25 Things Writers Should Know About Rejection

‘Tis the Month of No Mercy.

And so it is time to tackle the subject of…

REJECTION.

*crash of thunder*

1. As Ineluctable As The Tides

If you’re a writer, a writer who writes, a writer who puts her work out there, you’re going to face rejection. It’s like saying, “Eventually you’re going to have to fistfight a bear,” except here it’s not one bear but a countless parade of bears, from Kodiaks to Koalas, all ready to go toe-to-toe with you. Rejection, like shit, happens. Rejection, like shit, washes off. Get used to it.

2. Penmonkey Darwinism In Action

Rejection has value. It teaches us when our work or our skillset is not good enough and must be made better. This is a powerful revelation, like the burning UFO wheel seen by the prophet Ezekiel, or like the McRib sandwich shaped like the Virgin Mary seen by the prophet Steve Jenkins. Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?

3. This, Then, Is The Value Of The Gatekeeper

Hate the autocracy of the kept gates all you like, but the forge of rejection purifies us (provided it doesn’t burn us down to a fluffy pile of cinder). The writer learns so much from rejection about himself, his work, the market, the business. Even authors who choose to self-publish should, from time to time, submit themselves to the scraping talons and biting beaks of the raptors of rejection. Writers who have never experienced rejection are no different than children who get awards for everything they do: they have already found themselves tap-dancing at the top of the “I’m-So-Special” mountain, never having to climb through snow and karate chop leopards to get there.

4. It Always Stings

Rejection always stings. It stings me, you, everybody. Nobody likes to be rejected. A writer who likes being rejected is a writer who is secretly a robot and must be smelted down into slag before he tries to kill us all because he hates our meat. Pain is instructive. And it’s not permanent. Not if you don’t let it be. Some writers savor misery like a hard candy endlessly sucked in the pocket of one’s cheek, but fuck that.

5. Five Stages Of Grief

Rejection leads to a swiftly-experienced version of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s key to get to that last step as quickly as you can reckon. I actually have two additional steps in my personal process: “liquor” and “ice cream.” Your mileage may vary.

6. It’s Never Personal

It’s not about you. It’s about the work. I mean, unless it is about you. I guess it could be personal. If you send a story off to an editor, and you once shat in that editor’s fishtank, well. That might be personal.

7. Decipher The Code, Translate The “No”

Different rejections say different things. Not every “no” is equal. Hell, they can’t be — if I get 200 no’s and one yes, then that single yes invalidates all the no’s. One rejection might say there’s something wrong with the story. Another with the writing. A third likes the story, hates its role (or lack of role) in the market. A fourth rejection is upset at you — something about blah blah blah, bowel movements and fish-tanks.

8. The Truth Hides In The Pattern

Stare at a Cosby sweater long enough and it’s like a Magic Eye painting. Eventually you’ll start to see dolphins and Jell-O pudding cups and the secret Gnostic gospels of Doctor Huxtable. What were we talking about again? Right. Rejections. One rejection is not as meaningful as a basket of them. All the rejections around a single project become meaningful — a picture emerges. You can start decoding commonalities, sussing out the reasons for being rejected.

9. Some Rejections Are Worthless As A Short-Sleeved Straitjacket

Not every rejection — or every person wielding the big red “NUH-UH” stamp — is a quality one. Form rejections won’t teach you anything other than the fact that the editor didn’t have time. Rejections that never come — a “no” by proxy — are even less valuable. Sometimes you’ll receive a rejection that just doesn’t add up, leaving you scratching your pink parts in slack-jawed bewilderment. Recognize that some — not all, not even most, but some — rejections are as fruitful as a shoebox full of dead mice.

10. Beware Snark, Reject Cruelty

Every once in a while you’ll get a mean rejection. I don’t mean a rejection that takes you to task — that’s what rejections should do. I mean a rejection that is destructive over constructive. That insults aggressively (or passive-aggressively). Maybe the editor was having a bad day. Or maybe the editor’s just a sack of dicks. Rare, but it happens. When it does: ignore and discard. You’re expected to be professional. So are they.

