What Rejections Really Mean

May 8th, 2009 | By | Category: CG Blog

I was trying to decide how to approach the topic of rejections. There are so many aspects of it, so many points of view, that it would need an essay (or an entire book) to really cover the subject. Not having time for that, I’m going to offer a few observations about rejections.

First, understand that I was literally traumatized by rejection letters. When I was in high school, I decided – having only been writing fiction for a year or so – that I was brilliant and should start submitting my stories to publishers. Everything was rejected, of course, and rightly so because it was all crap. I was inexperienced, and even though I followed all the rules, I just wasn’t good enough yet. Plus, I hadn’t done my research, so I didn’t know how the system worked – if I had, I’d have known that receiving multiple personalized letters in response to my submissions was rare for someone so new, and should have been encouraging. But instead I took the rejections to heart, decided that they meant I would never amount to anything as a writer… and it was about 15 years before I submitted anything for publication again.

Breaking it down, I really did two things wrong. The first was that I started too early, before I’d gone through the rigors of peer critiques and multiple rewrites and just gaining experience with story structure and character development and phrasing etc. etc. That’s what I get for listening to the praise of teachers, family and friends. Now I know better, and my family and friends know me well enough to give me useful critique instead of useless praise.

The second thing I did wrong was to grossly misinterpret what the rejection letters meant. In the spirit of CG’s recurring nonfiction articles, I thought I’d rattle off a few Common Misconceptions About Rejections.

1) The editor or slush reader who sent me the rejection hates me.

95% of the time, the reader knows nothing about you except your name and your story. They might have other details like your address, but really there is nothing to evaluate but your writing. Which is good, because that’s what the person is supposed to be doing. Rejections really mean nothing about the writer themselves. Which brings me to the next misconception:

2) I was rejected because of something that has nothing to do with my writing.

Okay, this one is tricky, because it’s both true and false, and varies from editor to editor. Are there editors who take points off because of things like race or gender? Probably, although I can’t say I know who. Are there editors who reject stories because they were paper-clipped instead of stapled, or submitted in Courier instead of Garamond? Most likely; there are some serious sticklers out there. But are those people anywhere near being the majority? Not even close.

Most editors will overlook little mistakes in submissions. (That’s no excuse for the writer, who should do everything they can to make sure their submission conforms to the requested format.) And most editors do like us, and evaluate based solely on the quality of the writing and the salability of the story. In fact, my co-editor K. and I usually avoid any details about writers up to and including name and sex, so we can evaluate without enabling those details to influence us even subconsciously.

3) My story was rejected because it sucks!

No. No no no. Wrong.

Yes: Sometimes stories do suck. But that’s the other guy’s problem, not yours.

Editors accept the best they get. This doesn’t mean that everything else they get is garbage. There aren’t two levels of writing, Publishable and Unpublishable. If that were true, then stories which were rejected once would never be published elsewhere, but that happens all the time.

The truth is, there are two levels of writing to a publisher – which vary not just by publisher, but by the current circumstance of each publisher. Those two levels are “The Best” and “The Rest”. “The Best” are the ones the publisher chooses to publish. “The Rest”… could be anything.

#3 brings me to what was really the point of this post: There are MANY reasons that publishers reject stories. It’s so easy to forget that when you’re reading the form letter telling you your story wasn’t accepted; it’s very, very easy to tell yourself that your writing sucks. My observations have shown me that every single writer does this sometime during their careers, at least subconsciously. After all, if my story was rejected, it means it wasn’t good enough to be published, right?

Wrong. Your story may have been rejected because the publisher feels that your story might not sell well in the current environment, or in their particular specific market. It may be that your story doesn’t match the style or genre that the publisher’s particular imprint is known for. The editor might just not be a fan of the style/genre you write in, and think that it’s fine writing but they’re just not enthusiastic about being involved in the project.

Honestly? It may be that you caught the publisher on the day their car got keyed and they had a fight with their parents, and they were going to reject anything they read. It happens.

And bear this in mind: you may be rejected because at the same time, the publisher received a handful of absolutely transcendent stories, and they used up their budget for publication and had to turn down anything else. Does that mean anything about the quality of your story? No.

The thing to remember is that a rejection letter is a challenge. It’s a challenge to you, to figure out why you got it, and fix the problem. It may mean that you need to do a rewrite (or three). It may mean that you need to find a more appropriate market. Whatever the case may be, the wrong response is to take it personally. The right response is to Put Ass In Chair and get back to work.

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  1. […] This is ridiculous, and I’m not okay with doing it anymore – my reasoning for doing it was flawed anyway. For example… I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it: Until you have actually received correspondence from us, assume nothing. This applies even if I’ve written that all the writers for the particular issue have been contacted. There’s always the chance that a problem will occur and we can’t use one of the first stories we’ve chosen. So until we’ve actually got contracts for all the stories sorted, nothing is definite. There are always a few stories that we hang onto just in case this happens, and yes, it HAS happened. (And in case you’re thinking “That sucks, it means I wasn’t good enough except as a backup!”, please read my previous post on what rejections really mean.) […]

  2. […] While we know it can be frustrating to receive rejection letters, and even more so if they don’t give you specifics as to why, it’s a pretty common practice. We hope that everyone at least takes us seriously when we say not to take it as a reflection of the quality of your work (For more about why it doesn’t, please read my old post about what rejections really mean.) […]

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