Rejections – Slow Personal vs Quick Form – Writers Weigh In

Artwork by Shugo rai

In the life of a literary agent, the submission pile is a never-ending weight on our shoulders. As I write this, I have around 80 requested full manuscripts awaiting my response. But I’m looking to sign only two clients by the end of the summer, maybe three. So obviously 70+ are going to have to be rejected. And in my particular case, I feel a lot of guilt over the manuscripts that I can’t decide on. The ones that sit in my inbox for more than three months. I know what it’s like to be a writer with a novel on submission, how exciting a full request is and how heartbreaking a pass is on that full after months of hopeful waiting. So I can’t bring myself to send a form response to those writers that I’ve requested fulls from, especially when I’ve sat on them for so long. Which means I take even longer to respond because I want to add a personal touch to my response, a reason I am passing but yet an encouraging note over that. I assumed all authors felt the same way. But you know what they say about people who assume…

Almost half voted for a quick form rejection! This made me seriously rethink my strategy. Perhaps there is a middle ground? A form letter that has been tweaked? What do you think? Would love comments and further opinions on this as I continue to evolve my submission pile strategy.


  • Peter L. Ciarrocchi

    July 1, 2016 at 12:14 am Reply

    Thanks for your concern to ask.

    Time is the most precious commodity we have. As a person in need of an agent, I would like not to lose anymore of it than necessary. A polite ‘not for me’ is better than waiting for further comments.

    Waiting is torture. The longer one waits . . . the chance for ‘false hope’, or mental frustrations builds.

    I tip my hat to you, Mary. I consider any agent that will give some form of reply a true professional. Those agents that excuse themselves from replying at all – not so much.

    The fact you care whether, or not, a more personal response is better, reflects upon your strength-of-character.

    I will be submitting my query to you soon.

    If it is not for you, do not concern yourself with a more personal response. Your professionalism in responding at all is greatly appreciated by myself. And I would safely assume those other writers would feel the same.

    Thank you for being a professional literary agent.

  • Diane Mulligan

    June 19, 2016 at 5:18 pm Reply

    As a writer in the midst of querying, I would love personal feedback that helped me better understand what agents seek, but most of the customized rejections I’ve gotten haven’t had actionable feedback anyway. They say things like “I didn’t connect to the storyline,” which doesn’t help me improve my manuscript. One agent said she loved the writing style and voice, but had to pass anyway. Why? I don’t know. Another said “the writing was strong enough,” which directly contradicts the other agent’s take and also isn’t specific enough to be actionable. Thus, I have to say, I’d rather a speedy form letter than to wait for personal response.

    Side note, there are few things worse than form letters that begin, “Unfortunately…” Um, yeah, I know it’s unfortunate for me when I get a rejection. Also, disclaimers about how very busy one is and therefore how one must be totally in love with a project, and so on, just make me feel totally depressed because all I needed to hear was:

    “Thanks for the opportunity to take a look, but I have to pass at this time. Best of luck.”

    • Diane Mulligan

      June 19, 2016 at 5:19 pm Reply

      Correction — agent rejected it saying “the writing wasn’t strong enough” — maybe it was typos like that one! Eek!

    • Mary C. Moore

      June 21, 2016 at 8:49 pm Reply

      Interesting, I use “unfortunately” a lot because I truly do feel it’s unfortunate. I wish I could help all the authors who pass through my box, but sadly I cannot.

  • Sandie Docker

    June 5, 2016 at 5:58 am Reply

    On queries a quick form is fine and infinitely better than no response at all.

    But on Fulls, it’s incredibly heartbreaking to only get a quick form. If an agent requests a full you think you’re in with half a chance, so you want to know why if they say no.

    I’ve had 18 full requests across 2 MS’s and still don’t know why I’m not getting a yes, because there is so little feedback. We already know it’s a slow business. I for one would be happy to wait a little longer if it meant learning how to improve.

    • Mary C. Moore

      June 5, 2016 at 7:56 pm Reply

      I wish it was easy to give specific feedback to every writer. Sometimes it really just gets down to taste though. With that many close calls, it sounds like you just need to find the agent/editor whose tastes align with yours!

  • Sara L. Card

    May 25, 2016 at 11:47 pm Reply

    I’m in the “slow personal” camp, especially if the response is specific, pointing out an area of weakness vs. just-not-right-for-me, but I’m always honored by a personal note. A personal note, even a short one, always makes me feel like I’ve presented quality work and that is being recognized, which is a nice feeling even if I’m being rejected overall.

    • Mary C. Moore

      May 26, 2016 at 4:46 pm Reply

      Thanks for the input!

  • Lori Bentley Law

    May 19, 2016 at 7:47 pm Reply

    I think your middle ground idea is spot on. Having been in that situation many times, getting a form rejection from a full is really frustrating, but I also understand how many manuscripts an agent needs to get through. Even one sentence clarifying what didn’t work for you helps the author reevaluate the manuscript. Like “just couldn’t empathize with the main character!” 🤓

    • Mary C. Moore

      May 26, 2016 at 4:46 pm Reply

      That’s what I assume most writers want, but even that one line makes it take longer.

