Lessons from Sociology

I took a class this quarter called the Sociology of Rational Decision Making. While the subject matter is somewhat self-explanatory, thinking about decisions themselves allowed me to reconsider some of the decisions I’ve made without even thinking about them as decisions, and it provided me with some insight about query-reading that I think could be useful for all aspiring writers.

Last summer I interned with a literary agency and was in charge of reading the slush pile. Since I am also an aspiring writer, I often found myself straddling two different identities, which is something I think most agents deal with.

When I am wearing my writer cap, I know the pain of condensing your masterpiece into a mere paragraph for a query or summarizing it in a bland synopsis; of searching through agent websites and wondering if they will be good enough, or if they will deign to read your work; of waiting and waiting and waiting for a response only to get a dreaded rejection.

But when I open a query letter, the writer in me is on the backburner. I am thinking of what will sell, of what looks interesting, not of what the writer has gone through to get that query in my inbox. My sociology course talks about bounded rationality: when people make decisions, they do not evaluate all the alternatives, but go through each alternative until they find one that is satisfactory. In each query, I have to make multiple decisions.

As you can see, saying no takes a lot less time than saying yes. My sociology class also says that people have selective attention because they cannot possibly pay attention to everything presented to them. That means I am trying to limit how much attention I give this query, so I am sometimes hoping it will be a no so I can take care of it more quickly. The tree illustrates that it is only once I get to the actual pitch that I am indifferent about whether it is good or not. Before that, it will mean less work to say no than to say yes.

When the writer in me sees what the intern in me is doing, it is horrified. I want agents to give my query the benefit of the doubt when they are reviewing it. But it’s not that I am cold-hearted and don’t care about finding good fiction. I simply need to manage my time. Many crime shows show the difference between the theory of innocent until proven guilty and the reality of having to prove innocence; in the end, it is just plain easier to look for a reason to reject than to look for a reason to accept.

The takeaway, then, is that to get past bounded rationality and selective attention, the query needs to answer yes to all those questions: to be well-researched, well-revised, and well-written. Don’t give them a reason to reject, and they might just have to request more.

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Giving Feedback

I am the managing editor of an on-campus literary magazine here at Northwestern, and we’ve just finished accepting submissions for our spring issue. It’s the first issue under our new leadership, so we’re all trying to figure out what exactly we want to do with the magazine. One conversation we recently had was whether to give feedback to writers or not.

My suggestion was to return each submission with editorial comments, even if we are rejecting it. However, some of the other people on our staff were concerned that this might be salt on the wound for the rejections. Not only are we telling you we’re not going to publish it, but we’re also telling you what we think is wrong with the piece.

As someone who has been rejected, I both understand and don’t understand this point of view. Rejection is hard, no matter what, and it always stings to hear that someone doesn’t like something you have written. But most people I know immediately start to parse the rejection and look for clues about why it was rejected. What did they do wrong? If you read any agent blog, you see justifications for why they can’t give feedback on every single query or submission: writers are craving explanations.

This is not just because writers are masochists. One of the ways to learn writing is to learn how readers react to your writing–in fact, my favorite kind of critique is to find out how the readers reacted to a certain part of the story and why. After all, writing is about getting a reaction, be it emotional, physical, spiritual, or intellectual. The most valuable thing to learn, then, is how to evoke certain reactions.

Many beginning writers dread workshops or revisions because they hate finding out what is wrong with their book. Many experienced writers have the same fear. But I think once you’ve been around the block a few times, you learn that after the pain comes revelations and better work. I recently had a long talk with a fellow writer about our work (I was critiquing hers and she was critiquing mine). We spent nearly an hour going back and forth about our projects. Sure, it hurt a little to hear which parts didn’t work. It always will. But at the same time, I was generating ideas of how to fix it, and I know my writing will be better for the revision. Feedback is essential to becoming a better writer, so I say give it whenever you can.