Translating Notes into Practical Tasks

For today’s Story Grid Bonus I’ll write about how to handle editorial criticism.  Meanwhile, I’m on my fourth run through my Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point and feeling good!  More to come on that front…

What do you do when you get comments from editors that seem vague and impossible to incorporate into your manuscript?

Here are some typical editor’s notes that have resulted in the abandonment of multiple years of a writers’ work into boxes stashed in the deepest recesses of attics:

“I never found myself becoming emotionally invested in the Story.”

“What began with promise, devolved into an overly plotted mess.”

“Unfortunately, there was just no irrepressible “oomph.”

These are just a few catch phrases of fiction editors at the Big Five publishing houses that litter thousands upon thousands of rejection letters. I know because I’ve used variations of all of them throughout my career to move material out of my inbox.

What do they mean?

More practically, how do you fix your book so that you won’t get these comments?

They sound like publishing death sentences, right? How can you revise your work to make some third party reader more “emotionally invested” or somehow streamline an overly plotted mess or get more “oomph” into the thing that took you four years to figure out?

Before I begin to answer those questions—and there are very simple solutions (but ones that require a lot of hard work)—Here is a bit of advice for those of you who have received these sorts of comments from multiple sources:

  1. First of all, if you’re getting these kinds of comments from objective evaluators (people you don’t know), your Story doesn’t work. It is unpublishable.

The sooner you recognize and admit that Truth, the better off you will be.

Now, you could certainly publish the book yourself and let the market decide. And maybe you’ll even prove the agents and editors wrong. Maybe there are enough people out there who will buy the work—who did get invested in what you wrote—and give you satisfaction.


There are plenty of books that have become monster bestsellers that the gatekeepers didn’t respond to. I love those stories of writers refusing to accept twelve or twenty publishing professionals opinions and finding their audiences themselves.

But here’s the thing. If you get these kinds of responses over and over again, you need to work harder. Maybe not for the marketplace.  But for yourself.  Because the market comes and goes, but you will be with you forever.

Of course there will be the occasional editor or agent who just bangs out a rejection without actually having read your book. You can tell those pretty quickly. I’m not saying to jump off the editorial bridge if you get a few of those.

If you are serious about your craft, though, you’ll know the Truth. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can get to work changing it. Proving people wrong is fine, but wouldn’t you rather spend that energy becoming a better writer?

2. Don’t blame the messenger.

The Editor has nothing personal against you. If you were to have a cup of coffee, she’d probably like you a lot and think you have promise. It’s just that she can’t simply write, “the book doesn’t work” and email that rejection to your agent. It alienates the people who help build her career.

Editors have decades long relationships with agents and they understand that agents need to give their clients “guidance” about how to move their writing forward. So editors pepper their rejection letters with editorial notes of a sort that agents can share with their clients to help them make sense of their loss. No matter how vaguely they are worded, the editorial evaluation is inherent in the rejections.

And don’t pretend it’s not excruciating. If it isn’t then you didn’t invest enough of yourself in the work.

Just remember that the acquisitions editor is not your enemy. She’d like nothing better than to be swept away by your work. She wasn’t though. And she reads seven to ten books a week. Think about that.

One last thing.  If you receive rejection letters that are only complimentary…don’t believe them!  There is something worse than being damned with faint praise…  That something is a letter that says your book is great, but they just don’t have room for it on their list or that there is an edict not to acquire additional titles at this time or…

Chances are your book is so out of the realm of possibility that it makes no sense for the editor to come up with any global helpful criticism.

  1. Editors and agents will not edit your book for you. They cannot and will not offer you a magical formula to make it all better.

They will not walk you through the steps necessary that you must take to fix your work. Nor will they tell you how to take the best of your draft and convert it into something completely new.

Here is a phrase that makes editors’ and agents’ stomachs’ churn…If you’d just tell me what I need to do to fix it, I’ll fix it!

Even if they could tell you exactly what to do to make your book publishable (and the truth is that most editors and agents can’t tell you that), the work required to do so is priceless. Asking for a formula is a telltale sign of an amateur.

It’s like sitting on the couch being thirty pounds overweight and believing that if a high-performance trainer would just take you on as a client, you’d be able transform yourself into a Navy Seal.

Is that possible?

I guess it’s possible, but do you think you’d get that trainer for free? How many sessions with the trainer would it take? Would you be able to keep your job as an on-call physician while you worked 12 hours a day on becoming a Navy Seal? My guess is no.