  • Abigail Welborn

    May 17, 2016 at 10:14 pm Reply

    I second Dave’s response. If there’s something you CAN point to (I got bored around x or the MC wasn’t believable or whatever) then add a note to the form rejection and call it good. But if there’s nothing you can point to, that’s feedback in itself, right? Then “I just didn’t love it” would be kind-of encouraging to me because at least I don’t have huge glaring obvious errors I should have fixed.

    Also something I’ve been thinking about: if the ms is from a diverse author, they face an uphill battle to get noticed, so maybe give their ms a little more time if you can’t figure out why you’re rejecting it. (Like women in tech need men to help them because they need to be better than men to get noticed, POC and other diverse authors in some ways need to be better than a white author would be to get noticed, so they need “insiders” to help if it’s there. As a white woman in tech, I don’t want a lower bar but I may need a boost so that people can see I’m really above it. 🙂 )

    • Mary C. Moore

      May 18, 2016 at 12:20 am Reply

      Interesting, thanks for your insight.

  • Adana Washington

    May 17, 2016 at 6:59 pm Reply

    As another writer in your slush pile, I’ve kind of torn. On one hand, I would love feedback on what didn’t work for you with my manuscript. On the other, I’d be okay with quickly finding out that it just didn’t work. I think I’d prefer to have the band-aid ripped off than to sit with it for months with the hopes that I won’t have to rip it off at all. But that may be partly due to the misplaced sense of hope that comes from having your manuscript requested and kept for so long. While logical, it seems that if an agent is excited about your manuscript, you’d hear from them rather quickly, the sheer amount of work an agent has to do before even getting to your manuscript flies in the face of that.

    I would suggest creating a few forms for the most common issues that you find with manuscripts, and using those for the 70+ manuscripts that will be rejected. The personalized feedback could then be reserved for the ones on the maybe pile that don’t end up making it.

    Not sure how helpful that will be. But thank you for reaching out to us and listening to our opinions.

    • Mary C. Moore

      May 18, 2016 at 12:20 am Reply

      Yes it is true, sometimes if a manuscript lands on my desk that is exactly what I’m looking for, I may jump on reading it. This is a super rare occurrence. Usually the manuscripts I like more will sit longer in my pile. Horrible I know.

      I like the “few forms” idea. Might try it out.

  • Dave Pasquantonio

    May 17, 2016 at 6:55 pm Reply

    For fulls or partials, I’d prefer the fastest response that also comes with some kind of personalization, even a sentence or two. Generic rejections for the query letter? Perfectly fine. Getting a full (or even partial) request from an agent is exhilarating for us aspiring writers. I’d hope that since the agent is putting in some time to read the requested material, they can add a sentence or two about why they’re passing, and they can tell the truth — they’re passing for a valid reason. Any feedback is better than no feedback.

    • Mary C. Moore

      May 18, 2016 at 12:18 am Reply

      So you’re in the “slow personal” camp then.

  • Caryn Larrinaga

    May 17, 2016 at 4:55 pm Reply

    As another one of those fulls that’s weighing on you, I’m also torn on this. I think that if the reason you’re passing is really just that you don’t feel like the right person to champion the MS, a form rejection is totally appropriate. As heartbreaking as they can be to receive, I get it. And if that’s the reason, I’d rather get a faster response so that I can move on and try to find that agent who *does* feel like the right champion.

    But if there’s a specific reason, like you stopped reading at page X because the story slowed down too much, or you felt like the voice was all wrong, that’s really valuable feedback and I think most writers (including me) would appreciate even a single sentence expressing that.

    Thanks for checking in to see how other writers feel, and good luck with your deliberations!

    • Mary C. Moore

      May 18, 2016 at 12:17 am Reply

      Thank you for sharing. I hope you continue to search for an agent even when another has the full under consideration as on our end we assume that’s what all writers are doing and this does factor into our response timeline.

      • Caryn Larrinaga

        May 18, 2016 at 5:05 pm Reply

        Oh, definitely. My search for agents who look like they might be a good fit is still trucking along. But there’s sort of an emotional hold that happens when an agent has the full under consideration, where a lot of hope and optimism is invested in that possibility. So I meant moving on in more of that sense. 🙂

  • Jessica Ireland

    May 17, 2016 at 12:58 pm Reply

    This is a tough one, speaking as one of the writers of those 80 full manuscripts in your pile. I voted for the slow, personal response as the words “not the right fit” are fair, but they provide no insight as to the problem. One doesn’t know if the issue lies in the query itself, the genre or if the writing isn’t strong enough or if the agent had another unknown reason. Personally, I don’t think the query (or full for that matter) response needs to be lengthy, but a more specific reason would be great. One sentence would be preferable to the form letter of “not the right fit”. That said, I do understand agents are insanely busy so this is asking a lot from a rejection and I have never begrudged a form letter.

    Thank you for asking this question even if the response was split almost down the middle.

    • Mary C. Moore

      May 18, 2016 at 12:15 am Reply

      Personal responses to queries would be far too time-consuming. But the fulls, that’s where I’m stuck. Thanks for your input!

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