11. Cherish Opportunistic Rejections

Cherish them the way you would a child, or a lost love, or the misery of an enemy as you slowly feed him into a growling wood chipper. By “opportunistic rejection” I mean, a rejection that aims to help you, not just reject you. A handwritten rejection, for instance, one that features an honest critique of your work, is fucking gold. Equally awesome are rejections that help you understand the good things about your story and, further, offer opportunity for future submission. Best of all are rejections that encourage you to resubmit — not other stories, but that story. My first short story on submission got one of those. I played ball. Resubmitted. Was published. Got paid. Freeze-frame high-five.

12. Like It Or Not, It’s Largely Subjective

Storytelling isn’t math. And neither is literary criticism. Any rejection is going to be largely subjective: it’s opinion. Doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong or has no value, but it helps to know going in that you’re dealing with a subset of opinions — informed opinions, most likely, but opinions just the same. Some rejections are objective, based on harder criteria. What I mean is…

13. Sometimes, It’s Totally Your Fault, Dummy

Objective rejections will take you to task for two primary things: one, you didn’t follow the submission guidelines. (Can I just say: always follow the goddamn submission guidelines? Even if the submission guidelines are like, “Each corner of the manuscript must be dabbed with the urine of an incontinent civet cat and the writer must write his name backwards for the magic to take hold,” you do that shit because you’re not a pretty pretty unicorn, you’re a horse like the rest of us, goddamnit.) Or two, your technical writing ability is for shit, at least in that story. If you can’t put a period on the right place or learn the difference between “lose” and “loose,” then you’re going to earn that objective rejection.

14. “It’s Just Not For Me”

You can read that kind of rejection one of two ways: one, your story was good, but just not for that market/editor/moon phase; two, the editor is uncomfortable with truth or doesn’t want to offend anybody and so is gently limping away from saying anything even remotely offensive or controversial.

15. “I Can’t Sell This”

This is a variant version of the above — but it speaks specifically to market. It doesn’t mean your book or story or article is bad, and hell, it may even be brilliant. That’s not the worst place to be, by the way.

16. Know The Signal To Self-Publish

Rejection as a whole is not a great reason to run out and self-publish. I mean, think about it: “Everyone else hates it, so why not punish readers with it? To the Resentmentmobile!” But — but! — sometimes, the overall pattern of rejection does indicate value in self-publishing. Getting a lot of those “it’s good, but I can’t do anything with it” rejections tells you that the risk-averse industry isn’t willing to, duh, take a risk. So, you can absorb the risk and self-publish. (Or you can continue to hope that good rejections will lead to an eventual patient acceptance — that’s what I did with Blackbirds.)

17. The Power In “Just Not Good Enough”

It’s sad at first. You wrench handfuls of hair from your head. You punch mirrors. You soak your pillow through with the tears of rage and regret. But then comes the realization: this story just isn’t up to snuff. It’s a powerful and freeing moment — freeing because, making a story better is entirely within your power. You can’t change market forces. But you can change the quality of your work. So do that.

18. Criticism Is A Conversation, But Rejection Is Not

Do not respond to an editor or agent and try to “re-convince them” to buy your work. At best it’s fruitless, at worst it’s completely deluded. The desperation wafts off you like dog’s breath. The door is closed, for better or worse, for right or wrong. Trying to kick it down does nobody any favors. Oh! And it’s unprofessional.

19. Just To Clarify: Don’t Be A Raging Dickheaded Moon-Unit

Further, don’t go writing said editor or agent with the desire to rant and rave at them. OMG YOU DONT GET MY BRILIANCE letters will out you as a crazy-headed Martian and will earn you mockery and scorn. Your best recourse to any rejection is to write a politely worded “thank you,” and then move on with your life. Put down the megaphone. Put on some pants. Squeegee the froth from your computer monitor.

