November 19, 2014 by Nathaniel Tower
Writers are probably the most rejected people in the world. You’d think after all that rejection you’d be able to take a hint. Yet many writers don’t seem to be able to read between the lines when it comes to the contents of their rejection letter.
Here’s a quick anecdote regarding a writer who has become a frequent submitter over at my lit mag Bartleby Snopes. First, some background. We always provide feedback on submissions (unless a writer opts out), but every response starts from a basic template. Our standard template ends with a response that goes a little something like this:
Good luck with this one elsewhere. Feel free to try us again in the future with something new, but please wait at least one month before submitting again.
If you’ve submitted to more than a handful of places, then you’ve probably seen something like this before. Even if you are getting a “personal” rejection, chances are that part of the response is a default message.
So here’s the story: A writer whose story we rejected submitted again the next day. We gave him the benefit of the doubt and considered the submission anyway. Within a few days of the next rejection, he sent another submission. And then another. At one point, he had three separate submissions live in our queue. We typically respond to submissions within 3-5 days, and we weren’t going to let this writer mess up our stats. So we responded to his submissions (all rejections). Almost immediately, there was another story from him in the queue. It was his tenth submission within a month. This time I delivered the message loud and clear: You need to wait at least 30 days before submitting again. Anything you send before that time will be returned unread.
He almost got the message. The next submission came 15 days later. We rejected it as soon as we saw it, but this time we tried a different approach. We simply changed the status to “Declined” without actually sending a rejection email. It may seem cruel, but we were at wit’s end. He hasn’t submitted again (yet).
Here’s the bottom line: this writer just didn’t get it. While his circumstance may be extreme, plenty of writers don’t get what the rejection message is really saying. I’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past.
In order to figure out what a rejection really means, let’s break it down into four parts:
- The Greeting
- The Introduction/Lead
- The Feedback/Rejection
- The Closing/Invitation
The rejection greeting is simply how the venue greets you in the letter. There are three basic types of greetings:
- Personalized (such as “Dear [Name]”)
- Generic (such as “Dear Writer”)
- Blank (as in the letter doesn’t greet you at all)
If your rejection falls under greeting options 2 or 3, then you can safely assume that this publication does not really care to see more work from you. You did not make enough of an impression to even warrant the recognition of your name.
The vast majority of rejections I have received have started with some variation of #1. Before we get too excited here, this does not necessarily mean that we were close to an acceptance or that the publication wants to see more work from us. Most of the time, this “name” is auto-generated. Still, having your name on there is a sign that you are headed in the right direction. Or, more accurately, it’s the best possible greeting you can get.
After the greeting, you will probably have some type of introduction. I like to call this the lead because ultimately it is a statement leading to your rejection. This is almost always in the form of:
Thank you for submitting [Title] to us…
This lead may be followed by a we appreciate the chance to read your work, or some other generic message of that nature. Although generic, this is a good start (but, once again, not necessarily a sign that you are close to an acceptance).
Another common type of lead is the one of condescension. It goes something like this:
We receive thousands of submissions every minute and cannot possibly accept all of them…
This type of lead is not a good sign. It’s similar to the lack of name recognition. It is a confession from the publication: they are great and you are mediocre. You aren’t really worth their time, especially compared to everything else they get.
There is a third type of lead you might get in your rejection, and it’s the least pretty of them all. It goes like this:
Yes, that’s right. It almost doesn’t exist at all. Instead of leading into the rejection, they just get it all over with. It’s the ultimate breakup. If your rejection letter starts like this, you would be well-advised not to submit another piece to this publication.
Here is the meat of the rejection letter, the part we’re all looking for when we get that response from a publication. This is where we find out the ultimate fate of our story, poem, novel, collection, etc.
More often than not, the rejection will not be personal. It will go something like this:
After careful consideration, we have decided to pass on this piece.
This piece is not for us.
In truth, there is no difference between these two lines of rejection. Both have the same message: we aren’t taking your piece, and that’s all there is to it. You shouldn’t try to interpret this. It’s a form letter. Different publications have different styles of rejection, and some may seem more friendly than others. Just accept that your piece was rejected and move on to the end of the letter.
However, if you received personalized feedback, then there is some room for interpretation. The possibilities for personal feedback are practically limitless, but there are two basic categories in which all personal feedback falls:
- Feedback about the writing (style, prose)
- Feedback about the content (plot, characters)
Each category also has two basic subcategories: subjective or objective.
Feedback about the writing will relate directly to how the piece was written. Objective feedback includes poorly crafted sentences, typos, structural issues. Subjective feedback relates to things like “the writing didn’t have enough punch” or “it was overly descriptive for our tastes.” Feedback related to the writing usually indicates that your submission is pretty far off. Maybe they like the storyline but not your delivery. In other words, the problem is you.
Feedback about the content is more an opinion on the idea rather than commentary on you as a writer. This feedback might tell you the story felt cliché, that the characters weren’t developed, that the ending fell flat. These are things that might be easier to fix than the writing style. It’s not necessarily you as a writer that’s the problem, just this particular submission.
Of course, no feedback will provide you with the ultimate answer regarding what the rejection means (including if the rejection letter says “This one was really close for us…”). But the feedback can give you clues.
Depending on what comes before it, the closing/invitation is your biggest clue. There are three basic types of closings:
- Signing off with no invitation to submit again
- Signing off with a generic invitation to submit again
- Signing off with a sincere invitation to submit again
The first closing needs no explanation. If the publication doesn’t ask you to submit again, then don’t. Why waste your time?
The difference between #2 and #3 can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. A generic invitation to submit again (like how we usually do it at Bartleby Snopes) will often sound something like this:
Feel free to try us again, but wait at least X days/weeks/months…
If it sounds like something they probably say to everyone, then it probably is. There’s nothing here that compels you to submit again (although many writers respond thanking us for the opportunity to do so). Of course, you shouldn’t take this to mean they don’t want you to submit again. They very well may want you to send something else (at Bartleby Snopes, we will actually remove this line if we really don’t want the writer to submit again). However, don’t jump for joy because of a generic message.
To determine whether or not you have a sincere invitation to submit again, look for language that sounds sincere. Yeah, it’s not rocket science. If the rejection says “We really enjoyed the submission but don’t think it’s quite right. We do hope you will submit again,” then you can probably safely assume they actually want to hear from you again. Another way to determine if it’s a legitimate request to submit again: send them something else and wait for the response. If you get another rejection letter that looks exactly the same, then you can assume it’s probably what they say to everyone.
Ultimately, a rejection letter can tell you a lot, but it also won’t guarantee any future publications. The best approach to a rejection letter is to look for any valuable feedback and take it into consideration when revisiting your rejected piece. A rejection letter can also be a great way to gauge whether or not a publication is a good fit for you. If the rejection letter leaves a sour taste in your mouth, then you can scratch that publication off your list. Don’t submit somewhere if you don’t like how they make you feel.
What do you take from a rejection letter? Share your rejection stories and rejection advice in the comments.