Polling Editors & Agents

What are editors and agents looking for in writers? What cues do they use to judge whether their work is creative? Recently my wife and I polled editors and agents on how they evaluate writers during pitch meetings. Here are the results of the survey.

My wife is a children’s fiction writer. She grew up in Cuba reading novels like “Arabian Nights,” thinking about life far away from her government-run country. Today, she works as a ghost writer, translator and fiction writer; and she leads two critique groups year-round for other writers.

Her friends often ask her how editors and agents evaluate a writer’s creative potential when they first meet. Recently in my leadership research, I read an interesting study on how Hollywood producers evaluate new sit-com pitches from writers. Elsbauch and Kramer (2003) spent several years observing and interviewing TV and movie executives who solicited screenplays from writers and agents.

They proposed that producers use a two-judgment process of a writer’s creativity, when first encountering writers in a pitch meeting. They first size them up personally, and match their personal cues with a limited set of writer stereotypes. Secondly, they focus on their feelings from the interaction. If they find themselves getting excited, or losing track of time, then they know they have found a creative project.

To learn more about editors and agents, I reconfigured Elbach and Kramer’s research into a questionnaire that might determine whether writer prototypes and interactive cues are present in the world of book publishing. My wife and I conducted the survey for five days from June 27 – July 1st. My aim was to refine my survey instrument with a developmental sample. But the survey itself, while not statistically significant of the 6,000 editors and agents in the United States, does suggest how they might judge creativity.

At the end of this article is a link to the full survey we conducted on Survey Monkey. But here is a summary. Of the 15 participants we polled, 13 were editors, 2 were agents. Three editors came from the same publishing company. The most interesting finding for writers, which compares favorably with the Hollywood study, was that editors and agents value writers who are artist or storytellers, over nonwriters or journeymen. Here is the order of preferrence our survey found:

  • Artist: brillant writer, passionate, but lacks social graces
  • Storyteller: high concept writer, charismatic personality
  • Dealmaker: relates story idea to commercial appeal
  • Neophyte: young writer, little experience, but passionate
  • Nonwriter: pitches ideas broadly, slick, but no real writing talent
  • Journeyman: low concept writer, will deliver formulaic writing

The second major finding of our poll was that editors and agents look for writers who show passion, and who get them excited. They also judge writers as creative, to the degree they find they can collaborate with them.

Here is how the editors and agents ranked their own responses to writers. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1=low potential; 5= high potential), responses 1, 2, and 3 scored highest, with scores 4.40, 4.07, and 3.69, respectively. Responses 5, 6 and 7 were lowest with average scores of 1.60, 1.33, and 1.08, respectively.

  1. I lose track of time in my excitement over the idea
  2. I find myself smiling, asking the writer questions
  3. I find myself contributing my own ideas to the proposal
  4. I find myself making routine requests of the writer to change their proposal
  5. I become irritated at the writer’s inability to respond to my suggestions
  6. I find myself thinking about other things than the pitch I’m hearing
  7. I find myself talking as an expert to an incompent

One difference between this survey and the Hollywood study was that editors and agents in the publishing industry confirmed they used a third element to judge a writer’s creative performance, beyond the writer’s character or personal interactive impressions. That third item was the first pages of a manuscript and a written synopsis, or plot and character summaries that authors provide editors and agents. As a factor to judge creativity, they weighed the written material they received after a successful pitch meeting as 51%, interpersonal/collaborative cues at 25 percent, and the personal character of the writer as 24 percent.

This survey confirms that the proof of a good writer is in their pudding, or in their writing. But it also shows that editors and agents take into account readings of the whole person, how the writer interacts with them, and how they feel about their interaction.

To read the full survey results in .pdf format, click here.


Elsbach, K. D., & Kramer, R. M. (2003, June). Assessing creativity in Hollywood pitch meetings: Evidence for a dual-process model of creativity judgments. Academy of Management Journal, 46(3), 283-301.

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