Are Agents Procrastinators?

Teddy bear-broken armLast week after I tweeted about my post on “An Agent’s Day” and another post by agent Steve Laube about “The Waiting Game,” a Twitter follower wrote back, “So you’re saying agents are procrastinators?”

I can only assume they were being funny, and yes, I have a sense of humor so I smiled. But it occurred to me that writers could very well assume that the reason there are long waits when dealing with agents is because we procrastinate.

What does it mean to procrastinate?

Procrastinate: transitive verb: to put off intentionally and usually habitually and for a reason held to be reprehensible (as laziness, indifference to responsibility).

Based on that definition, it’s not what we do. (Any agent who is lazy or indifferent won’t be an agent for long.) Rather, agents are constantly engaged in triage.

Triage: noun: the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success.

As is the case with many, many jobs these days, there is always more to be done than we can realistically accomplish in a day. Everyone has to learn triage — I daresay it’s one of the secrets to success in any career. Learning to prioritize is a necessary skill.

But when you’re the person on the other end of the triage — that is, you’re among those being sorted and prioritized — it’s not fun if you’re not the top of the list. When you visit the emergency room for a broken arm, triage usually determines that your emergency will be prioritized lower than people bleeding out, suffering possible stroke or heart attack, or having a baby in the next few minutes. That’s not fun and you won’t like it, but it’s a reality.

I think anyone responsible for any kind of triage in their jobs finds it difficult and unpleasant to have to tell people, “You’ll need to wait your turn.” I certainly don’t like it. I’d love to be able to take care of everyone’s needs the moment they ask me. Alas, it just doesn’t work that way.

I do appreciate when writers understand the necessity for agents (and others) to triage. I also think it’s okay to nudge the person from whom you need a response, much like you might politely inquire with the triage nurse if she has any idea when it will be your turn because your arm really hurts.

But agents procrastinating? Not so much.

In your own life and job, what are some ways you have to triage tasks or people?


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Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  6. Vicki Orians on December 20, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    Triage – now that’s a word any writer knows! I mean, trying to find time for writing in the midst of family, friends, work (for those of us who can’t yet make a living off our writing), and whatever other commitments we have sometimes feels overwhelming! Another long-term goal on my list: Perfect triage. You think it’s possible?

  7. goldhawk on December 12, 2011 at 5:11 PM

    “Rather, agents are constantly engaged in triage.”

    You mean that the agent I hire won’t do everything they can to promote my writing. That’s a good reason never to deal with them.

  8. Kimberly Rae on December 9, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    Someone mentioned “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

    However, in Japan they also have a saying, “The goose that honks get shot.”

    Something to ponder when you want to annoy the triage nurse into pushing you ahead in line. =)

  9. Peter DeHaan on December 8, 2011 at 7:06 PM

    Procrastination, I am told, is often a side-effect of a being perfectionist.

    The logic goes like this: since no matter how much time is spent on the project, it will never be perfect — so why start?

    Then when it is done at the last possible minute, there is the plausible excuse of “I didn’t have much time to work on it.”

  10. Jerry Eicher on December 8, 2011 at 12:00 PM

    Love this blog and all that agents do for their authors. But this piece says perfectly why I still don’t have an agent.
    Can’t seem to line up the publisher’s interest, with my interest, and the agent’s interest.
    Better a two legged stool, I figure, that might fall over any moment. Than a three legged stool with one leg shorter than the other, which will surely fall over.

  11. Bill Giovannetti on December 7, 2011 at 10:43 PM

    I am a pastor. Life is triage… but NOBODY accepts triage with grace. Jesus was a master at it: Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. (Matthew 14:22, 23, NKJV).

    Carry on! 🙂

  12. Gwen Stewart on December 7, 2011 at 8:42 PM

    Triage for an elementary music teacher:

    Child approaches piano *while you are playing* and the class is singing = tattling. Ignore.

    Silent child turning alternately green, then pale = send child to bathroom, then office. If no time, trash can.

    Child with catastrophic, yet invisible boo-boo on thumb = band-aid. Instant healing.

    And last, a child who offers a hug needs one. Hug back. 🙂

  13. Jerry Eckert on December 7, 2011 at 8:21 PM

    The word must be relatively new to English since it is not even in my 25 year old dictionaries. However, please see the Wiki link below which is almost identical to what I had in my initial comment. I’m sure you sourced your definition well . . it just saddens me to see good precise words being secularized. I feel surrounded by media, youth, etc. that seem bent on turning English into Pablum. Peace.

