The Most Likely Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected For Publication by Ally Machate

Here are some more wonderful elaborated notes from the fourth program from Bay to Ocean Writers Conference 2016:  “Polishing Your Work for Publication,” by Ally Machate.  If you’re getting ready to start submitting to agents and editors, you need to check out these points now to make sure everything is ready to go.  Good luck!

Why is polished work important?

The competition is STIFF and editors are overworked, underpaid, and short-handed. They’re looking for a reason to say no before they even read the first word of your story.  It’s important to always be professional at the highest level you can be so they have every reason to say yes to you.  Make it your mission to make their job easy to say YES to you.  Editors want projects where they can see the finish line and spend less time nurturing a work.


In 2013, 30,000,000 manuscripts were rejected and only 100,000 were accepted by publishers, according to Bowker, which provided ISBN numbers for books.  An ISBN is an International Standard Book Number.  All published books need one, including self-published books.  (To my knowledge, Amazon does have an option to publish without an ISBN, but I don’t recommend that because 1) it’s unprofessional and 2) there’s no way for your book to stand out in the sea of books.)

Here are the most common problems she (Ally) sees in manuscripts:

1. Unnatural dialogue and voice.

Read your novel aloud to yourself, record it to listen back, or have someone else read it to you. This will help you notice mistakes you might overlook when you read silently.

Even in nonfiction, your narrative voice is your voice. Do people really talk that way?

Use contractions, especially in dialogue. Italicize if you really need to avoid the contraction for purposes of emphasis.

Formal vs. Informal dialogue: Does your character talk this way? Different characters should speak differently based on their origins, dialects, education level, and even speech impediments.  Dialogue is a great way to show diversity in your story.


2. Too many adverbs. 

Consider how you can convey emotions through your writing, instead of through the use of adverbs. (ie. He yelled angrily vs. He yelled until his face turned purple.)  Usually in writing, an adverb is a glaring red flag that you as the writer need to use a stronger verb.

3. Revision casualties like…

* Loose ends, plot points, explanations that don’t go anywhere.  Every word in your story needs to have a purpose.

* Sentences beginnings or ends, random words forgotten during editing.  Your sentences should begin and end with the strongest word possible.

* Floating punctuation.

* Faulty chronology (when scenes are switched around or when a character seems to be in two places at the same time) and bad math (if John, who’s 33, is three years older than Mary, who you tell us is 29.)

* Characters introduced but never seen again, or characters who appear from nowhere. They’re just suddenly there in the scene without introduction. (These are all speed bumps for the reader.)

* Sudden name changes or incongruent descriptions.

* Unexplained movement through time and space (like if a character who seems to still be sitting at a table is now suddenly removing something from the refrigerator with no mention of how he got there.)


Here are some words you should strive to delete in your writing:

* Subjective words that mean nothing on their own because everyone views them differently: beautiful, attractive, elegant, embarrassing, wonderful, powerful, hilarious, interesting, boring, stupid

* Other meaningless or redundant words to use sparingly: as, so, but, that, pretty, some, very, has, really, just, was, all, seen, clearly, obviously

* Empty adverbs: actually, totally, absolutely, completely, constantly, continuously, literally, really, ironically, incredibly

Instead, choose your descriptive words:

* melting snow vs slush

* naive young girl vs ingenue

Every word you use creates a picture in the reader’s mind.  You want to always give the most accurate description possible, but that doesn’t always mean you have to use more words.



* Awkward phrasing. Say things in the easiest way and don’t be faux literary (or affected). Being grammatically correct might make a sentence more confusing for the reader. Read it to yourself. If it trips you up, it will trip up the reader.

* Repeating words, filler words, redundancies

* Passive voice and weak sentences.  What’s passive voice?  Explanation from Wikipedia: Passive voice is when the noun or noun phrase that would be the object of an active sentence (such as Our troops defeated the enemy) appears as the subject of a sentence with passive voice (e.g. The enemy was defeated by our troops).

* Cliches and stereotyping, which are considered lazy. They’re a way of offering an image everyone already knows, so you can get out of having to explain it yourself.

* Monotonous rhythm.  Vary your sentence structure to reflect what’s happening in the character’s world.  Are things speeding up, slowing down, getting sad, excited, tense?

* Accidental word swaps and misspellings


Show, don’t tell

* Use showing or telling about 50/50 for a well-balanced book.

* Think: Can I show this in a more interesting way?

When you think you’re ready, get another opinion.  You can’t be entirely objective of your work. Find someone to read your book who isn’t legally or emotionally obligated to be nice to you (ie. spouse, best friend..) Another writer or editor is ideal.


Editors are craving a strong voice and clean writing.  You have the ability to deliver both of those things!

  • Carol Nissenson

    I’ve heard the adverb admonition before, and yet when I look through any book I’ve loved, from Bronte to YA, there are adverbs on nearly every page. In fact, I can open to any page at random, and within two pages, I will find at least one adverb, usually more (just tried it with a dozen books). So, while I understand the concept, I think it’s silly as a hard and fast rule. There wouldn’t be a book in print if publishers followed it.

    • I love that you mentioned this, Carol. I’ve also noticed the adverbs in printed books, and it makes me wonder… Perhaps we’ll see a shift in this “rule” in the near future. 🙂

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