20. The Common Bonds Of Weepy Wordmonkeys

Every writer, from the tippity-top of the industry to its sludge-slick nadir, has experienced rejection. Every book, movie, or story you love? It’s been rejected. Probably not once. But dozens, maybe even hundreds of times. It’s part of the writer’s career tapestry, part of our blood and genetic memory. Rejection is part of who we are as creative beings. Might as well commiserate.

21. Bumper Sticker: “Real Writers Get Rejected”

I’ll just leave that there for you to discuss amongst yourselves.

22. Put Your Rejections On Display

Build a wall. A shrine. A goddamn memorial display of all your rejections. Writers need to gain emotional power over their rejections. By embracing them and putting them up for all to see, you claim that power. Show it to others. Laugh at it. Find ways to surpass it. Stephen King reportedly collected all of his on a nail. I might stuff mine in a giant wicker man. When I die, I will be burned alive inside the rejectionist’s pyre.

23. Harden The Fuck Up, Care Bear

Any creative person has to be a little bit hard of heart — how can you not be? You can’t go sobbing into a potted plant every time you get a bad review. Just because someone told you “no, I can’t rep this, can’t publish this” doesn’t mean it’s time to head to the bell tower with a .300 Weatherby and start taking out anybody carrying a book or a fucking Barnes & Noble rewards card. Rejections toughen you up. Step to it. Suck it up. Lean into the punch. We all get knocked down. This is your chance to get back up again with your rolled-up manuscript in your hand and start swinging like a ninja.

24. Once Again, Time To Poll Your Intestinal Flora

The writer’s gut is his best friend — over time, the chorus of colonic bacteria that secretly control us begin to work in concert and soon start to get a grasp of what the best course of action is. As the parliament of micro-organisms attunes to your way of doing things and the world’s response, you start to get a clearer picture of how to handle individual rejections and how to move forward. I don’t know that every writer should trust his or her gut from the outset, but over time, you’ll have to. It’ll be that polling of your gutty-works that tells you how to judge individual rejections or rejections as a whole: it’ll tell you if it’s time to put the story in a dark hole, time to improve it, time to be patient and keep submitting or time to find a better and more independent path to publication.

25. Rejections Are Proof You’ve Been To Thunderdome

Fighters know one another because they look a certain way: busted-ass knuckles, a crooked nose, a scar on the lip, the suspicious gaps where teeth once grew. These are the signs of being a crazy motherfucking bad-ass. You see a guy whose body is a network of scars you don’t think, “Hey, he sure gets beat-up a lot,” you think, “Holy fucksnacks, that guy looks like he got thrown into a dumpster full of broken glass and he came out meaner than ever.” That’s how you need to see rejection. You need to see rejection as bad-ass Viking Warrior battle scars, as a roadmap of pain that makes you stronger, faster, smarter, and stranger. A writer without rejections under his belt is the same as a farmer with soft hands; you shake that dude’s hand and you know, he’s not a worker, not a fighter, and wouldn’t know the value of his efforts if they came up and stuck a Garden Weasel up his ass. Rejections are proof of your efforts. Be proud to have ’em.

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

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Or its sequel: REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY

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And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

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Or the newest: 500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER

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151 comments

  • This is so funny! Thank you for helping me feel better. Maybe our words can be a gift to our readers even if we don’t see any payoff as the writer.

  • Your article has spurred me to buy a book from you. Why? I applaud your courage in adding voice to your writing, and I want to celebrate and reward it.

    After a recent round of rejection, I printed out about a half-dozen “chin up!” articles. They were all the same: bland and trying to sell me something.

    Yours stands out as unique, compelling, and *real.* This attribute is something I strive for in my own writing and which I appreciate in others’.

    Thank you for your quality piece.

