Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Rejection: It Is What It Is

Warning: This post could cause extreme depression in those who have not yet received an acceptance letter for a submission.

I put that there because, unlike those other articles and books you've read about how helpful rejection letters can be, and how much you can learn from them, I'm here to tell you rejection is what it is. The predominant message in any rejection letter is a big fat "no." The editors are not interested in publishing that piece. Reading anymore into it or over-analyzing rejection letters will lead to, at best, wasting your time submitting to the wrong publications or, at worst, chasing your tail by over-revising or writing with specific markets in mind instead of what's in your heart.

So here are some traps rejection letters can pull you into, in hopes that, by knowing them, you can avoid them.

Please submit again
A very well-known literary magazine to which most new writers submit at some point, sends out a check list. To paraphrase, the choices are:

  • Your work is wonderful and we want to publish it.
  • This particular piece is not right for us, but we'd like to see more of your work.
  • Your work is just not right for us.
After about ten submissions––yes, I'm slow––I finally figured out that the last option is probably reserved for racists and holocaust-deniers and that just about everyone else who is rejected gets the second option. If you find a line like that in a standard form letter, it's probably meaningless and just there to ease the pain. Even with a written comment to that effect, if it's in more than one rejection from the same publication, it's probably just standard.

This doesn't mean you should never submit more than once to the same publication. It just means your chances of being accepted aren't much better the second or third time around than anyone else's.

The comment
The prevailing wisdom is that any comment from an editor is a good thing, because it means your work was singled out for notice. Far be it from me to deflate your balloon, but some publications, especially new ones, will often start out trying to comment on everyone's work.Many eventually give up the practice when they see how many writers fire back submission after submission in quick succession with little thought to what will really meet that publication's "editorial needs."

If the comment is very general, like "Thanks for submitting" or "I enjoyed reading this," chances are commenting is simply editorial policy. Also, and this may sound counter-intuitive, you should read less significance into positive comments than negative ones. Editors aren' t there to serve as writing teachers. If a work is full of flaws, it takes too much time to mention them all, and mentioning just a few risks giving the writer false hope. It's much easier to pick out one or two good points and mention them in a general way

I'm not saying that you should ignore positive comments completely. If the comment refers to something specific like your character development or plot, that could mean something about your writing style you'll want to hold onto or enhance, but it doesn't mean if you keep that good part and fix everything else you're any more likely to be published the next time around.

Specific criticism
This falls into a different category than the other two, because if an editor takes the time to specifically note why a piece wasn't accepted, it usually means it was taken pretty seriously and that is a definite plus for you as a writer. Editors usually make very specific comments when they have come close to accepting a piece or it has advanced quite a bit in the selection process. Often this will happen when there are space or theme issues, and it comes down to choosing one story over another. In this case, the editors want you to know you've written a solid piece that under other circumstances they may well have published it.

Here's the problem with that type of rejection. As a very successful writer who's been published several times in The New Yorker pointed out in a workshop I recently attended, that editor had to find a reason for rejecting your story. She wants you to know that your story came "oh so close," but she can't exactly say, "we had limited space so ultimately we tossed the last two pieces in the air to see which one landed in the circle." She feels compelled to give you a good reason. Unfortunately, many writers will see that reason as a flaw in the work and revise it, often to the detriment of the piece.

What it is
The rejection letter is not a condemnation of you as a writer. If it were, there are a heck of a lot of famous people who should have given up. However, rejection letters don't always mean what they say. Here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind no matter what the actual words say.

  • Please submit again doesn't always mean what it says. If a publication just rejected your piece, chances are nothing else in your current portfolio is right for them either. Read a couple more issues and wait to submit until you have something really new.
  • Always wait at least six months between your first rejection and your second submission to the same publication, longer for the third, and, after three, you might want to quit or wait until something has significantly changed, either with your writing or in the staff at the publication.
  • A general positive comment rarely carries much significance for your future chances, so continue to follow the first rule above.
  • If an editor gives you a specific reason why a particular story was rejected, don't take that as a sign the story needs revising. Do take is as a sign that you have a good chance of getting into that publication next time around. Don't rush into it, though. Take your time, choose the right piece, and note when you send that the editor liked your prior piece. (Also, if there are submission deadlines for issues, try to get in earlier next time.)

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