October 30, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower
In the past six years, I have been rejected almost 700 times. That’s an average of about 1 rejection every three days. At this point, you’d think I’d be completely immune. I should at least be an expert on rejection. Why then do I keep getting rejected?
Literary magazines can be pretty fickle. They are certainly picky, and it’s not always easy to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And since there are limited spots, rejection is inevitable no matter how good of a writer one is. Even the best writers still get rejected on a regular basis.
So what does rejection mean and what exactly should you do about it? Not all rejection is equal. Here are the 10 levels of rejection (with actual rejection letter samples) and what you should do about them.
Disclaimer: Most editors are good people and are just trying to do a service to the writing community. Be nice to your editors no matter what type of rejection you receive.
Level 1: The No Response Rejection (aka The Implied Rejection)
In the first level, you are never even told you are rejected. There’s no email that says the story didn’t work. You are just supposed to know.
Sometimes we get mad about these. We accuse the journals of being lazy or unprofessional. Couldn’t they at least tell us so we can sleep at night?
What to do: There are two options for how to react to the no response rejection. First is to do nothing. Just accept that you’ve been rejected without actually being rejected. You can even tell yourself that it wasn’t real rejection, that they just lost your story. The other option is to query. Send a kind note explaining when you submitted and that you are hoping to hear back from them soon. Maybe even throw in a “I know you’re busy.” However, don’t do this if the submission guidelines specifically say things like “Don’t query” or “If you haven’t heard back within 3 months, assume we aren’t going to publish your story.”
Level 2: The Completely Impersonal
The second level of rejection is actually less personal than the first. It is usually a single sentence, and it contains no greeting and maybe even no closing. It may make you wonder what you submitted and if maybe you forgot to include your name.
I am very sorry, but we are declining your story.
Going to have to pass.
What to do: Nothing. Don’t respond. Don’t submit again. They don’t want to hear from you.
Level 3: The “Personalized” Form Rejection
This time, the editor does include your name. Maybe even your first and last name. Maybe even a “Dear” or “Hello” in front of it. The rejection note might even include the name of your story. But nothing else about this letter suggests it is being produced by anything other than a robot. This letter may not make you feel anything at all (unless of course you were waiting for six months and expected something more).
Thank you for your submission of “Like a Son’s Funeral” to XXXXX. We gave the story careful consideration, and though we are not accepting it for publication, we hope you find a better fit for it elsewhere.
Thanks again for trusting us with your work.
What to do: Probably nothing. Maybe send a very brief thank you, but this isn’t really necessary. Lit mags have a big enough inbox without seeing a form thank you for every form rejection they send out. You might be able to submit again, but you should wait at least a few months.
Level 4: The Less Friendly Form Rejection (aka It Makes Us Feel Good to Reject You)
This can also be classified as the arrogant form. In this version of the rejection, it seems the editor takes great pride in rejecting you. Phrases like “we receive millions of submissions every second” and “we can only accept the tiniest fraction of a percentage” will be littered throughout. This letter will make you feel inadequate, and you will have little desire to submit there again.
Dear Nate Tower,
We appreciate your interest in XXXX and would like to assure you
that someone did read your submission. Unfortunately, we receive many more
manuscripts than we are able to publish, and reject most of what we receive,
even very promising works.
What to do: Shake it off. They probably do get a lot of submissions. They probably don’t really feel happy to reject you. If you are going to submit again, wait a long time, and make sure you are sending your absolute best.
Level 5: The Friendly Form Rejection (aka It Makes Us Feel Bad to Reject You)
At first glance, this won’t look much different than Level 4. It’s the tone that matters here. You will feel the editor’s pain at having to reject you. Phrases like “We appreciate the chance to read your work” and “Please do try us again” will likely appear. They may not actually want you to try again, but they will at least encourage it. Note: You can usually tell if they didn’t mean that “try us again” when you notice it starts to disappear from their responses after the tenth rejection.
Thank you for your submission. We appreciated the chance to publish your work, but we’re going to pass on your submission/s for XXXXXX. We’re so thankful for your support and interest. Picking the prose and poems and matching them with the submitted art is a tricky thing, and we frequently hurt from the editorial decisions we have to make. Sometimes a piece narrowly missed because of a mismatch between the available art and available text submissions. Other times we had to pass on brilliant pieces because they didn’t fit with the rest of the content of this issue–creating a cohesive experience is a true challenge! And of course, our magazine can only fit so many pieces to begin with. Trust us, we know we are rejecting a lot of wonderful work because of space issues alone.
We’re writers and artists too and believe us, we get rejections weekly, so we know how it feels like a downer to get one of these emails, but just because your submission isn’t a fit with us this time doesn’t mean it won’t find a spot much cooler than XXXXX (screw XXXXX anyway!). Keep on fighting the good fight and please try us again when submissions open up for the 4th anthology in 2014 (wow that sounds far away). For now enjoy the summer and all the hamburgers and hot dogs and/or veggie patties it has to offer. There’s a whole ocean out there to swim in (a couple of them actually). See you on the beach!
What to do: Try them again. Wait a little bit though. Don’t be that submitter who responds to that email the same day with another submission. In your next submission, mention that they asked you to try them again, and maybe even thank them for the opportunity.
Level 6: The Insulting Personal Rejection (aka You Suck at Writing)
Now things start to get personal, and not in a good way. This is where the editor will start making actual comments about your story. However, these comments won’t make you feel good. In fact, they will leave you wishing for a form rejection. They may even make you want to trash the story or stop writing for good. They may attack your writing style or your ideas. They may even refer to you as a “new writer” even when you’ve had over 100 publications.
