Writing is a lot like shadow boxing: it feels like you are in the fight of your life against an opponent only you can see. To your friends and family, you have little to show for the immense time you have spent training. Only a trail of aborted word documents and empty coffee cups lie in your wake. This is when sending work out gets you back into the ring. While you always hope for an acceptance, a rejection is something to celebrate as well, because it means that you aren’t fighting in the mirror anymore.
While better writers than myself have said bright, insightful things about the importance of rejection, I wanted to discuss something that I wish I had known when I started sending work out. It’s a secret that any experienced writer will tell you, and that is that not all rejections are created equal. When it comes to writing, some rejections are better than others. In fact, there are times when I am happy to be rejected. Through my experiences and those of my writing cohort, I’ve compiled 5 types of rejection in hopes that it helps you see how you stack up against the slush.
Rejection Type #1: No Response
You’ve spent countless hours drafting, revising, cutting, and editing—but finally, your story’s ready. You submit, maybe even fork over a few bucks, and pray that the unpaid intern who reads your story has gotten more than two hours of sleep. And then you wait. And wait. And wait.
But no answer ever comes. Did you forget to press submit? Did you give them the wrong mailing address or email? A check of the likely culprits reveals nothing unusual. The next thing to do is reread the submission guidelines—how long does a response usually take? You never want to harass an editor, but sometimes a gentle nudge is in order. Submissions can be lost. And in that case, what a great opportunity to show your graciousness in the midst of their mistake. Yet, I have noticed an alarming number of publications do not bother to send out rejections. This demonstrates to me either a lack of organization, ethics, or both. With the advent of submissions platforms like Submittable, which can send out automated rejections with the click of a button, there is really no excuse for this. While you are welcome to submit into the void, I prefer to send my words elsewhere. As I quoted Plath earlier, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” Now it would appear some publications are even denying us that satisfaction.
Rejection Type #2: The Form Letter
Dear Mr. Spells-Your-Name-Wrong,
After careful consideration *blows nose*, we have decided not to include your work in the next issue of Did You Really Think We Would Publish That Crap? Much success, blah blah blah, *farts*, please don’t send us your work again even though we are obligated to encourage you to do so here.
Bigshot “I Obviously Didn’t Write This” Editor
Okay, so this is the most common type of rejection: the form letter. For all you know, a computer searched your story for keywords, came up empty, and formulated this response. But at least you have something to put up on your wall, or wipe your tears with, or forward in a chain email to five of your best friends. This is the kind of rejection you come to expect after submitting, which is why the next few can be such a nice surprise.
Rejection Type #3: Personal Note From the Editor
Dear Your First Name,
Thanks so much for sending us “Witty Story with Ultimately No Ending.” While we found the story witty and very well-written, we are ultimately unable to publish it at this time. We found the ending to be less than satisfying. However, please feel free to submit again in the future.
Editor’s First Name
Ah, the cherished personal note from the editor. See how much better this is? Like breaking up in person versus via AIM (or even worse, AIM away message). The editor actually took time to critique your work (something they are not being paid to do). This is a small victory, and is definitely a sign to submit again. However, as a wise teacher once told me, don’t bombard them. Take your time, work on polishing the next piece, and then send it back. You don’t want to take advantage of their friendliness, or annoy them with sub-par stuff. I was able to finally land a list at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency on my eighth try after building some rapport with the editor along the way.
Rejection Type #4: The Long List.
This really only applies to story contests, but being longlisted means that your story is one of the top 10 or 20 out of hundreds (or thousands) of submissions. The letter may even have the word “congratulations” in it, which can throw you off that it’s still, at its heart, a rejection. However, this is a major win. Contrary to the popular idiom, if you come this close, you can have a cigar. It’s likely your story wasn’t selected for reasons beyond your control. For example, earlier this year I saw Junot Diaz speak at a Connecticut high school (this was just two months before he published an article that set the literary world on fire), and he recounted that one year while serving on the selection board of the Pulitzer, another member had just gone through a bad breakup and flat-out said, “no love stories.”
While this shows how biased the selection process is, even at the highest levels, I think it’s better to keep that bias in mind rather than put all the blame on yourself. Rather than dwell on how close you came, smile, reply with a “thank you,” and sew the acknowledgment like a little badge to the vest of your story as you send it off to the next house. I have a story that’s been longlisted twice now, but has yet to find a good home. Yet, knowing how close it’s come gives me the confidence to keep hitting “send.”
Rejection Type #5: The Rewrite
On occasion, editors will express interest in a story, but will want you to make changes before they publish it. This is typically more common with longer works like novels, but it does happen with short stories too. While this gives you a second chance to polish your work, it does not guarantee the editors will like the changes you make. I have a friend who was asked to revise a story before publication, but even after extensive revisions, the editors decided to pass. This reminds me of what Neil Gaiman has to say about feedback: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Best thing to do in this case is keep working on it and send it out somewhere else.
I hope this helps shed some light on the different types of rejection you will encounter when submitting work for the first time, and for those who have been at it a while, I hope this provides you with some validation. Let me know about your experiences with rejection in the comments. Thanks for reading!
Write like you, not like me,
“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” -Sylvia Plath