Dear Miss Snark,
I am a new snarkling and so I have been searching the snarkives for the answer to the question I am about to ask you, but haven't found it.
I have only been querying agents for three weeks, so I know it's too soon to be discouraged by rejections. I do wonder, though, how the writer is to know the reason for the rejections. I have queried twelve agencies that handle my genre, yet am told that the query isn't right for their agency, or that they're not able to offer representation, or that they're sorry they cannot invite me to submit, or they're not the right agent for the project. Most of these rejections are forms addressed to "Dear Author." Two rejections were personal, helpful, and encouraging. The one I received today was from an agency that had requested a partial, and it was the agency with which I had held out the most hope.
How is a writer to know if it is their writing that needs improving, or the agency has received too many submissions in that genre, or if that genre just isn't selling well at that particular time? I realize how busy agents are, and that they don't have time to go into explanations with every writer who submits. So, what is a writer to do in order to improve the chances of getting accepted, if they don't understand the reason their work is rejected?
I read in a snarkive response that you eliminate compliments before you answer a question, but I must tell you that I don't know how I would ever have learned so much from any other source as I have from Miss Snark - Literary Agent. (thank you)
If you are getting is form rejection letters, the odds are it's your writing. (50% of the writing I get is just not good enough to consider further).
If you are getting rejections that talk about specifics, it's still your writing, but you are closer to producing something saleable. (That's about 3 in 10).
One thing that might help you get more specific feedback is going to a writing conference where agents in your field are speaking. I like small writing conferences best; there's a chance to actually talk to people without being herded into the next event post haste.
Take your pages with you. Don't ask anyone to read them, but be prepared if someone offers. I actually don't hate doing this. It's about the one time at conferences where I know I can be of specific help to someone who is serious about their work and willing to learn.
The people who drive me crazy at those things are the ones who ask questions like "why don't agents write detailed responses on my query when they reject them" at workshops. That's not the question you want to ask. The question you want to ask is "what's the best way to get feedback from an agent". See the difference?
There are lists of writing conferences all over the web. Some are better than others. Be prepared to waste some time on ones that aren't helpful while you learn which ones, or which formats work best for you.
Meanwhile, work on your writing.