What Common Rejections from Publishers Really Mean

I’m really good at getting rejected. With almost 1,000 rejections to my name, I know everything there is to know about being told “we don’t want to publish this piece of trash.”

Unfortunately, rejection letters don’t always say what they really mean. In general, editors try to be nice. They want to spare our feelings. No matter how terrible our stories are, the rejections are usually pleasant enough. Sure, there have are a few insulting rejections in my archive, but the vast majority are from kind-hearted editors.

Although rejection can be upsetting, I’d actually love to receive more of those “insulting” responses. If the story I’m submitting is terrible, I want the editors to tell me. Sometimes I can’t spot my own lousy writing. If only those editors could help me out by letting me know I should retire the piece forever. But they almost never do. So I keep plugging away with the same horrible story, being told over and over that “it’s just not right for us” and that “it will get published elsewhere.”

I’m sure there are times when editors want to say what they really think of my crummy story. But they almost always hold back with either a form rejection or a few generic lines of commentary.They probably don’t care that much about my feelings though. Mostly, they don’t want a lot of online backlash. The last thing any publisher needs is having a snarky rejection letter go viral.

After analyzing all my rejections and evaluating some common trends, I’ve learned how to read a rejection. Since editors often won’t tell me exactly how they feel, I’m left to figure it out myself. This helps me avoid wasting time sending out that bad story again or submitting more work to a venue that just doesn’t like my writing.

Previously, I’ve written about the different types of rejections and what you should do about them. Now it’s time to dig into the truth about the actual words in your rejection slip.

Here’s what some common lines from rejection letters really mean:

Keep us in mind for future submissions = There’s not a chance in hell we’ll ever publish your work, but remember to visit our website and promote our work on occasion.

This piece doesn’t fit our aesthetic = We thought this was awful and can’t imagine anyone wanting to read it.

Please note that we receive thousands of submissions and have to pass on many good ones = We get a lot of stories, some of which are good. Yours was not.

After careful consideration, we’ve decided to pass on your submission = One of our slush editors made it halfway through the first sentence before falling asleep.

Okay, I’m obviously being a bit cynical here, but sometimes writers need to be willing to take a longer look in the mirror and realize that not everything they write is going to win a Pushcart Prize. We shouldn’t get excited about canned responses like “keep us in mind for future submissions.” That often doesn’t mean they want to see more from us. They’re just being nice.

Of course, many publications do provide meaningful and honest feedback that’s worth taking into consideration before you send out your story again. But there’s two important things to remember about any rejection:

  1. Any editor’s opinion is subjective and isn’t necessarily reflective of the merit of your writing
  2. Editors aren’t always honest about your story, but if they don’t accept it, then there’s probably something you could do better.


While I’d love to get more specific (and more honest) feedback on my submissions, I’ve come to accept that editors aren’t going to go out of the way to tell me my work is terrible. But I can often figure it out anyway.


17 thoughts on “What Common Rejections from Publishers Really Mean

  1. Haha, and here I was super happy about “after careful consideration” rejections. Anyway, I’m with you. I’d love honest feedback from editors, but I’ve reallyonly gotten honest and specific rejection feedback from one place (they actually told me why my particular story didn’t work for their particular venue! And they accepted my next one, so something must have paid off there).
    Un an unrelated note; I’m in awe at your dedication! You really do juggle when it comes to writing/submitting too. I’ve completely stopped submitting short works for the time being because i’m tunnelvisioning on my longer fiction.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I hope I don’t sound too pessimistic here. I know that sometimes magazines really do carefully consider our work. And sometimes a piece just isn’t right for a particular venue. And sometimes they do want us to submit again. As writers, we can’t get too hung up on these generic statements though.

      I think that’s awesome that you are focusing on longer fiction. Sometimes I wish I could focus more time and effort on some bigger projects that I have cooking. In the meantime, I’ll just post some quirky blog articles and submit some short stories!

  2. I’m with you: form stuff is form stuff and there’s little to be gleaned from it.

    Often, the most telling rejections are those that let me know my work made it past the first stage, into the final rounds, etc.–even if the notice itself is a generic “higher tier” rejection. These tell me that a) I’ve written a halfway decent story, and b) I’m honing in on the right markets for my work.


    1. Anthony, thank you for reading and commenting. You make an excellent point about those “higher tier” rejections. Even if they are form letters, knowing that you made it past a certain stage can give you a lot of confidence in your work.

  3. I understand why editors can’t give feedback (too many people, too little time), but dang, it would be helpful! Especially if the problem is specific and fixable, not just a general “wasn’t our jam” kind of thing. It’s hard being in the dark, wondering but not knowing what you could be doing differently.

    1. Shannon, thank you for reading and commenting. Luckily, there are other resources we can use to get valuable opinions on our stories. We just have to find people willing to read our work and be honest! You can also use a tool like Duotrope to find lit mags that do provide personal feedback.

  4. I’ve received valuable feedback for three stories rejected by Bartleby Snopes, one signed by you, the others by “Editors.” I appreciated your direct comments. One thing learned: my novel excerpts haven’t worked as short stories.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m glad you’ve found some of our comments helpful. Of course, it’s important to remember that we’re just providing one opinion. There are also a lot of venues out there that publish novel excerpts. Good luck!

  5. Nathaniel,
    I like what you wrote about what rejection letters really mean. As a short story writer, I have received my share of rejection letters (sometimes nothing to my submissions). One rejection comment you could add is when you submit and the submission page tells you to contact the editor if you do not get a response. This means the editor has no intention of responding. They hope you would ask about the status so they get a hit on their website for the advertisers and tell you to stop bothering them with your crummy story.

    I think many editors really want to provide comments, but are buried (understandably) in submissions. I admire any editor putting up with publishing a magazine on a routine basis. It is certainly not an easy task.

  6. Hello hello!
    Now, I realize not everyone can like our writing, let alone go on to publish it – and perhaps it is merely a dream for most of us – but what’s wrong with an honest: interesting/boring/unlikely/crappy piece; and a helpful: try improving style, content, form, characters, dialogues, conjunctions, punctuation, syntax and/or all of the above… I mean, if the magazine had to read it anyways, why not add a comment that could actually be useful. It’s like giving a class a composition to write, reading it when you would rather be watching a football game with your buddies, and not giving the kids a mark.
    The situation is even worse when you’re submitting translations. Then everything is ambiguity squared. Is it my translation that stinks? The piece? Both?
    And what I really don’t get is themed submissions: like we can read the editor’s mind and know EXACTLY what diaspora means to him/her.
    Bah! Humbug!

  7. Ah, but what of the ones that write an entire email rejecting your story but asking you to sent more stuff because they liked your style? That does seem as if they want more of something. Why waste time going on about it if they truly don’t want another submission? And, how many of us even read the magazine after a rejection? So, asking for more is not because they want you to check out their other stories. It’s pretty likely that is not going to happen since the sour grapes rule does sometimes apply. There are a few fine line things I have discovered on some sites. It has come to mind that a several sites sort of expect you to become a member before they will public anything. I realized this after sending out stories and getting them rejected exceptionally fast, so fast I’m not sure anybody had a chance to read them. There are so many publications to submit to and I’ve actually had the experience of having the same story rejected by one mag. and accepted by another in the same day.

  8. As a newbie to the scene, I always felt that all the good lit writers (aka the published ones) get few to no rejections. Reading your cynical but humorous take on the eat dog world of publishing not only made me smile. I’ll make a living with writing yet!

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