Discover more from In Kahoots with Kvita
Determining when vague critique is inactionable is a vital publishing skill
At many stages along the way, you will receive vague critique.
Writing, querying, on sub, talking to betas, published. Vague critique is not the same as a form rejection, because form rejections give no craft-based reasons for rejection and vague critique does. I like form rejections, they are soothing to my soul, but vague critique’s consequences exemplify the power imbalance between agents/editors and writers.
The agents and editors reading your work often read or receive hundreds of submissions a week. When they’re turning you down it’s usually easiest (it’s usually practical) to issue a form rejection. Or if they do offer a line of feedback, stay very vague.
This is not a fit for my list or It’s just not for me. Whenever you receive a rejection, the reason really is it’s just not for me. If it was for them—whatever for them means, because representing a book or buying a book to publish and just generally liking a book are not the same thing—they’d help you edit the hell out of your manuscript. So when I see these form responses I know I’m just up against the general subjectivity of the publishing machine. Some people find this infuriating. I think these are the easiest rejections to receive. To me, it just means it wasn’t anything personal. It’s the cleanest break, and I appreciate that.
It’s when vague rejections seem actionable on the surface that it’s time to beware. Vague critique is typically brief, just a couple of craft-based (plot, pacing, character, prose) lines about why they rejected that are actually entirely nonspecific. You can get these from anyone, so nothing about this newsletter is a critique of agents or editors specifically—again, I like form rejections, I think they’re usually the way to go, and I can’t stop people from giving vague critique especially since determining rejection patterns is useful—it just takes a bit of experience and skill on the part of the writer to realize what’s actually actionable and what isn’t. When you’re brand new and querying you may not know yet that a vague rejection can be set aside instead of picked apart.
A helpful piece of feedback, for instance, could be, in the first three chapters of your book the pacing is too slow for my taste because your language is too densely packed with exposition. It’s a specific piece of feedback. If you agree, you can revise the first three chapters knowing that you’re revising to cut exposition.
I am rejecting your book because I had trouble with the pacing tells you much less. Is it too fast? Too slow? Why does the pacing feel wrong? If it’s too slow, what bits seem unnecessary and what remains vital? This is the sort of vague critique that might on the surface seem actionable but ultimately really isn’t, and it’s a vital skill as a writer to be able to identify this. A writer might think, okay, a pacing issue, I can work on that. But then when they dive in, they don’t actually know precisely what to work on. At that stage, you’re so desperate for any feedback that you take it more seriously than you probably should. You second guess, you pull apart your previous decisions trying to decipher what that means, you write and rewrite, you burn yourself out. This is especially insidious at the querying phase when you don’t have an agent in your corner to help you interpret feedback and cheer you on.
This is especially insidious in today’s querying landscape, where even vague rejections are extremely hard to come by. It means writers are extra aware of what feedback they do manage to get and risk jumping on every little note.
Sometimes, you should just ignore it. I’m not advocating for reckless confidence, but I am suggesting that when possible you should look past individual critique and focus on patterns. If several agents say they have trouble with the pacing in your submission, it’s likely time to take stock and pull in a friend or two to try and rework your pacing. Get someone to give you specific feedback, or if you already personally have a sense of what might be going awry, then revise! In other words, if you need feedback your best bet is a trusted critique partner, not the bread crumb trail of rejections you might receive. Consider vague critique only in the aggregate, not individually.
If only one agent/editor/feedback-giver says something and you don’t really know what they mean, no matter how nice they seem to be, you should not upend your work. Not everyone is your reader! Not everyone “gets” what you’re trying to do! Often revision with intent to publish is about making your message legible to as many people as you reasonably can without losing your vision, but you will never make it legible to absolutely everyone.
So, this newsletter is for the querying writers, the writers on sub receiving vague, inactionable feedback masquerading as something else. Stop and really think about what you’re being asked. Agents and editors do not inherently know more than you, and you don’t have to automatically fault your work if someone says I couldn’t stay engaged with the story or these characters didn’t pull me in or the mix of x and y in your world didn’t come together for me or this book isn’t ready to be submitted yet (which is something I saw recently that really grinds my gears! Sometimes a book isn’t ready, but you shouldn’t push your opinion onto the writer and try to get them to stop trying. Please be mindful of any power imbalance!)
You’re allowed to look at feedback and brush it off. You’re allowed to wait for more data before making decisions. Be open to critique, but discerning enough to tell when it’s actually actionable. Surround yourself with critique partners that get invested with you and can give you that (respectful!) specific feedback.
Thanks for reading In Kahoots with Kvita! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.