied by the ending. But boy, that swimming pool scene is really nice.

The New Yorker: We really enjoyed this story of a father and his three sons; it was very tender and at times even humorous.

The Missouri Review: Lyn, Thank you for sending us your work titled “By the Water” for publishing consideration. Though this piece will not work for us, we encourage you to keep sending your work, as your talented writing style is one we look to promote through our publications. Your eye for detail and subtle humor are apparent throughout this piece, we congratulate you for excellent technique and hope to review your work in the future.
Sincerely, The Editors

We wish you success in placing your work elsewhere.

Never mind what we say. Keep writing!

How to Bake a Rejection Pie

“”Embrace rejection! Wink at it, laugh, maybe bake a rejection pie. You’ll get there — why not have fun along the way?” — Literary agent, Michelle Humphrey

insert my rejection poem here

Filed Under: just for fun, rejection  

Sweet or Sour? Opinions Vary Widely

“Writing is a profession for talented, imaginative, sensitive Gila monsters (I say this because good writers don’t give up, and legend claims that when a Gila monster clamps its jaws on something it won’t let go.)”

— Mary Beth Parker, founder of the Dana Awards

So is that why my jaws are aching? I’ve clamped down pretty hard lately.

I have an email inbox full of rejections for various manuscripts. Because I’m a fanatical optimist, I’m determined to find the sweet in the sour (actually, sweet and sour is a GREAT combination, if you’ve ever been obsessed with sour gummy worms).

The sweet: in between ten rejections here, thirty there, I’ve had at least one publishing success every year for a while now.

The sour: the rejections still seem to pour in like lava.

In the sour moments, kind agents will speak with regret: “I regret to say that I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate agent for your work. However, opinions vary considerably in this business…”

Ah! The sweet! Let me cling to “opinions vary considerably.” So, is Agent X saying she could be wrong?

The sour side of my brain says, “Ha, keep deluding yourself.”

More sour comes with Agent A’s fear: “We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list.” I’m afraid, too: that my project ain’t right for anyone’s.

More regret: “…I regret I wouldn’t be the best match in this instance.” Oooh, flashbacks to online dating and Ugh: fade to black. But wait, sweet: I met my fabulous husband online.

More on the fact that the agents could be wrong, which I’m not sure if is sweet or sour: “I regret to say that I don’t feel I am the most appropriate agent for your work. Considering the subjective nature of the business, I hope that you will find someone who feels differently, and I wish you the best of luck in your search for representation.”

Form, form, form letters: I’ve given them out many times too as I turn away applicants for employment. How’s it feel now, Hawks, huh? Sour, sour, sour.

You’ve got to appreciate when agents get terse to the point of not even punctuating the final sentence:

“Not for us, thanks. Better luck elsewhere”

I could bemoan the fact I’m not worth an additional period, or, I could look at the sweet fact that a) I got an answer (many agents don’t answer at all) and b) The note is concisely kind.

After a certain amount of rejections, one starts seeing things. “This certainly sounds like an original and compelling premise for a novel, but I’m sorry to say it’s just not quite the right match for my list at this time.” Wow! He said “original”! He said “compelling”! Wow!

Hahahhahahaha. Lyn, everyone says that. You have, too–you’ve seen brilliant ideas in many a student manuscript while knowing the piece was many moons from completion.

“Please do not take this rejection as a comment on your writing ability.” This is said while also saying, “Given the large amount of submissions I receive, I can only properly represent material that greatly excites or interests me.”

No great excitement or interest, then. I do understand.

I can’t help but end on sweet. It’s my nature, to cling to the candy moments.

“You write very well, and I’m intrigued by the concept, but–is the entire work told through journal entries? I confess that’s not a format I connect with; that said, it sounds like you have a lot of good material, and I do think you should continue writing and sending
this out.”

This one I will attach to my monitor.

Mary Beth Parker, Dana Awards founder, says in “How We Started”:

I’ve learned a heartening but frightening thing in managing the Dana Awards: that there are thousands of excellent writers out there…Which is heartening for the sake of literature, but frightening because of the sheer numbers of good writers looking for recognition–so much competition for each one of us, and so many people who deserve notice but aren’t getting it.

Now that’s a truth both sweet and sour. That’s my story for now, and I’m sticking to it.

The Hero’s Journey, Part 3: Sloggin’ Through the Slush

“…Genre problems–more accurately, problems with your work being the right fit for the agency–weigh in at 33 percent. This is the number-one reason for form rejection letters from our agency. Keep in mind that this means a third of your competition is eliminated immediately–and that it’s an area that, with a little research, is completely within your control.”

“Life of Pie,” Getting Past the Gatekeeper

One of the agents I queried reported in his blog he received 298 queries the week I queried him.
He shares that over 20% of those queries had generic salutations, ranging from “To Whom it May Concern” to “Dear Agent.”

Another agent blogs about the fact 33% of the queries submitted are the wrong genre for the agency. That means she must slog through not just my query but ones pushing, I assume, romance? chick lit? sci fi? she did not request.

I figured when I started this journey there could be such spam in the mix of slush wherein my queries land. Query wisdom teaches me to think about my audience, and these reports from agents confirm that and it also doesn’t hurt to think about the competition auditioning alongside me. These agents have a ton of client advocacy and manuscript reading to do besides man the inbox, and yet they must still wade through this type of dross o’mornings. So what does that mean for my letter?

a) my query must pop — caffeinate the overworked eyeballs;

b) my query could be A+, but just like those A+ writers I once graded, if you appear at the bottom of the pile, there ain’t nothing that looks good to a reader too exhausted to care. There was a reason I didn’t grade more than 15 papers in a sitting; it wasn’t fair to number 16, 17, and 18, what my mood might do to that poor child’s grade. English teachers, like agents, grade in between negotiating, teaching, planning, advocating, disciplining, and coaching.

It’s useless to rail against competitors. It doesn’t matter what they write; just write yours better, no matter where it hides in the slush. So I’ve made a note to self, and here’s what I’ve learned as I’ve revised my queries.

1) Don’t sound cocky. You may THINK you don’t, but revisit every line asking if you’re making some kind of claim that could be construed as brash if not ridonkulous.

2) Don’t try to be clever if you’re not naturally a comedian. I am not.

3) Know thy conflict. Beware the dangers of grocery listing the “cool happenings” in your story. Tell the story in terms of goals and obstacles. Write that back-cover blurb that makes you fork the money over.

I’m also not going to rail against agents for being horribly unfair gatekeepers. (By the way, you know I love the hero’s journey image at this agent’s blog.) The right fit with the right advocate is down that yellow brick road, but who knows how many twists, turns, and gnarly flora and fauna one must dodge, only to find that at the end, the answer was within. Remember, the Fab Four obsessed with seeing the Wizard only had to look within to find what they were lacking. It wasn’t up to the Wizard at all.

Back to that query.

Filed Under: query letters, rejection, revising