How does an agent judge your work from a short sample?


Feedback from clients has shown me that it isn’t widely understood why or how a professional reader would make suppositions about a full MS, without having read it in its entirety. 


The reason that agents ask for a synopsis plus a short intro (and sometimes an elevator pitch or one-sentence premise), is so that they can make a relatively speedy judgement, informed by the huge amount of prior reading they’ve done, without spending many unnecessary hours reading all their slush pile MSs in full. 


A professional reader has looked at many stories over many years, including full MSs which are requested and then often rejected. This gives them a huge mental bank of fiction which either has or hasn’t, for whatever reasons, worked at a commercial level. This is what agents draw on when they read your pitch, first chapters and synopsis. That mental bank of fiction allows an agent to predict sticking points, plot rabbit holes, or conflicts in genre and tone very quickly. Small things like repeated grammatical errors will also jump out to a professional reader. Any red flags may lead to your work being deleted without being fully read. Often, agents are so busy that they may not even bother to send a polite rejection. 


Here are just a few examples of things which can red flag a professional reader: 


  • use of a copyright symbol or a ‘confidential’ watermark throughout a MS (which implies the writer suspects their prose or ideas may be stolen); 
  • use of poor grammar in an approach letter or synopsis; 
  • a long or rambling approach letter or synopsis; 
  • comparable works suggested in visual fiction only; 
  • writers who clearly love their own work with no appreciation of the need to remain in service to the reader (this can be apparent in the approach letter); 
  • the use of dated fiction as an influence for your novel, which suggests you may be out of touch with what today’s readers enjoy.


If you need advice on writing a synopsis or a query letter, Jane Friedman has written two terrific articles to help: synopsis (linked here); and query letter (linked here).


Good luck, and happy writing!


19th April 2024

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