Clunk

One of those funny coincidences today. (ha.)

I’m at work on a handbook of academic assessment, and spending some of the day reading principles of effective feedback. The late educational assessment leader Grant Wiggins (“professional educational troublemaker of long standing”) claims that effective feedback has a few common characteristics:

  • It refers to the goal that someone’s trying to achieve—it helps me do what I want
  • It’s tangible and transparent—I can see and understand it immediately
  • It’s actionable—I can do something with it
  • It’s user-friendly—I can understand its terms and principles
  • It’s timely—it comes when I need to try again
  • It’s ongoing—I get feedback toward progress, not just my current condition
  • It’s consistent—the language and principles I’m aimed at remain steady

This is all good stuff, exactly what any of us would hope to provide as teachers or as informal coaches.

And as I’m reading, this other turd drops into my in-box:

Thank you for querying <agency> about your book project. We have evaluated your query and regrettably, your project is not a right fit for our agency.

We must be highly selective about the new projects we pursue. Thank you again for thinking of us. Please be well.

Sincerely,
<agency>

There are so many times our lives when the feedback is nothing but a binary: yes you did or no you didn’t. It isn’t feedback, really, in any meaningful way at all; it’s just a denied hall pass. It meets none of Wiggins’ seven principles. It is inert.

I actually had this following passage in the “book project” that was denied, about a different version of the information-free rejection:

Just then, Gwen’s phone pinged. She glanced at it, and laughed. “Well, I’m not going to MIT, anyway,” she said. “Look at this message line.” She handed me the phone with the e-mail notification from the MIT Office of Admissions: “Decision on your application.”

“I don’t even have to open that message to know I didn’t get in,” she said. “The ones who got in probably got a message that says something like ‘Welcome to MIT!’ This just has ‘sorry, too bad’ all over it.” She took the phone back, opened the message. “Yep. Sorry, too bad.” She stuck the phone back in her pocket. 

These are the messages we receive from those who have loads of slush to clear from the doorstep before their real work can get underway. And they already have plenty of real work. The rest of us are just a nuisance to be dispelled as efficiently as can be done.

And I’ll give this agency some credit: they sent a form letter. More than half, over the course of the years, have not. Those supplications have merely vanished. As Pepé Le Pew would say, Le Pouf.

(And can I be petty and quibble with their language? Sure I can… it’s not a book project. It’s a book. It’s not made out of Elmer’s glue and popsicle sticks. It’s not pine cones spray-painted gold and hot-glued onto a plywood ring to make a wreath. Come on… if you’re supposed to be some professional-user-of-words-kind-of-person, think about what your words imply. Try harder.)

I know they pretend kindness, but I think that the agentry industry ought to adopt a standardized form for rejections. I’ll even give them the draft:

Dear author:

No.

Why not? (choose one)

  • Inept writing in sample
  • Inept writing/formatting in query
  • Interesting, but it’s not a topic/genre I can sell among my editor contacts
  • Interesting, but nobody knows who you are

See how easy? And now I can do something with the feedback! I can work on my craft; I can rebuild and proofread my query; I can do some more market research and find a more closely allied agent; or I can hang onto it and try to build the platform some more. If I get twenty of these rejections, I can do some data analysis, find patterns in the frequencies.

Otherwise, as my working-class relatives in Michigan were fond of saying, it’s just a turd in the punchbowl.

Clunk.