Jennifer Laughran, a children’s book agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, recently commented on writers who submit queries to agents only in order to get free feedback. She called the practice rude. I’d say aspiring authors who resort to such tactics are cheapskates—the sort who don’t possess the qualities they need to launch the careers they envision for themselves.
The fact is there are many ways to obtain writing critiques, and it’s always conspicuous when a writing sample hasn’t undergone this crucial step. Given the abundance of online information about the process of getting published, there’s no reason for writers to err by rushing ahead when they’re unprepared.
Jane Friedman’s blog is a constant source of encouragement and reliable advice for creative writers. In “4 Ways to Make the Most of a Critique Group,” she suggests that writers should “cultivate humility.” Novice writers sometimes assume this expectation is intended to keep them oppressed by an unfair, exploitive publishing industry. Actually, humility is about giving due consideration to readers. Individuals who are confused by this concept simply don’t know what they don’t know.
Writers who treat their work as a profession obtain preliminary feedback from critique groups, in graduate and undergraduate writing programs, at writers’ conferences and workshops, and from editors who are paid by the word, project, or hour. Successful writers don’t scoff at valid criticism. They use it as a basis for manuscript revisions. They gradually learn to accept all feedback graciously or respond to it soberly and with extreme tact, because they’re rehearsing for occasions when they’ll receive a lot more of it without asking.
I’d go as far as saying that the most promising prospective clients I encounter have been published in some form before they approach me. They aren’t clueless about the quality of their work. They’ve experienced having their writing edited, the value of which James Scott describes in “Working with an Editor… and Learning How to Learn.”
Writers may not be confident of knowing precisely when they’re ready to seek representation and publication, but they can be certain they’re unprepared if they have never obtained valid critiques of their work. The omission will be written all over their queries, their manuscripts, and their self-published stories.