    Annalisa Parent
    annalisaparent.com

  • March 27, 2014 at 11:26 AM // Reply

    Great stuff, but aside from being a writer, I’ve also been and editor now and then. I really don’t want writer to respond with a thank you, unless I did something above and beyond. I often send out a hundred rejections per week, and the last thing I need is a hundred “thank you” e-mails in my inbox. I have to open them and read them because sometimes a thank you has nothing to do with a rejection, but I can’t usually tell until I do open it, unless it says “Thank you for the rejection” in a the subject line.

    Time is short for any editor. Really short. Thank me if I dissected your story and gave you a lot of feedback other writers don’t get, but for a straight rejection, no, move on. I don’t have time to look at them, and there’s no need to thank me for saying no. Chances are, I won’t remember you or the story, anyway.

  • James A Ritchie, you sound a little mean-spirited to me!
    I just love Chuck’s observations on rejection. They made me laugh at a time when I need cheering up (and what writer doesn’t go through some of those times?). I’m sorry you don’t have time to read the Thank You emails. Get a life, sir. Get a heart, goddammit.

  • March 28, 2014 at 8:08 PM // Reply

    Yeah, they made me laugh, too. But instead of reading this, try sitting in an editor’s chair and having fifteen trillion pointless thank you emails filling up your inbox. You lose your sense of humor real fast.

    I’m not being mean, but you really don’t have a clue how busy it gets for an editor, or an agent. In an entire week, I may have fifteen minutes to read e-mails. Fifteen minutes. The rest of the time, usually about sixty hours of it, I’m doing something else. I’m, wait, I’ll remember in a minute. Oh, yeah, I’m doing my job, part of which is not opening and reading thank you e-mails. Being sorry doesn’t help, and I have a heart. Plus an extremely good life. How can you not have an extremely good life when it’s spent opening thank you e-mails?

    Unfortunately, as much as love reading those e-mails, I do not have is enough time to read them if I want to keep my job. Having the best life on earth, and two hearts like Dr. Who, still doesn’t give me time to read hundreds of thank you e-mail that all say the same thing. . .thank you for rejecting me. Really?

    There’s nothing mean about saying thank you e-mails are not necessary. They are not necessary, and I don’t know a single agent or editors who expects or wants thank you e-mails for plain old rejections. They aren’t necessary, they just clog our inboxes, and make it difficult to find e-mails we much read. Just move on to the next market.

    • April 11, 2014 at 3:26 PM // Reply

      I don’t think you sound mean spirited at all James Ritchie. I have always figured agents had no time to read thank you emails and I have never sent them. The only ones I sent were when the agent was kind enough to give me personal feedback with their rejection. I figure they want to be thanked for taking 5 out of their 15 minutes to email me back with information. Agents and editors are bombarded and I do not want to take any chance that they would somehow remotely remember me in any way as irritating. If I was an agent or editor I would get annoyed with thank you responses too. Reading one thank you isn’t a big deal, but weeding through and deleting several hundred of them takes a lot of time. I hear you James!

  • After receiving four rejections in the last three days for varying projects, this definitely helped me take them in perspective. Thanks!

  • Thank you so much for this invaluable, insightful piece!

    I received a rejection this morning from a screenplay competition. It was my first screenplay … what can I say. Anyway, on the notification date I found a post by them on social media asking for volunteer readers. I felt very strange about this, knowing that my work was very possibly being read by someone recruited in the 11th hour on a social networking site. Yes, I am taking it on the chin. No, I will not give up.

  • I just pulled this up to get some inspiration after receiving another rejection today. This post is bookmarked for the days when I need the encouragement. Thank you!

  • You, sir, you I love with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns. I needed to find this article after waking up to a crisp, heartless, form rejection letter. I wish you good day and happy, rejectionless blogging.

  • My favorite quote regarding the subject at hand:

    “I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’ ” Saul Bellow

  • You can get rejected a whole lot more if you write poetry or flash and use Submittable. Try it, it’s fun. I’m about 1 for 10 now, so I can’t cry too much.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for #11. I’m putting the ice cream back in the freezer and swearing off rereading that damn agent email for the 37th time today. I’m in some sort of dialogue about a major revision but it’s a holiday and I just need a night off from Thunderdome. I could put this rejection on the back cover as a blurb, and yet — NO — which makes me all the more want to cry. But no. Thanks for all the laughs!

