17 January 2013

Learning the Language of Rejection

By Gayle Francis Moffet

As of the writing of this post, I have a 17% acceptance rate. That means I'm doing pretty well for myself at this point in my career (three years in). It also means I have an 83% rejection rate, and while that's sort of soul-crushing on  a super-gray, cold day when I'm out of coffee and grumbling at yet another unfinished short story, most days I'm glad of it. That 83% rejection rate has allowed me to learn the language of rejection and to understand that different rejections mean different things. There's a lot of power in knowing this language, and I think it's something that writers shy away from because to learn the language you have to embrace the fact that rejections are much more common than acceptances.

So far (this is a work in progress), I've identified three distinct type of rejection:
  1. Form rejections
  2. Personal rejections
  3. Unclear rejections
Form rejections are the one any writer who's submitting knows best. It's one or two lines with no personal touches. It looks something like this:

Thank you for your submission. We have chosen not to publish it. Good luck placing it elsewhere.

The translation of this rejection generally falls under two categories:
  1. We read it and didn't like it.
  2. We read it, and it didn't fit with our editorial guidelines.
How do you know the difference? If you read pieces accepted by that market before submitting, you probably got rejected for reason #1. If you didn't read anything from the market before submitting, you probably got rejected for reason #2. Why didn't the editor tell you which one it was? Because there's not time for that. Every extra minute an editor spends on an unwanted piece is a minute taken away from work that's actually wanted. You wrote something. They didn't want it. That's all they need to tell you to move on to the next piece.

What to remember when getting a form rejection: It's not a judgement on your writing as a whole, and it's not a judgement on you. It's a judgement of an editor's preferences. You didn't meet them. That's not a good or bad thing, just a plain fact. If you want to submit something else, make sure to review some recent issues or blog posts or anthologies or however the market publishes and really compare what you want to send to what they publish already. Is it on-message? Does is feel like a good fit? Are you meeting all of the required guidelines? If you can say yes to those questions, submit again. The worst thing that'll happen is you get the same rejection again, and now that you know what to expect, it doesn't sting quite as much.

Personal rejections are rejections that come with some sort of clearly personal note from an editor. A couple of weeks ago, I got a rejection from Oxford American. It looked like this:

Looks like a basic form rejection, right? On the front, yes. On the back, someone hand-wrote a couple of lines, telling me to keep up the great work. Personal rejections mean exactly one thing:
  1. You were so, so close.
If you get a personal rejection of any length, it means you were under consideration. I call it "getting to the table." Your submission got out of the inbox or the envelope, and it got to the table where everyone sits and takes a vote on what's going to be accepted. Form rejections can happen in a vacuum, with one person reading and deciding to reject your work and not pass it on for a second opinion. Personal rejections always happen after discussion and consideration.

What to remember when getting a personal rejection: They wanted to publish you but couldn't quite do it. Anyone who takes the time to write you two lines or send you an e-mail about the rejection process (I got one of those recently) likes what you did and hopes to see more of it. Send more of it. Do not send the same thing back with revisions unless specifically asked.

Unclear rejections are rejections that fall somewhere between form and personal. They're rejections that you can't quite parse for meaning, and you're left wondering if you got flat-out rejected or if you were in serious consideration. They look something like this:

Thank you for submitting your work. We enjoyed reading it very much, but we have chosen not to publish it. We encourage you to submit other work for consideration and wish you the best of luck in placing this piece.

Half of this reads as a regular form rejection (it's not getting published and best of luck), but the other half reads like someone might have plugged in a couple of extra lines to encourage you (enjoyed reading it and submit other work). The problem is, if you've never been rejected by that market before, you don't know for certain what's form and what's not. Unclear rejections are, in my case, rather anger-inducing because they're unclear outside of the "no." Here, you can see an illustration of my thought process*:

The interrobang sums up the issue with unclear rejections rather nicely: It's not quite one thing, but it's not quite another, and that makes it hard to fully understand how you should interpret what's happened.

