Rejection is impractical.

I recognized the handwriting on the envelope as my own. A SASE, returned to me by the editors of a literary journal. More like the interns of a literary journal.

I opened it and found a flyer for next year’s literary contest. Over and over I flipped this one-page flyer, looking for a handwritten note, saying something like, “Thanks, Jane, but no.” Wordprocessed and photocopied text is all I found.

At last I actually read the photocopy. I studied it even. Ah ha! After the announcement of next year’s contest are listed the winners of this year’s competition, which I had entered. I am not among those listed, and so I deduced that — although no text is actually addressed to me — I did not place in the contest and, furthermore, I will not be published by this journal.

Hmm, thanks a lot for the completely impersonal and oblique reply, oh literary journal. It would have been a step up, you know, to receive a form letter: “Dear Writer, We have read work. It is not right for our publication. Good luck elsewhere. Sincerely, The Editors.” In fact, I would have preferred such a direct form letter. Photocopied notices of next year’s contest are not very good communicators of the “no, thanks.”

“You know what I want?” I said to Jimmy, as we stood in our kitchen, with this blue piece of paper in my hand. “I want to learn something about my writing from the rejection letter.” Here are what might be good responses. I could even imagine a literary journal creating a form letter with check boxes. Even one of these items, checked, would teach me something about my work:

  • No thank you. This still feels like a draft to us.
  • No thank you. This doesn’t fit with our editorial vision or sensibility.
  • No thank you. Honestly, we are overloaded with stuff right now, and your essay did not grab us on the first page, so we didn’t keep reading.
  • No thank you. This is potentially really interesting, but it’s too long for what it is.
  • No thank you. We really prefer to publish the Under 40 and Fabulous Crowd, and this is not that.

While I do see the benefits of preparing one’s work for submission, this kind of rejection is totally impractical. It’s like hitting a tennis ball against the back of the school wall, again, and again, and again. Sure, it’s activity, and it seems relevant to the actual playing of tennis, but it’s not deliberate practice and it won’t get ya nowhere in the game. There’s return, but no feedback.

Jimmy said two things. “You know, you have the platform to publish the essay yourself.” He’s right, and I will.

Then he handed me a 4 x 6″ postcard he got in the mail from Starbucks. “Have this,” he said.



We’ll make you any drink you like.

I’ll take the free coffee. It’ll end up being more personalized than the blue flyer I got from the journal.

14 thoughts on “Rejection is impractical.

  1. I agree that their response was particularly thoughtless and insensitive. If it’s any comfort, remember that editors are not teachers. Good for you to keep putting yourself out there, Jane. The hard work will pay off in ways you hadn’t expected.

  2. This is pretty much why I stopped submitting my work, so good for you for continuing to do it. Once I got a rejection letter that was on a piece of paper ripped in half, as if they were in the middle of putting the letter in the SASE and realized they needed a piece of paper to write down a phone number and used the bottom of my rejection letter. Or they needed to put two rejections on one page and couldn’t be bothered to use a paper cutter. But I guess it’s better to get something than nothing.

    LOVE the idea of the checklist form letter. That would be so great! I guess that still takes up more time than just sticking the draft back into the SASE.

    Unsurprisingly, there is a blog about rejection letters:

    Also, there’s a new book, which I think looks great (link below). At least you didn’t get rejected for being a women (we assume). One of the first rejections in the book is to a woman who has applied to some kind of training school Disney had for animators, and it flat-out says that women don’t do the creative work for the films.

  3. Jane H. is right — editors (and especially interns) simply don’t care about making one’s writing better. They don’t care if one learns anything. They don’t need us to legitimize them (until they do). We need them to legitimize us. If enough of them legitimize us, then Them want us to return the favor. But if Them have not legitimized us yet, Them don’t need us.

    Own platform, for what it’s worth, is at least something. As you can see, I am not on top of this game today. But will keep trying.

  4. Great idea. Calls for submissions are either frustratingly vague (“send us your best”) or unreasonably specific (“write a new piece to fit our esoteric theme”). In the time it takes to send a crappy rejection, they could inform the rejected writer of what doesn’t work and perhaps increase their odds of getting the kind and quality of work they want.

  5. I agree with all of the above, and I just want to add that I now understand why you fell in love with your husband, Jane. Any man who can think on the fly like that, and immediately give you something much more personal, useful, and enjoyable is a treasure.

  6. JH and LP, I agree that editors are not teachers, nor do they have the time to be. However, are they not in the business of cultivating good writing? I do know some editors — with whom I have a friendly but not professional relationship — who feel it’s part of their job to write back at least one sentence of meaningful response w/ a rejection. I can also stomach the brief, unpersonalized form letter, as long as it’s clear and direct in its “no thank you.”

    Dr Poppy, thanks for the links! There are a few journals and newspapers by which I’ve been rejected that I’ll keep trying for. Those are ones I read, like, admire. There are some, like the one I write about it, that, honestly, I probably won’t try again. (Sort of like the dating game, or a brunch buffet? What do I really want, and what do I only want ’cause it’s there?) Jimmy tells me that, when he was getting started as a writer, there was one major weekly (not the New Yorker) that he really, really wanted to write for. He kept sending them stuff for several *years* until finally he got published by them. In the meantime, he went from getting no response from the editors, to a form letter rejection, to a personalized p.s. on the bottom of the form letter. I’m going to take that as a story about The Way Things Are and follow suit.

