Recently, my poetry-writing husband, David White, (check him out in the latest edition of PRISM International and coming soon in Southwestern American Literature), received a rejection from a desirable publication. Now, rejections are like boiled eggs, they stink, but they exist aplenty and some people even claim to like them or be somehow nourished by them…each to her or his own (“Rejections just make me more determined!” Okay…). But this rejection was not the standard form letter.
To synopsize, because the email was three paragraphs long, the editors mentioned their “extreme reluctance” to release the piece back to him and wanted to be certain the poet understood that after some relatively heated editorial exchanges, the decision was made that this piece would not fit in the current edition. But they weren’t happy about it. And they wanted him to know that.
Should this be good news, a salve of sorts to make the rejection feel fluffier, or should it make this particular turndown more bittersweet? There are so many reactive choices.
As an editor at an online journal, I understand that editorial staff may not always agree about a piece, but consensus is generally reached by looking at the needs of a given issue. We may end up rejecting an otherwise acceptable piece of writing because the issue is balanced in a different direction, or—conversely—because the poems and stories accepted in a period already treat this subject; one more will either kedge or mire, and the CE says, “Mire.” So a good piece goes, but the issue will feel right. The rejection, then, is never intended—ever—as an insult to the artist (unless you’ve submitted to a journal run by assholes, and let’s be honest and say that can happen). A decline is simply a reflection of how well the artist has guessed at what a journal needs for its next issue. So, while a rejection isn’t good news, it also doesn’t have any particular value attached to it, up or down the scale of how you should evaluate your writing.
But only in the arts is an almost-love letter considered a positive. Try calling up your landlord on the first and explaining that it’s okay about the late rent because you went on a job interview and were very nearly hired. It was a close decision. Like paying the rent. See, that just doesn’t quite seem jolly.
Why do editors send those letters, signed most earnestly, oozing regret? I got one once that said, “We’ll probably kick ourselves for passing.” What can a working writer take away from that? Do you feel better or worse when you get one of these?
How you feel probably depends on how you manage your ego and why you write. I would advocate for a neutral approach, emotion-free.
For starters, if you feel defeated when you receive a rejection—a kissy one or a straight up, cold “nope”—or if you think thoughts like, “They think I can’t write…maybe I can’t…”, then you probably can’t. Not because you aren’t good at it, but because you won’t be able to put yourself through the Waring Blender that is the submission process if every rejection rips at your vitals.
And what about editors who kick themselves and want you to know they pulled for you? Other than suggesting you might want to give them a try after a resting period (three months or one submission or reading cycle is pretty standard unless you’ve been specifically invited to try again immediately), it’s pragmatically meaningless. I mean, it’s nice of them, but it won’t help you in any way.
Remember that most editors are writers, too, and so they may over-emote in print. A miss is as good as a mile, isn’t that the old line? It holds here. Just file it for whatever useful information there is and keep going.
What, then, should you do about rejections?
- Get your stuff proofread by a fresh pair of eyes. A misspelling can be problematic. I tend to forgive the occasional type-o, but not everyone is as chill.
- Read guidelines and follow them to the letter. If you put your name on a document and submit it to a journal that takes blind submissions only, it’s over before it starts. Sounds very basic, but I see experienced writers do this all the damn time.
- Read sample work from journals you want to submit to and choose from your body of work something that seems to fit, or to compliment, their body of publications in some way. If you like a journal but samples aren’t available online, you can’t find the title at the library, and you don’t have an extra 500 bucks a year for random subscriptions, see if any writer friends want to start a journal share. Or just submit to the ones offering samples online. They’re thinking like writers: free reads are good. And how do you know you like it if you can’t read a copy? Let’s move from business back to love as a metaphor. What if you met a gorgeous man, let’s say Viggo Mortensen (or fill in a reverse-gender example if that helps you), and what if he had bad breath and acted like a wank? Names can’t convey much beyond some suggestion of market value, which really has nothing to do with sex. Oh yeah, that’s right, words and venues get it on, the analogy sticks. And while I’m sure Viggo Mortensen is lovely, you can’t really know, can you? Read it or forget it. That’s my heartfelt advice, and rather businesslike once again, when all is said and done.
- Keep writing and revising, even work you’ve already submitted. Have it ready for next time. Just in case.
- Keep your cover letter simple and businesslike. Most editors will never see it anyway.
- Submit to rawboned. Just thought I’d throw that in.
- Use an Excel spread sheet, use duotrope, use a sharpie and a spiral notebook, but make an ever-updating list of places to submit, keep track of your active submissions, and keep track of your rejections no matter if they were sweet or not. You can resubmit in either case. In fact, you should. One issue is not like another, one staff configuration is not like another. Forward and back, forward and back. It’s a tide, so bring floaties.
So, once more, what of long winded, lovey-dovey rejections? Well, just so, what of them? Meh. You’re too busy working on the next submission to care much. You’re too busy writing to worry about editors. Editors, meanwhile, are out there, dying to fall in love with your work. I’m one of them. Come find me.