What to remember when getting an unclear rejection: It's still a rejection. It's still a clear no. Do not e-mail back asking for clarification. Do not give it any more weight than a form rejection. Do not assume it's a personal rejection. If you must find out for certain if it's meant to be a form or personal rejection, submit something else appropriate to the market (Read: don't send something you know won't fit just to see the response; it's unprofessional) and see what happens. If you get rejected with the same letter, it was a form rejection. If you get rejected with a variation of the above letter, the first one was probably at least somewhat personal. If you get accepted, don't worry about it because you just got accepted (always awesome).

The truth of it is, you're going to spend way more time getting rejections than you are getting acceptances. It's the nature of the business. Knowing how to parse the rejections will, in part, make them easier to deal with. Form rejection? They didn't want it; time to move to the next market on the list (I generally find three possible markets at a time for any one piece). Personal rejection? Is there anything else you've got publishing-ready that will fit what they want? Is there anything simmering in the back of your mind that you could write up to send to them? Unclear rejection? Eh. You can try again, certainly, but you can also just move to the next market and come back to the unclear one later if you really want. There's no shortage of markets, just shortages of your time. Hopefully, reading through this will help you use yours more effectively and keep you from worrying too much over markets that turn you down. It happens. I know. I see it 83% of the time.

(As I was doing one last proofread for spelling errors [a cup of coffee for you if you spot one I missed], this article about decoding query rejections came across my twitter feed, and it's worth checking out.)

*I drew that thing, but it wouldn't have gotten drawn if a dear friend hadn't said that's how she pictured me getting mad in the first place.


  1. Gayle, that was insightful. I've given rejections, but since I don't submit work too often to publications (unless I know they want me), I've not received many. But, this is very useful.

    I was just telling my 17 year old son, who is looking for his first job, that rejections are fine. They're good even. I wish I'd gotten more of them when I was younger. The truth is that I always applied to small organizations where I knew I was wanted. That means, no practice, no years of developing interviewing skills and no understanding of the process.

    It also means no random awesome opportunities taken. That's something I want now...so I'm going to go out there and get rejected!!!

    1. There's really nothing wrong with either track. If you can set up a situation where you know your work is wanted, you should do it. That is, after all, the end goal of every writer: to get to the point where people wait for you to send stuff. I'm getting a little closer, I think, and I'm excited to get there.

      But, of course, rejection is good for you. Once it happens, you realize it's not a big deal at all, and from there it's pretty much a cake walk. "Oh? A rejection? Kay. Is there milk for my coffee?"

    2. What? Milk in coffee?

  2. What a great topic! Even the most confident writers can be ripped to pieces by rejection and this gives a great, logical way to view the rejection monster when it rears its ugly, yet inevitable, head.

    Carrie, I wish I had been given the same advice about rejection when I was younger. Kids are being told way too often that everything they do is perfect and everyone should love them, and when they get their first real rejection, it can be earth-shattering. Kudos for some great parenting!

    Gayle, are you getting these rejections for shorter works (i.e. short stories, comic books)? Is the internal process for dealing with rejections different for pieces that take longer to create, like novels?

    1. Rob, these are all for shorter works. I haven't submitted any comics at this point because it's actually easier to get into comics at this point by just doing it yourself and then showing your following and ability to update regularly to an editor than it is to pitch cold. For rejections for novels and stuff, there's the link at the end of the post from a professional discussing query rejections. It is, as far as I've ever been able to tell while never having submitted a query for a book, the same exact process, just with a longer piece of work.

  3. The thing to remember about rejections is that writing is like hitting at baseball - even the very best fail most of the time.

    1. I wish I'd had that metaphor to start with. The post would have been 90% finished with just it. :)

  4. Great insight. I'm passing this on. The unclear rejection for me is the most infuriating. :)

    1. Oh, unclear rejections are agonizing. I have spent way too much time trying to parse them and decide where I ended up. It burned a lot of useful time, and I'm still not entirely immune to trying to figure it out, but I'm getting closer.

      I'm really pleased you'll be passing this on. Makes me feel great.

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