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How to Respond When an Agent Gives You Negative Feedback

Receiving criticism is always difficult, in any area of our lives. As writers, we’re often so close to the subject matter that criticism can strike us at our core, even if the feedback is insightful and well-intentioned.

What about when that feedback comes from an agent, the gatekeeper to sending your material to publishers? In our last coaching meeting, we discussed this conundrum and several of you wanted to know: How do you stay true to the essence of your project, but also remain open to market feedback and a possible new business relationship?

Today, we’ll be sharing advice for receiving and responding to feedback on your work, with actionable tips you can immediately implement when asking agents, writing partners, or even mom and dad to share their thoughts on your writing:

  • Politeness pays off. Remember that publishing is an extremely tight-knit industry, and the relationships you build in the field now can affect your career down the line. Be respectful of the time and energy an agent or editor took to review your work. Even if you don’t agree with all their critiques, take time to consider why they might have suggested them.
  • The market decides. Ideally, the agent you’re communicating with will have her finger on the pulse on the market for your book. She knows the successful titles in your genre and sees what is selling to her contacts. If her feedback is less than glowing, it’s likely less personal than you think. If you’re unable to see eye to eye, politely reference successful comparative examples to make your case. Know that if your agent is editorially involved to begin with, she’s on your side, and is looking to see the product reach its fullest potential. Make sure you’re listening with an objective ear: is her guidance helping your work to stand out on a crowded shelf? Is it helping to identify the audience you hope to connect with? Take market feedback to heart and use it judiciously to improve the positioning of your book.
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  • Ask for clarity. Writing can be a confusing and messy process, and it’s better to ask thoughtful and direct questions than to make assumptions. For example, if you don’t like a particular “comp” that an agent has suggested, try to hone in specifically on what the agent is appreciating that you aren’t. Voice? Characters? Writing style? Audience?
  • Your work is your own. If you feel strongly that a suggestion isn’t the right direction for your novel or proposal, know that you have every right to respectfully challenge and push back. It’s possible the publisher you find will ultimately agree with you! However, before you do so, make sure you’ve taken the time to fully consider the agent’s perspective.
  • Will they see a revision? Always ask if the agent is willing to see a revision. This demonstrates that you’re grateful for their feedback and willing to do the work. It keeps the relationship warm and the door open for further collaboration down the line. If the answer is yes, take your time and get it right. Don’t rush revisions on the basis of perceived urgency—an agent would prefer hearing from you in two years vs. two months if it meant you’ve spent the time constructively, getting a professional edit, or building your audience to more significant numbers.

Are there other strategies for receiving and using feedback constructively that we’ve missed? We’d love to hear from you.