Abstract vagueness is a problem that all new writers face when they are still learning how to express themselves in fiction, so don’t think this is a personal problem that only affects you. All great writers faced this problem at some point, just like all experienced drivers first had to learn to use the gas and brake pedals. Step by step. That’s the process. My advice is to write something else as an exercise, trying to be as clear as humanly possible, and then come back to this story. Identifying clearly what you want to say, and finding a way to clearly communicate it, should be your writing goal for now.
What to do: Keep writing, but don’t submit to them again. They obviously aren’t a good fit for your writing. You don’t need to thank them, and you definitely shouldn’t respond defensively or with a list of your publications. Just leave it be and focus on your craft. Who knows. Maybe there is even something worthwhile they said that can help your writing.
Level 7: The Vague Personal Rejection (aka Did They Really Read This?)
This has all the signs of a personal rejection, including some commentary about your story. But the commentary is so vague that you wonder if the editors read your story at all. You will see things like “this doesn’t fit in with our aesthetic” and “this wasn’t tight enough for our tastes.” Maybe these things are true, and maybe they can help you improve your story. But they don’t feel like much at the time. (This shouldn’t be confused with the rejection that was actually meant to be sent to a different writer about a different story.)
Dear Nathaniel Tower,
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to read “Pregnancy and the Wildebeest.” We regret that we do not have room for it in this anthology.
This was a very near miss. We were intrigued by the content and style, and we hope you will continue to experiment with your writing — and take even greater risks. We would be glad to see more work from you in the future. (You can keep an eye out for new calls for submissions by going to our website and subscribing to our blog or following us on Twitter or Facebook.)
We wish you the best with your writing and look forward to staying in touch.
What to do: If you must, thank the editor for his or her time. Try to see if you can make improvements on your story based on this commentary. Submit again down the road, but wait a few weeks at least and make sure you get a better understanding of their aesthetic.
Level 8: The Try Us Again, For Real, Rejection (aka Your Writing Isn’t Bad)
While form letters often tell you to try again, you can usually tell if the editor actually wants you to try again. There will usually be some type of positive comment regarding your story, something that makes you believe the editor wants you to send something else. These letters often have a “but” in them. “We really liked this, but…” They acknowledge the good, but there’s a reason for the rejection.
Dear Nathaniel Tower:
Thanks for submitting “The Body Dumper” to XXXXXX. While this
story doesn’t suit our needs at this time, I hope that you’ll keep
visiting the site and keep sending stories our way. As we update weekly,
we’re always looking for new fiction.
And while this story didn’t make the cut, a number of our editors
enjoyed the line-by-line writing and the twist. So, it would be nice to
see your name in the inbox again.
All the best,
What to do: Thank the editor for the time and the commentary. Wait a few weeks. Submit something else. Make sure the new piece addresses any criticism the editor made.
Level 9: The Helpful Rejection (aka Constructive Criticism)
These editors take a lot of time and care to reject you. They want you to be a better writer. They want you to get published, maybe even in their magazine. They send you specific information to help you improve your story. They talk about your story, your characters, your word choice. They may even quote your story. These rejections should make you feel good. Essentially, you are getting a free workshop.
Okay, I just finished your manuscript. I don’t think it’s right for me. I don’t know how attached you are to the long-short story (or novella or whatever) as the form for this, but in reading, I kept thinking it was either too long or too short. I could easily see this as a 2000-4000 word story, cutting out a lot of the historic, research-based stuff and really condensing the dialogue-heavy scenes. Then again, I could see this as almost doubling in length, throwing in sub-plots that really develop the characters. Regardless, I read the whole thing with interest.
Novellas are tough. Such an odd length. It’s like a 1300-1700 word story. Not flash fiction, not a full short story. That weird grey area of balance.
Like I said, though, I read the whole thing and think it’s interesting. There’s a lot going on with the intersection of pleasure and happiness, what’s real and what’s the imitation. The Stas Penis is a perfect representation of that, but at times I felt it dominating the story too much in lieu of the characters–which is something you may have been going for in terms of focus as a theme.
This is just my opinion, for whatever that’s worth, and, as the famous rejection line goes, I hope you have luck in placing this elsewhere. Different people like different things.
Thanks again for sending this in and allowing me to read it.
What to do: Definitely send a thank you. Make it sound personal. Take the commentary and actually improve your story. Send something else to this magazine down the road (but don’t send the same piece unless they specifically request a rewrite).
Level 10: The Super Encouraging Rejection
Every once in awhile, you get a rejection that is almost better than an acceptance. It praises your writing and goes into great detail about why you are a good writer. It may offer a suggestion or two for improvement, but it is mostly in the spirit of flattery. And it sounds sincere. Given that some acceptance letters sound like the editor is just doing you a favor, these can be the biggest reassurances that you are actually pretty good at this.
Thanks for giving us the chance to read “Baby Steps.” Unfortunately, we are not accepting it for publication at this time. Though we really loved your humorous style, the delightfully strange premise, and your ability to truly engage the reader, ultimately the story just didn’t quite work for us. We wish you the best of luck finding a home for it. Overall though, we’re still really loving your writing style; so we encourage you to send us more stories very soon, if you are so willing.
We ask that you please report your responses to Duotrope.
What to do: Send the editor an immediate thank you. When you are done stroking your own ego and feeling good about yourself, submit that story to other venues and then start writing something new. Be sure to send something else to that helpful magazine, but give them a chance to catch their breath.
Rejection is inevitable. If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably seen every type of rejection letter possible. The most important thing to take away from rejection is that you can always improve your writing. No matter how many times you are rejected, don’t give up. There are plenty of publishing opportunities out there. Just make sure the work you send out is really your best.