Writing advice

The Dreaded Rejection Letter

So you’ve opened that email (or self-addressed, stamped envelope you sent out with such hope a few weeks ago) and read those words we all hate. “We regret to inform you…” Your story, article, novel, or whatever has been rejected by a prospective publisher. Maybe not for the first time.

Unfortunately, rejection is a part of the writing business. Everybody gets rejected. In the early going most writers get rejected a lot. Even successful (whatever your definition of that might be) writers still get rejected, just not as consistently. However good we are, however talented, everything we write is not going to be liked by everybody.

We, as writers, have to expect to be rejected by editors and publishers. We will probably be rejected a lot. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.

But it doesn’t mean we have to let it destroy us, or our confidence either.

Rejection hurts. Humans are hardwired to need affirmation from fellow human beings. (Unless you’re a sociopath. In that case ignore this section.) We need to know that our lives, our ideas, and our work has value. Rejection seems to say the opposite: that our work (and by extension, everything else about us) is not good enough. Notice that I said “seems.” The truth is the rejection of your story has absolutely nothing to do with your worth as a human being. There is a very good chance is doesn’t really have much to say about the value of your work.

All a rejection tells us is that this particular piece was not accepted by this particular publisher. Form letters (which most are) really don’t even tell us why the piece was not accepted. It usually just says something like “does not meet our current needs.” It says nothing about quality. It just says “no.”

For those who have never worn an editor’s shoes, a lesson. Imagine you and a handful of your friends decide to start a magazine publishing fiction. You advertise in all the right places and receive a hundred submissions. Now you sit down with the rest of your editorial board to decide which ten of the hundred submissions you’re going to include in your magazine.

Fifteen of the submissions are quickly eliminated because, frankly, they just aren’t very good. Another twenty are eliminated because the authors didn’t follow the submission requirements you established. They’re too long, or too short; they’re written in the wrong genre, or in the wrong format, or even handwritten on both sides of legal paper. You are busy people. Many of your editors might be working day jobs and running the magazine at night. You don’t have time for authors that can’t be bothered to follow your rules.

That leaves sixty-five submissions left. Of these, everyone agrees that six are very, very good and need to be included in the magazine. That leaves fifty-nine submissions competing for the final four slots. Of those fifty-nine stories, none are noteworthy either because they are very bad or very good. All are pretty good. All may have some weaknesses. So you and your friends start finding ways to eliminate entries. These three here might be similar to one of the exceptional stories we’ve already accepted; those four are pretty close to something you’ve published in previous months. But finally, when it comes to the final four stories you choose for your magazine, you basically go with your gut, your instinct. You might not even be able to explain exactly why you chose them.

All those ninety other stories will get rejection letters. You would love to write individual letters to all the authors, but you simply don’t have time. You have a magazine to work on. You might scribble an encouraging note to a handful of authors who were the last to be cut, but it depends on how much time and energy you have.

Those ninety authors all receive the rejection letter. Only fifteen of them were rejected because their writing wasn’t very good. But none of them knows who they are.

When you think about it, the odds are enormous. We have to send the right work (right theme, right style, right genre, right word count, etc.) to the right editor, at the right time (she hasn’t just accepted something very similar) in order to be published.

Seems like a long shot, doesn’t it? But there are a few things we can do to improve our odds. First of all, we need to make sure we’re not among that group that is eliminated because we didn’t follow the submission guidelines. Don’t make it easy to reject us.

Second, make sure that whatever we submit is as good as we can possibly make it. That includes proofreading.

Third, and perhaps the most important of all. We need to get as many editors to see the work as we can. The best way to hit that sweet spot of the right person, time, and place I spoke of earlier is to keep submitting it until someone accepts it. It might be the first place you send it; it might be the tenth. However, that tenth editor will never get the chance to publish that story if you give up after the second rejection.

Now we’re back to the opening. You have just received a letter rejecting your story. What do you do?

Allow yourself a few moments of disappointment. You are human after all. It’s allowed. But then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and submit it again.


7 thoughts on “The Dreaded Rejection Letter

  1. Wonderful post! Sometimes you’re not being rejected on your talent, it’s just that agents and publishers can’t take on all the works submitted to them. The publishing industry is under huge pressure at the moment and the sad truth is that the chances of successfully submitting is dwindling all the time. Yet, you must not give up!


  2. Michelle Mueller says:

    You’re absolutely right. Rejection is inevitable. I’ve heard of some authors aiming for 100 rejections in one year, which of course just means that they continue to put their work out, thus increasing the odds of publication. I like the idea. Regardless, you’ve offered some solid advice. All we can do is keep trying!


    • 100 rejections a year? That’s an interesting marker. I’ve also heard from salespeople that the standard is one sale for every twenty cold sales calls. Using that ratio, a hundred rejections should net you four or five publications. Cool.


      • Michelle Mueller says:

        At the very least, think of what an amazing collage you could make with all those rejection letters!


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