It’s one thing to receive a rejection from an agent or a publishing house—few writers win the publishing lottery immediately. Your prospective agent may have hit their quota for urban robot romance, or maybe they’re just not buying what you’re selling.[i]
But rejection from a freelance editor can feel worse: what does it say about your book if someone won’t even read it for money?
Relax. The first thing you need to do is separate your ego from your manuscript. The editor who declined your work (probably) isn’t trying to crush your spirit; rather, they’re sending you an important message:
There’s still work to be done.
An honest editor will tell you if your manuscript isn’t ready for a professional editing process, and you should thank them for doing so. They’re alerting you to an opportunity to make your work better before you open your wallet. (After all, editing is a costly process, and it helps to know what you need.) This also means the editor is invested in seeing you generate your best work.
But a plethora of reasons exist for why a freelance editor might decline your manuscript. Me? I can break it down into four categories.
1) The manuscript reads like a first draft.
The narrative might be obfuscated or absent entirely. Characters are two-dimensional or fall prey to boring stereotypes. Perhaps the tense shifts constantly, or the dialogue consistently feels fake or forced. The point-of-view may not properly serve the narrative, or maybe the narrator spends too much time telling rather than showing. There may be widespread grammatical or typographical errors. And while a copy editor’s job is indeed to correct mistakes, an epidemic of errors often signals a narrative in its infancy.
I generally compose a detailed letter explaining my concerns, along with suggestions and examples that should lead to constructive next steps. Remember: First drafts are half-formed beasts that still have the potential to metamorphose dramatically. Embrace them.
2) The manuscript is incomplete.
It’s normal to have areas of concern, and there may be incompletions you can’t foresee. You know the story because it’s in your head, which makes it difficult to identify points of confusion or plot holes. But if your manuscript contains placeholder text or brackets that say [Insert Scene Here], it’s not ready for an editor.[ii] Think about your manuscript as a body: you need to create the skeleton, layer it with meat, and stretch some semblance of skin over it. And you really don't want someone fiddling with makeup when you’re going to pull the bones apart again.
The bottom line is that your editor is not a ghostwriter. If I foresee the need to significantly rewrite large swathes of the manuscript to make it interesting or readable, it’s not ready for my pen. My job is to help you shape, fire, and temper your work—not create it whole cloth.
3) The writer has unrealistic expectations.
I want to understand your goals; they help me accurately examine and revise your work. And at the basest level, they help me establish an editing schedule and protocol. But sometimes I receive requests I know I won’t be able to fulfill (nor should I). Your self-published indie novel probably won’t make it to the NYT Best Sellers’ list, even with my help. I also will not be able to line edit a 150,000-word novel in a single week.
Most importantly, I’m not going to finish your book for you. When you hire an editor, your work isn’t finished. Once you receive an edited manuscript, it’s your job to review the suggested changes and revise accordingly. This may be a substantial amount of work. If I suspect you aren’t willing to invest the time to polish your project, I’ll probably decline. Adjust your expectations.
4) The manuscript’s just not my jam.
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I’m offered work that doesn’t align with my values or my expertise. For the most part, this isn’t the writer’s fault: I like what I like. I won’t edit some nonfiction, particularly if it’s a thesis or dissertation—there are plenty of editors who specialize in academia. I also won’t edit religious works, and I actively avoid manuscripts that espouse hate, however inadvertently (e.g., racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sexism, etc.), or perpetuate harmful tropes. You may just need to shop your manuscript to a different editor. And, if I know who’d be a better fit, I won’t hesitate to recommend you to them.
Rejection isn’t a terminal diagnosis—it’s an opportunity for improvement. If you want to boost your self-editing skills, plenty of resources exist. Here are a few of my long-form favorites:
- Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King
- The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers by Bridget McKenna
You also should consider finding a critique group—online or in person—or engage beta readers to gain critical third-party feedback.
Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And don’t ever stop writing.