  • I don’t adore this post, I think this is ridiculous. What you’re really saying is “accept that the people who you depend upon to get your work made can reject you, and you should be happy they even bothered to fucking look at you. You should be happy you got every part of you raked over the coals by people who can’t fucking do the job you’re doing, because if they could they wouldn’t need you.
    That’s like a patient rejecting a doctor for doing a lifesaving surgery, “oh, I can’t operate but you, who can, are you exactly the kind of person I’m looking for, are you the exact kind of doctor I need at this exact moment?”
    Yes, he or she fucking is, that’s why they’re doing this.
    I’m so sick of hearing about the merits of rejection.
    “You know he’s a badass. . .” how? Because someone didn’t like a hundred times as opposed to ten?
    I don’t understand people, writers especially. We have twice the suicide rate of ‘normal’ people, we are competing against everyone who ever died, every writer before us, and every writer is coming down the pipe. Our best and brightest minds often killed themselves because we couldn’t handle the rejection, the pressure, being told we weren’t good enough, and after we die, then, and only then do these publishers figure we’re good enough.
    Any other profession where you have to jump through fucking hoops on the off chance you’ll get in, knowing that most of the time the ones who are dictating terms can’t do what you do, can’t even fucking begin to do what you do tends to make one a bit cynical after a few decades. Or centuries. Or eons.
    (Not really that old, but historically most of us published our works ourselves. This concept of a publishing house, of accepting the voice of some editor, it’s barely two hundred years old. Anyway.)
    So no, I don’t consider this very uplifting. I write to live, to keep myself alive, and I don’t expect to make money doing this, and I’m not even sure it matters. What does matter is this; I have no faith in modern publishing, I certainly have no faith in editors, agents, or any of the supposed big houses.
    These people are supposed to know the future, that’s their real job, they are supposed to predict the next big things decades and centuries in the future, and they can’t. They just can’t.
    Instead they just ramble behind, playing catch-up. They’re playing Russian roulette with us, because when they’re successful it seems like they knew the outcome, and when they’re not well they blame us, we weren’t good enough, we weren’t on the cusp of the next big thing. So our lives and livelihoods depend on them being superhuman, being able to do all things, to know instantly the success or failure of another human being even when, for the last two hundred fucking years they have got it wrong so many times. Too many times.
    So no. I don’t find this especially uplifting, or gratifying, or even moderately funny. I’ve seen enough of us die because we were rejected, and then the ones who do so have the balls to argue how misunderstood we were, when they misunderstood us.
    Fuck em. It’s not worth it, and this isn’t a fear of rejection, I’ve been rejected, this is an acknowledgement that in any other profession, as a doctor, a lawyer, a police officer, a waiter the onus of success depends upon themselves. By being a writer the onus of success depends entirely upon the purview of whims of another. That’s not being rejected. That’s being toyed with. And I’m too old to play the game. Maybe next century, when they’ve got their act together, for now, I think I’ll surf.

  • I’ve had more rejections since my last post, and one more acceptance. I can’t think of any other endeavor where I’d be thrilled to have a 10-15% success rate. LOL!

  • March 3, 2017 at 1:50 PM // Reply

    I know this post is older but I had to comment. One of my flash fictions just got rejected ny a magazine. I basically googled, “How do I know my writing doesn’t just plain suck?” and this post popped up. Thank you. Truly. I really needed this. Though it’s been a good 30 years since I sh*t in a fish tank. Just sayin’.

  • Thank you for this article. I, as a writer of humor, experience rejection quite often. The worst, they just don’t reply. So I can wonder, did they even receive my mail? Did they read it?
    I hate waiting and feeling like a fool. I feel like a girl waiting for a love letter that never comes. And then, after a while, say, a week, I start accepting it. But I remember each of them.

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