  14. Sundi Jo on December 7, 2011 at 6:43 PM

    I have to do this with social media clients sometimes. I tend to lean towards completing the bigger projects for the bigger paying customers, which may not always be the right decision. I have to go with my gut.

    But I definitely understand the principle behind in it book publishing.

  15. Liberty Speidel on December 7, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    As a mom of two young kids (16 months and 3 years), I’m constantly having to triage my life. Many things, things my husband sees as important, get shifted down in importance simply because I don’t have the number of hours in a day, especially if I’m working on a hot story (as I have been the last few days).

    Still, I have to know things have to get done at some point. If my hubby and I have a meeting coming up, I have to prioritize getting answers for said meeting above my writing, no matter how much that pains me.

    But, it’s part of the deal. 🙂

  16. Jill on December 7, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    You remember in I, Robot, when Will Smith’s character criticizes a robot’s use of triage? The robot doesn’t save the child’s life first because the child’s chance of success is less than the adult’s. A human would have known the difference–would have saved the child, instead (according to Will, anyway). Because of that, triage reminds me of robots. Thank God agents are humans because they’ll know when it’s appropriate to change their triage–to allow for rest, goofing off, having mercy on unknown authors, saving the children, etc. 😉

    • Timothy Fish on December 7, 2011 at 3:00 PM

      That is one of the really cool things about the way God made us. He didn’t make us in such a way that we would always make the so called “right” choice. Instead, he made us in such a way that we place more importance on some people than we do others. If all people are equal, the neighor down the street should be just as important as someone living in the same house with us. The fact that two people have similar genetics doesn’t seem like it should cause them to value each other more than they do someone else, but that’s the way we’re made. Without that, our world would be a very confusing place.

    • Vicki Orians on December 20, 2011 at 12:27 AM

      This post made me smile. 🙂

  17. TC Avey on December 7, 2011 at 1:32 PM

    I used to work as an ER RN and am VERY familiar with Triage! I see no issue with agents using this system as well. Triage is part of life, just ask any mom. Mothers must continually triage the needs of the family in order to accomplish the most pressing issues.
    I’m not sure why this concept is difficult for some to understand, but as a nurse, I know that explaining this to some people is just wasted time.

  18. Daniel F. Case on December 7, 2011 at 1:30 PM

    Great post, Rachelle.

    I once learned (totally by accident) how to get to the top of the list in an emergency room:

    1) Stumble through the door.
    2) Look the triage nurse in the eye.
    3) Roll eyes into head and pass out.

    On second thought, maybe waiting isn’t so bad. 🙂


    • Timothy Fish on December 7, 2011 at 1:38 PM

      On the other hand, if they think you’re so bad off that they can’t save you anyway, they’ll just let you die because resources are better used somewhere else.

  19. Steve Laube on December 7, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    I might leave a reply to this post next week. But I have some Tetris to play, some YouTube to watch, and I need to wash my hair. And…oooh look at that new Droid phone ad…

    • Daniel F. Case on December 7, 2011 at 1:24 PM

      And we thought you weren’t doing anything at all. 🙂


  20. Jerry Eckert on December 7, 2011 at 12:27 PM

    “Triage” seems misused here. The triage concept, from WWI I believe, is that (medical) resources are directed to those cases that will survive only with help. The other two parts of the Triage are 1) those what will die even if helped and 2) those that will survive without help. So, if I have a book that will survive only with help, do I get resources directed my way? Sending resources primarily to probable best sellers seems to be a case of the advantaged becoming more so.

    • Timothy Fish on December 7, 2011 at 1:43 PM

      Probably so. The moral to this story is that you should never write anything other than best sellers.

    • Rachelle Gardner on December 7, 2011 at 6:15 PM

      Jerry, the definition of “triage” I used was directly from Merriam-Webster’s. So I believe it’s a correct usage. Perhaps, as often happens, the word has evolved in the decades since WWII.

  21. Janet on December 7, 2011 at 12:20 PM

    Triage: the best means of saving oneself from drowning in the vast sea of Overwhelm.