    L, I think I will try to keep my toe in the traditional publishing world (on paper, literary journals) while moving ahead with other platforms (blogs, open mic nights, the self-published chapbook). What I figure (and what I suspect you might figure) is that even 50 readers is way more than solitary me basking in the glow of my laptop screen.

    j3, agreed. I also hate the call that says something to the effect of “surprise us.” I think that’s lazy.

    R, you made Jimmy so happy when I showed him your comment. It seems so typically Jimmy to me, that I didn’t realize it for what it was.

    Dear Literary Journals — you have interns, right? Give them something meaningful to do in addition to their reading tasks: allow them the liberty to write a two-sentence editorial response! It’ll be good practice for the interns and good for the writers. And if they don’t have time for the two-sentence, personalized response, let them come up with a better form letter! Sincerely, Jane.

  7. When I read the slush pile for Redbook magazine, I had five neat stacks on my desk, five different versions of rejection letters. The most frequently sent out were postcards that basically said “Please don’t submit again, we will never publish you.” The next three said “Good stuff, not our cup of tea,” “Great topic, not ready for prime time,” and “Keep trying, almost there.” Then there was the deluxe rejection letter that said “I wanted to publish this, but I couldn’t get it past the board. I tried, though–it is awesome.” I only sent out a few deluxe rejections– maybe one in a thousand or so.

    I read the slush pile for two years, and NEVER got to send an acceptance. Nothing got published from the slush pile while I was there, though I certainly tried. I did see my deluxe-ly rejected pieces published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic and Harper’s though– so the writers I liked the best did make headway.

    Redbook isn’t a literary magazine by a long stretch, so I’m not sure what the point of my story is–I guess one point is that after rejecting tens of thousands of manuscripts for Redbook, all of which I know I considered with care, I’ll never take a rejection personally again. It isn’t personal, it is structural.

    But it is still deflating. Hope you get your wind back soon…

  8. Renee, that’s a great view from the other side of the submissions desk. And Redbook is an important (and paying) magazine, and people want to be published there, so, however you would characterize it, your story is relevant. Yet I would much prefer one of those postcards (well, maybe not the first one) to the flyer I got, which did not directly acknowledge that I had even sent them anything. I could have been just another person on the mailing list but for my SASE.

    I had been trying to put a name on how I was feeling. Not hurt. Not devastated. Nothing so extreme. I think you nailed it: deflated. And I felt that way more about the whole process — about writing and trying to publish — than that essay in particular.

    One foot in front of the other is very much my m.o. Not sure if I have my wind, but I can push myself to start walking and eventually I will simply pick up speed.

  9. Wow, this is great food for thought. I am the editor-in-chief of an academic journal, and we send out calls for submissions, as well as write “no thank you” rejection letters.

    Maybe because I’m new to this, (or maybe because I care about writing, or maybe because I’m also a teacher?) I send back individual letters to each writer, with the why, how, and/or “not yet” of why we can’t use the piece. These often become correspondences, as the writer takes the feedback (which we provide) from the reviewers. We often end up using the article in the future, or in another way (in our non-peer reviewed section) or can just offer them the reviewers’ remarks.

    I have to admit– I’ve never thought about how our calls for submissions might look like to writers and contributers. Might it be worth hiring a thoughtful pair of eyes to give us feedback?

    • Stephanie, that’s amazingly thoughtful of you and your editors/reviewers.

      You seem already to be doing a wonderful job. Not sure your journal needs an external review. However, I have occasionally, as a teacher, asked students for feedback on the way I word my assignments and comments, and I have learned a lot: what’s clear, what’s not, what my words actually mean vs. what I intended them to mean, and so on. You probably could get this feedback just by asking a friend or colleague who’s not involved in your project.

  10. I get your frustration. However, editors get thousands and thousands of submissions and realistically can’t hold our hands and give us feedback. Often there is no feedback to give; it just didn’t grab them right away and there’s too much competition. They don’t have the time for it and it’s not their job — their job is to find the writing they want to work with and then work with *those* writers, not the masses they are rejecting. And many editors have found that giving even the slightest amount of feedback can open up the doors of communication with all their rejected writers, which takes up even more of their time….time they could spend with the writers they are publishing.

    It’s harsh but it’s true. If we’re being rejected, we aren’t really owed anything else. *shrug*

    • StL, it’s not hand-holding I/we want. It’s directness. A form letter can do that. The journal took the time to send me a form advertisement, after all… Surely they could have substituted a form rejection notice for the flyer.

      I do not feel I am owed anything, but I do think that journals should think about what kind of relationships they want to cultivate with the writers who could and should be or become their *readers*, and a decent form letter is part of that cultivation.

  11. Oh, I meant to include this in my original comment. You’ve read Atonement, right? Do you remember the pages and pages-long rejection letter Brianny (sp) gets when she sends out her first story? I love that rejection letter. How wonderful. Whenever I taught that novel, I always pointed out that you would never in a million years get such a totally awesome rejection. My students usually looked at me like I was nuts.

    And to Stephanie: I think academic journals generally give much better feedback in rejections than literary journals do. Which is interesting in itself.

  12. Hey there – just saw this post as I have been bad at my blog reading. Anyway, my favorite rejection letter that I received was a one sentence email two days after I had sent in a 200 page manuscript to a academic publisher. Even a PollyAnna like me knows they didn’t read it. 😉

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