Sunday, June 13, 2010

Decoding Rejections

One thing that you gain from working on literary journals is an inside look at the acceptance/rejection process. This can be extremely useful because I think a lot of new writers – and I can remember a time when I was in this camp – don’t always know what to expect when they send their work out there or what to make of those half slip rejections they receive in return.

Especially when you first start sending work to journals, you might find yourself sort of surprised (and often quite discouraged) by the bulk of form rejections you receive in response to your hard work. You may have slaved over this piece for months and yet the editor couldn’t even be bothered to insert your name into the pre-typed “Thanks, but no thanks” response.

The problem is that form rejections are a necessity. Journals – even small ones, believe me – receive a huge number of submissions per issue, and there is simply too much else to do to spend time giving feedback or personal responses to every writer. But journals also have to reject a lot of work that is good – publishable, even – for a number of reasons (the issue is full, we just published something similar last issue, this doesn’t really fit with the other things we’ve accepted for this issue, and so on). So how do you know what to make of rejections, and does a form rejection always mean your piece isn’t there yet?

Many journals have different tiers of form rejections that they send. The base level rejection goes out to work that they weren’t engaged by at all (and this often means work that they didn’t read all the way through). These rejections are non-committal and offer no real encouragement to the writer: “Thank you for sending your work. Unfortunately . . .” Now, to the work that they did like but still have to reject, these journals will still often send a form rejection, they’ll just send a rejection from a higher tier: “Thank you for sending us your work. Although we enjoyed this piece . . .” or something to that effect.

Now all of these rejections are still form rejections, and yes, you’re right, there’s something inherently discouraging in the idea that the editor didn’t care enough to write you a personal response. Still, you can take it as a good sign if you receive a response that’s clearly a form but does say something positive, nonetheless. There’s a good chance that journal has a tiered rejection process, and you made the cut into the higher tier.

This doesn’t, however, mean that a base level form automatically means you’ve failed with the piece. It could mean the journal doesn’t have a tiered rejection process, or the editors just may not have given your piece a fair read, or there’s always the possibility that your writing style just isn’t the sort of thing the editors of that journal are into. Let’s not forget that writing is subjective. My advice is not to read too much into those basic form rejections, but the ones that seem to come from a higher tier you might as well take as a good sign.

And better still are the personal rejections. Now every journal is different, and there are a few (a very few) editors out there who make an effort to give personal feedback on every submission. However, in most cases, a personal rejection is a very good sign. Even in personal rejections, there is a huge range. Sometimes it’s a simple handwritten note telling you that the editor liked your piece and hopes you’ll submit again. Sometimes you get lucky enough to receive a personal critique of your piece: a concrete explanation of what they liked and why they had to reject it. Sometimes you even get a nice ego massage by having an editor tell you that they essentially loved the piece and are only rejecting it as a result of some variable completely outside of your or their control. But no matter what the personal rejection says (unless it’s coming from one of those places that send personal rejections to everybody) you should feel encouraged when you receive one.

I know, I know. But what we really want are acceptances. Well, of course. Of course it’s disappointing to get the answer when the answer is “no.” But “no” doesn’t always mean something bad about your work or your abilities as a writer, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind. If you educate yourself about those “no”s and understand what they really mean, you’ll hopefully have the strength to plow through them to get to those inevitable “yes”es around the bend.

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