Translating Notes into Practical Tasks

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

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.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

Share this Article:

🟢 Twitter🔵 Facebook🔴 Pinterest


Sign up below and we'll immediately send you a coupon code to get any Story Grid title - print, ebook or audiobook - for free.

(Browse all the Story Grid titles)


Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.