There are countless factors that go into rejecting a work. You might be familiar with submitting, but here’s a peek into the flip-side of publishing and rejection.
I’ve been on both sides of the rejection spectrum recently: as a writer having a story shot down by a journal (part and parcel of the writing life!), and also as an editor having to send those letters telling writers we’ve decided not to publish their work.
Getting to see two sides of the publishing coin allows me to put things into perspective.
Why did my work get rejected? Is my writing terrible? Should I give up? What do I do now?
As a writer, I’ve asked myself these questions countless times. As an editor, I can honestly say that the answers are simple: no, your writing is not bad – you just need to keep trying and move on from your rejection.
Behind-the-Scenes: How Editors Read Your Submission
The stories and poems start filling up your inbox. One day you’ve got a clean, empty screen and the next you’ve got upwards of twenty or thirty submissions (I once tallied up the word count of all the stories I had to read in a weekend: over 29,000 words, equivalent to a standard novella).
Each publisher is different, but I keep a spreadsheet of all the submissions (including the title and date of the work – I don’t look at names or the paragraphs of explanation that some authors attach) and I make brief comments as to my first impressions.
There are generally three categories I can put read submissions into: yes, maybe, no.
Work that grabs me right from the start, with a good balance of technique and execution. I know it when I read it, right away. I can tell that the author has gone through many drafts to get here.
For stories, the characters are rounded, the voice and descriptions are clear, and the plot makes me want to keep reading.
For poetry, the author is confident in their technique and unique style, and I have a visceral reaction to reading their work; I feel the poetry swell inside my chest.
These pieces are good – there’s no doubt about that – but they need another draft or two or three.
These are the pieces that could be real show-stoppers, if only the writer changed the structure or got rid of a character or added another 500 words. Much of the ‘maybe’ submissions will end up in the ‘no’/rejection group.
But I always re-read the submissions I put into the ‘maybe’ pile, because sometimes I come back to it and find the solution to whatever the problem area is, or I find that the potential of the writing outweighs the amount of work myself and the writer will put in.
Writer’s Edit is different to a lot of publications in this respect – if we love the story but it’s going to take a lot more work than anticipated to make it truly shine, we’ll take that risk and just do it.
But for the work that is good but doesn’t quite grab me, or doesn’t quite sit right with me as a reader, it ends up being rejected. It’s not that the writing is bad, necessarily, it’s just not ready.
These are the submissions bound for rejection. As a reader yourself, you probably know when you read something and it just doesn’t work; sometimes you just get a feeling and you automatically switch off.
‘No’ submissions will not get read a second time. You have one shot, one opportunity, so make it count.
Here are some reasons a piece might find itself in the ‘No’ pile:
- The writing itself feels stiff, the voice is flat, the dialogue is stunted – you can’t feel the writer’s passion and love of the story (and how can we love the story, if you don’t love the story?)
- It needs more work than we’re willing to put into it (more drafts, lots of changes to re-write) and the end result still wouldn’t sit right with the essence of the publication
- The genre isn’t quite right (hint: always read the submission guidelines or read some examples of published pieces first!). If the journal wants literary fiction best not to send in fantasy or Mills and Boon erotica
- The themes being explored tread some iffy ground – graphic and violent scenes, political opinion, work that makes us uncomfortable (and not in a progressive way)
How Do I Avoid Rejection?
Draft, Draft, and Draft Again
The most important thing you can do when submitting your work, is to workshop it. Get some writer friends, reader friends, or literally anybody else, to read your piece.
Make sure it’s someone you trust to tell you the truth, however brutal that may be. Because if they’re not going to give you constructive feedback, then what’s the point!
As a writer myself, I get a niggling feeling about certain parts of a story; I’m worried about the pacing of the plot, or I feel like the protagonist isn’t believable enough.
Those little doubts are an indication that you need to re-draft and re-edit your work, and the best way to see where the writing is failing (and we’re it’s succeeding) is to have someone read it and tell you straight up.
On the contrary, sometimes you feel totally confident in your piece, like it’s just come forth from your creative subconscious as a fully formed masterpiece.
If that’s the case, definitely have someone workshop it with you. Because those thoughts can lead you into disappointment when the first person to read your work is an editor and the piece isn’t 100%.
Read the Submission Guidelines
As an editor, I cannot stress this enough. This is one of our biggest pet peeves. I know the guidelines look long and boring but they’re there to help you. Read them carefully. Heed their advice.
We set out the guidelines so that when that crazy influx of submissions comes in and we have to spend our weekend reading them, it’s as easy as possible for us to sort through them.
If a publisher asks for your writing to be double spaced, double space it.
If they ask for Times New Roman, don’t give them Courier New just because it looks fancy.
If they ask for romance stories, don’t bother sending an excerpt from your novel about space battles.
It all seems pretty obvious, but if you follow the guidelines to a T, you know your writing is going to the right editor or reader, and that when they open your submission they’ll breathe a sigh of relief and be in a generally good mood when they start reading.
I’ve Been Rejected - What Do I Do Now?
You’ve basically got two options for handling rejection (and I think you know which one is the best):
- You can feel bitter about it, write a response that shows how ticked off you are, then submit the same story somewhere else (because that publisher clearly doesn’t know what a creative genius you are), or…
- You can feel that twist in your stomach, cry a little bit, complain to a friend, then go back to your submission and try to see how it could be better. Re-work it, read it aloud to someone, find a new perspective.
Most publications are run by volunteers or small teams that don’t have the time or resources to provide feedback for every submission.
As a writer, when I get rejected and don’t get any feedback I feel a bit let-down. But as an editor I know that we feel bad about it too.
It’s not that we don’t want to help you because believe me, we do; it’s that we’re working full-time and looking after our families and writing our own novels and running publications and there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
We do what we can to get by, and bring as much great writing into the world as we can.
That means that finding good feedback for your writing is your job, your responsibility. Being a writer, I’ve accepted that.
I know that if a journal says they won’t publish my poem, that sucks, but it’s my mission to make it the best darn poem it can be.
And you can use that determination to start again, to keep writing, and to keep submitting.
Even when we reject a work, we don’t want the writer to give up – we want them to try again and again, and to keep writing, and keep the spark of their publishing dreams alive.
Rejection isn’t the end of the road, it’s just a pit-stop.