    Rachelle, I never assumed that agents procrastinate. Quite the contrary, I envisioned stacks of unread manuscripts swallowing hapless victims who were strugging to keep from suffocating in them. It has been said that everybody has a book in them. The logical extension of that is that they all want an agent to read and accept theirs RIGHT NOW.

  22. Cheri Gregory on December 7, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    Oh, this is the best thing ever! Triage, not procrastination!

    I’m a teacher at a Christian boarding school, and I’m always frustrated by my inability to “stay on top of things.” I recently read a study that suggests that each day, a teacher makes more decisions and snap judgement calls than even an ER physician (and with a group of “patients”, not just one-at-a-time!)

    So the word “triage” fits beautifully with this model. Not as an excuse for poor effort or performance, but as a way to understand why I so often find myself starting the day with Plan A and ending it with Plan ZZ!

  23. Joan Stradling on December 7, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    I love this post. Triage is a great way to describe what agents have to do on a daily basis.

    In my own life, family always comes first–even if that means I have to put off my writing. I do try to balance things, but I have children with medical issues and sometimes I have to drop everything else to take care of them.

  24. Beth MacKinney on December 7, 2011 at 11:32 AM

    Probably not a successful agent.

    (Although we’re all human.)

  25. Donna Pyle on December 7, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    I triage quiet time with the Lord, writing, preparing for speaking engagements, working full time, and maintaining close friendships. Some days the triage is hectic, but it’s necessary to give life to each.

  26. Lindsay Harrel on December 7, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    Yep, my last job as an editor had me in a constant emergency room state of mind!

  27. Kathryn Elliott on December 7, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    I’m a reporter, and as much as my editor will despise reading this, I triage any story assignment with roots in politics. Give me the happy senior art fair or library opening any day!

  28. Krista Phillips on December 7, 2011 at 10:22 AM

    OHHHHHhhhhh I LOVE this!

    You just described my previous day-job to a tee!

    My problem has always been figuring out how to come out of crisis mode, as I was always quite good IN it. Because while crisis or triage mode is efficient when being bombarded, I’ve found that it leads to me procrastinating when things aren’t quite so crazy (which, granted, is rare these days!) I get so deadline orietned that I put off important but not urgent things until they ARE urgent… instead of getting them done before they GET urgent.

    I imagine, though, that an agents life as very little of those not-very-crazy times!

  29. Heather Sunseri on December 7, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    Oh, yes! There are definitely times in the heat of tax season, right around March 10th and again April 1st – 15th, that I live in a constant state of triage. And I can assure you, clients do not like to be told they’re not next on your list.

  30. Marielena on December 7, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    I’ll never forget one editor at the magazine where I worked who looked at me one morning, as I sat at my computer, harried and trying to meet deadlines and editing copy: “It’s not brain surgery, Marielena.”

    Perspective helps. Writing may be our passion but unlike medical “triage” it’s not life or death. 🙂

  31. Timothy Fish on December 7, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    I don’t typically use anything as formal as triage. I tend to rely more on what I feel like doing at the time. More urgent things do tend to get a higher priority. But I find there are times when what I feel like doing is goofing off because I can’t force to do the thing that should be the higher priorty. Triage doesn’t allow time for goofing off.

  32. Sarah Thomas on December 7, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    Triage – God then family then work. I am exceedingly blessed to have a job where this is the reality and not just big talk!

  33. Wendy on December 7, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    Story. Of. My. Life. In fact, I believe triage is one of the first words I use in my bio. I think it’s because my life is so hectic (with volunteering, parenting three girls, and pursuing publication) I can easily grant grace to others in this area. I’ve learned to be a good waiter. Life truly is a wait anyway.
    Here’s another thing, the longer you triage the better at it you become. Your senses sharpen and you grasp which pressing needs to address first. Wonder if you’ve found that to be the case (I’m trusting so b/c of your success as an agent).
    I’m grateful my faith continues to teach me I never *need* to be at the top of anyone’s list. What can I say, I’m healthy and I’m not about to have a baby in the next few minutes.
    Important post.
    ~ Wendy

  34. Sue Harrison on December 7, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    I relate to what Deborah wrote – organized chaos. My triage coping mechanism is something I learned from Santa – LISTS!

    If I have it on my list I feel as if the task were nearly completed. When I write a new list, I usually include one item that I’ve already accomplished so that I can check it off immediately. I love the sense of accomplishment that gives me!

