As a writer you have to get used to rejection, even if you’re pretty good. ‘No’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘give up, you terrible excuse for a human, and go live in a hole somewhere whilst you think about what you’ve done.’
There are loads of reasons you might not be the right fit for a particular editor, agent, publisher, journal, etc – many of which have less to do with the quality of what you’re doing and more to do with the particular tastes and audiences of those particular outlets. When I was focussing on freelance journalism there were very few pitches that editors just accepted – almost everyone I worked with would suggest a change in angle that suited their agenda better during pitch stage. In fact, the only time that didn’t happen was when I was writing book and music reviews.
You might think it would be upsetting to have your vision questioned in that way, but actually the thing I hate most as a fiction writer, a journalist, and just as a person who applies for jobs sometimes, is not getting any response or input at all. This could sound clichéd, but at least when you get a rejection you can learn something from it – or at least get a bit of reassurance that you aren’t wasting your time. Here are four of my favourite rejections, and the reasons I liked them.
The Treacle Well
This was a mag aiming to promote new writing talent. I sent them a story about a blobfish, several years before David Walliams covered that area… They said:
I’m sorry to tell you that we haven’t decided to use your story this time round. We really enjoyed reading it and loved the quality of your writing, but unfortunately we received so many submissions of such a high quality that it was really tough to choose and we haven’t been able to say yes to everything we’ve been sent.
I hope you’re not discouraged by this. Please do consider sending your work to us in the future, as there will be other chances and we would love to read more of your work. Or try sending your story to another literary magazine. It’s amazing how many stories are rejected by lots of magazines and then appear in another one. Maybe we’ll be kicking ourselves when we see your work published on another website. I hope so.
I got this in September 2013, and I think it was the first time someone straight up told me that rejection from them didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t take it. I had probably heard it in conjunction with other writers (12 rejections for Harry Potter and all that), but I don’t think I’d had it directly from an editor in relation to my work.
This is a flash fiction magazine I submitted to speculatively, short form prose not really being my specialty. They said:
As with issue one of Halo, we’ve been overwhelmed by the number and quality of submissions we’ve received from talented women writers. The work has been original, bold and beautifully written, and it’s been a privilege to read it.
Your submission made our shortlist but hasn’t been selected for inclusion. Deciding which stories to pass on was a very difficult job – we’ve had to turn down some stunning work, so please know that you made the shortlist because your writing genuinely impressed us.
We hope you’ll take heart from this, read and enjoy issue two, and follow our progress as we share more wonderful writing by women.
Thank you for trusting us with your work, and please do submit to us again in future.
I liked the way they phrased this – not just the ‘your writing impressed us’ (which of course is the sort of validation that keeps me writing) but the ‘thank you for trusting us with your work’. It can be a bit of an emotional time putting your stuff out into the world, uncertain whether it’s ready, or good, or maybe really terrible. So those words were nice to hear. Thanks, Halo!
This is probably my favourite rejection ever, because they took the time to give me constructive criticism and explain what didn’t work for them:
Now, first thing to say is the quality of work was extremely high (this is not one of those hollow phrases you get in all letters like this, but our little experiment – see below – really did push up the overall quality of submissions). Secondly, all of our readers (including me) were in agreement about this piece. The core story and idea has exceptional potential and, perhaps if that potential wasn’t quite as good, it might have made it in. However, the potential we saw was so high that we felt it unfair to publish it in its current form, because we all also felt that it just wasn’t quite there. One person said: it is either overly written, or not enough. Another said, just a little too lightweight and I want to learn more about ‘he’ and ‘she’. Now, this is just our opinion, but either way, I hope you find this helpful and constructive.
Specific feedback like this is incredibly rare (and does make sense in context). I still haven’t found a home for the story, but I think it’s just about time to revisit and send it out again…
I think I’ve been rejected by Gutter three or four times, and in fairness to them their content is generally a lot more literary than my work. Although I don’t send them fart jokes or anything – and my husband had a load of poems about Robert Pattinson included in Gutter 15 so they’re not *that* highbrow… Anyway, on submitting to Gutter 11, they said:
I just wanted to contact you personally and thank your for sending your short story ‘The Boy Who Whistled Like A Bird’ for consideration in Gutter 11. Sadly your work was not selected this time, but please do try again for Gutter 12 (deadline October 31st). Every year the standard of work seems to increase, making the editors’ jobs ever harder and it was a massive struggle to work out who not to include – if the magazine was twice the length it is we would still have to make difficult choices.
I’m including this because after I got this rejection, I made a couple of tweaks and submitted the same story to the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust Story Shop competition. They invited me to read it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. So, a real bonafide example of the fact that just because something’s not right for one audience doesn’t mean it won’t find a place elsewhere.
In summary, then, rejection doesn’t mean failure. It means you’ve put yourself out there, and can give you the opportunity to improve. On balance, that’s got to be better than hiding your stories under a bushel.
And it’s definitely better than being ignored.