Being a professional writer requires just as much commitment as does being a Navy Seal, or a Doctor, or a Lawyer, or any other discipline.

The last I heard, you needed to trade years of your life in service to the Navy to even get a chance to become a Seal, and you have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of your life to become a doctor or lawyer… Why do you think you can get an overworked and under-compensated editor or agent to give you the keys to the writing kingdom for free?

They won’t.  Would you if you were in their shoes?

What all of this advice boils down to is that to write well, you need to learn how to edit. The very good news is that I believe you can teach yourself how to edit. All you need is commitment and a blue collar work ethic.

I’m no genius and I learned how to do it.

It took me a couple of decades to devise The Story Grid methodology. It is my intent that a concerted effort by anyone who comes to this site, follows and absorbs the lessons, and then uses Story Grids to evaluate their own work, will learn how to edit in far less time.

The big payoff, whether you use The Story Grid or not, is that when you understand Story from the point of view of the Editor, amorphous editorial commentary like “I didn’t emotionally connect” will transform into an internal autonomic response like, “Damnit! My Story spine is weak!”

And what you’ll do next is take another editorial pass through the book. But with a very specific goal.

In the next post I’ll write about the vertebrae of the Story spine in more depth and give you an additional tool to evaluate them in your Story.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts The Story Grid Bonus Material posts and Storygridding The Tipping Point posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

9 comments on “Translating Notes into Practical Tasks

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    These posts are incredibly helpful, but I’d argue one point Shawn – I think there is a bit of the genius in you. As always, thanks!

  2. I remember when I realized that art, far from being a purely magical thing, has a structure, rules, principles, and that I could learn them and be better at it.

    Some of what you say today reminds me of the claim that a question well asked is half answered. Most writers could come up with the answers — it’s the questions they don’t have. (Unless they come here.)

  3. Petrina says:

    Again, thank you. What I enjoy in reading your posts is your honesty. You tell it as it is, and for those willing to listen and put in the hard work the pay off will be a better manuscript to offer for publication.

  4. Tom says:

    Thanks, Shawn. I also make narrative documentary films and much of the Story Grid is applicable to the audiovisual medium too. So helpful!

  5. Mark McGinn says:

    ‘But do you think you’d get that trainer for free?’
    Well, Shawn that’s what you’ve been for me. Sure I bought your book, but you’d already offered all that content without fee. So a big thank you for the service you continue to provide for writers and to the benefit of readers!
    I work with a freelance editor who makes me chuckle with her comments. She can draw a line down a whole page and say, “Keep the pace up, reduce to one para.” She has said, “Sorry, doesn’t work – less is more,”, “Sorry – inadequate’ (when reading my character’s emotional state), and a range of other reasonably blunt and ambiguous comments. And frankly they are gold. She is gold! She will see my edited MS up to 3 times, sometimes. Now I have your guidance, I expect that will be less but my point is, that if we truly want our readers to love our work, there are no short cuts to getting it right. I love the editing – maybe too much, with tinkering, reducing/changing words and letting it get in the way of writing. But, thanks to you, I now see real editing is so far removed from that.
    Looking forward to learning more craft at Thrillerfest in a few days.

  6. This post is of immense value. That first (or second) rejection letter can produce the “toss it in a drawer” syndrome (it did for me, for a while), or it can make you decide to get after learning how to write. That’s so much better. I love the doctor/lawyer analogies (hits home for this brain surgeon).

    Thanks for this important work.

  7. Looking forward to the vertebrae!

  8. Justin Fike says:

    Thanks Shawn. Realizing the flaws in my work was one of those weirdly inverted moments in life; on the one hand depressing, but on the other I remember how excited I was once I caught on that I actually understood specifically what was wrong and how to go about fixing it. So much better than the vague sense of “it doesn’t work”. Investing in learning to edit and to understand internal story structure has proven well worth the effort, and that’s come in no small part through your work and teaching. Looking forward to next week!

  9. Larry says:

    Something I’m wondering about:

    In this scenario, the editor’s reaction is that the story doesn’t work. But the agent (whose professional expertise is such that the editor wants to maintain a good relationship with them) DOES think it works, else they wouldn’t have taken it on and sent it to an editor. (This is assuming the agent doesn’t have some other motive for doing so, e.g., the author is the nephew of someone important.)

    So, what does an editor look for in a story that an agent doesn’t look for?

Leave a Comment