  35. Deborah Serravalle on December 7, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    I never thought about my life in terms of triage, but based on the definition I am constantly assigning priority to an order of projects. Writing, related writer-ly duties and functions, cooking, cleaning (it’s low on the list), shopping, social life (what’s that?), laundry…you get the drift.

    Thanks, I know plan to use this term to replace what I normally call my life – organized chaos!

  36. Jackie Ley on December 7, 2011 at 6:11 AM

    From the writer’s perspective, we’re back to the traditional bugbear – waiting. But I’ve come round to thinking that’s one of the areas where all we can choose is our attitude. I spend a part of my life in France. The French have a verb I never knew existed until I lived there – patienter – and they use it all the time. Shop assistants, public sector workers, local government officials, on the whole they do their job very efficiently, but they won’t be rushed. If you need their attention, you have to settle down in a queue and wait. To begin with I queued and seethed. I willed every person in front of me to hurry up and get on with it, every official behind a counter to break a little sweat for pity’s sake. The only one who ended up with raised blood pressure was me. So now I settle down and wait. I take a seat, if there is one, read a book, write ‘to do’ lists, people watch the rest of the queue – and relax. It’s good for my blood pressure – and great discipline for the writing life!

  37. P. J. Casselman on December 7, 2011 at 2:55 AM

    Triage in the pastorate? Never! Yes I’m kidding. Ministry in the small town church is often triage. We have limited resources and people, therefore we must utilize the Pereto Principle. It states that 20 percent of what you do will give you 80 percent of your return. Therefore, concentrate 80 percent of your energy on the 20 if you want the largest possible yield.

    Margaret, also known as the woman who deep fries salad, wanted to know why we don’t buy special earphones for the hearing impaired seniors. They started saying “Amen” during the announcements, so they obviously aren’t hearing correctly. (I don’t know, perhaps the men’s “road kill” dinner deserved an “Amen,” but I digress.)
    On the other hand, Terry insists that we simply must get a new bus. The old one is blowing so much black smoke that the mosquito zappers have gone silent.
    “We only have so much money in the coffer, pastor, so who do you love more, the elderly or the children?

    Time is like money. There’s only so much to go around. It doesn’t mean a person isn’t valued because time has to be alloted elsewhere.

  38. Arlee Bird on December 7, 2011 at 2:18 AM

    Procrastination is one of my favorite words, but unfortunately it’s also become a way of life. My triage system is often the disaster area within the disaster area.

    Coming soon: Your A to Z stories and the official A to Z Badge is now revealed
    Blogging from A to Z

  39. Ilima on December 7, 2011 at 2:13 AM

    HAHA! Everybody knows that WRITERS are the worst procrastinators of all!

  40. Claire Dawn on December 7, 2011 at 2:04 AM

    I love this description. As Bella would say, “It’s sorta perfect.” lol.

    Another thing people need to remember is that you could probably do things faster, but you can’t operate at that pace all day long. It’s like sprinting. It’s the fastest way to get somewhere, but even the fittest can only really keep it up for about 400m.

  41. C. on December 7, 2011 at 1:56 AM

    I put my writing first – everything else has to wait. Not only is it my job, but it is my passion. Nothing makes me as happy!

    Thankfully, I have learned to schedule fairly well, so my friends, family and hobbies don’t suffer that much in the end.

    But hey – when it’s deadline week, it’s deadline week; nobody dare to forget that!

  42. Beth K. Vogt on December 7, 2011 at 1:11 AM

    Real life versus writing life: Lots of chances to triage. I guess another way to say this is “It’s the real people versus the imaginary ones!”
    One way I triage is with a bit of humor: There are times when writing trumps real life. Sorry, husband and kiddos, that’s just it, straight up. My youngest daughter & her BFF made two signs for my office door: One says “Come In! I can talk!!” The other: “BBBRRRR! It’s cold in there!” (In other words, the real people are going to get the cold shoulder while I take care of the galley proofs … or whatever.)

  43. Joseph Baran on December 7, 2011 at 12:48 AM

    Squeaky wheel gets the grease.

  44. Bret Draven on December 7, 2011 at 12:20 AM

    Marriage: The social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.

    I am sure if you looked hard enough, there is enough letters in the definition to spell… triage!