The Unhelpful Rejection Letter

By Tamela Hancock Murray, @Tamela_Murray

Have you ever received an unhelpful rejection letter that says, “Sorry, but this just isn’t a fit for us.”? I have. And I’ve also written more of these rejections than I’d like to admit. In fact, after I write this post, I may just have to send out twenty more.

Some authors write back to say, “Can’t you tell me what I can do better? What suggestions do you have?” I’m sure I frustrate writers when I tell them I can’t comment further. As a published author in my own right, I understand why writers want feedback. So now let me tell you why I don’t feel it’s in your best interest for me to offer feedback when the answer is a firm no.

Lead Me On

When you were in high school, you kept from encouraging people you didn’t want to date, right? Sometimes those people were nice and would make a great match for someone else. Just not you. You hated the fact you couldn’t, in your heart of hearts, be passionate enough about spending time with them to accept invitations for dinner. But how to tell them without gaining an enemy forever? Ouch!

I don’t want make writers, especially my lovely friends, think I’m going to introduce their work to editors if I have no intention of doing so. If I tell you, “Well, I’d like this better if the heroine’s eyes were blue and her name was Sally,” and you changed both factors and sent it back to me, you’d expect me to pursue your work. Now, in truth, I might think your book would be better with blue-eyed Sally instead of green-eyed Sarah, but another agent might disagree. Unless I’m serious about pursuit, it’s better for me to keep my opinion to myself.

Tick Tock Tick Tock

Another factor in a lack of meaningful comment is time. I would love to mentor more writers, but time doesn’t allow. I’m simply not able to give each writer with a shred of promise a line-by-line edit. Until you are published and receiving meaty critiques from professional editors at publishing houses, look for critique partners to do heavy edits. And expect to return the favor many times over. Even better, learn self-editing so your critiques are light both in critique group and from the editor at your publishing house.

And realize that even a morsel of advice can take considerable time to compose so that it is genuinely helpful.

You Owe Me!

When you follow up with an editor or agent after a conference, you may be disappointed if you receive an unhelpful rejection letter. But for the reasons I’ve stated, you’ll have to swallow disappointment even when you’ve made a great personal connection. Some editors and agents may go the extra mile with a few comments based on the great time you had over lunch at conference, but they don’t owe you. Remember, agents and editors are more swamped than ever after big conferences so they may be treading water with the tsunami of resulting submissions.


Believe it or not when we do provide a bit of critique or advice a few writers take it as an affront and fire vitriol in return. Steve Laube shared this final salvo from a person he tried to help by saying the manuscript was too long for the current market:

You have rejected the proposal, so why do you insist on insulting me? Why does it matter to you? My manuscript is what it is and everything included is vital information … Please do not email me again.

A Forever No?

In my view, a rejection letter is not a forever no, even if you feel the letter is unhelpful. You can always try again with a new submission, especially if you have worked hard to improve the material. Persistence is just as helpful in writing as it is any other profession.

The Helpful Rejection Letter

Did you score a helpful rejection letter? One that provides specific advice or critique? Rejoice! It’s the next best thing to an acceptance. The helpful rejection almost always means the agent is engaged in your work and is taking the time to groom you for possible representation. Listen, heed, and resubmit.

Your Turn

What was the most helpful rejection letter you ever received?

What was the worst rejection letter you’ve received?

Did you follow up on advice given in a rejection letter? What happened?

Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency is a literary agent and is ACFW’s Agent of the Year for 2017. She brings to her clients her past experience as a bestselling novelist and author of nonfiction as well. Her fiction has been recognized with an RWA Inspirational Readers Choice Award. Tamela has been a literary agent since 2001, joining The Steve Laube Agency in 2011. A native Virginian, she holds a BA with honors in Journalism from Lynchburg College, and lives in Northern Virginia. She and her husband of over 30 years are the parents of two bright and beautiful daughters. An avid reader, Tamela feels blessed by the Lord to have a career in Christian publishing, where she enjoys long-term relationships with key publishing professionals in every top CBA publishing house.



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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