Rejecting Rejection

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When I was thirteen, I submitted my first story for publication. After months of reading about cover letters, SASEs, and proper manuscript formatting, I finally polished my letter, printed a clean copy of my short story, bought the proper envelopes, and paid $0.78 to send my baby to the New York offices of Seventeen. Now, of course, I understand how crazy it was for a thirteen-year-old to submit a story to Seventeen, but at the time I didn't know much about publishing and Seventeen was one of the few places I knew of that published YA short stories. I'm sure you can guess what happened next.

A few months later, I got my first rejection letter. At the time I remember thinking how cold the letter was, how impersonal. Not only was there nothing about me or my story in the letter (a simple "Dear Lacy, Thanks for sending 'A New Pain'" would have sufficed), but it wasn't even properly signed. Despite the fact that I'd gone to the trouble to find the appropriate editor's name and address my cover letter to her, the rejection letter was merely signed "Fiction Editor."

A few weeks ago when I was visiting my parents, I dug that old envelope and rejection letter out of the stack of papers my mother has been begging me to recycle for years. Yes, I kept it. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've never intentionally thrown away a rejection, and I've gotten quite a few over the years. Because I've made more of an effort to publish recently, that number has swelled in the past few months. And the more rejections I read, the more I appreciate the simple dismissal I received years ago from the unnamed fiction editor at Seventeen.

Here is the Seventeen rejection, verbatim:

Thank you for your interest in seventeen.  We're always happy to consider fiction submissions.

Your manuscript has received thoughtful consideration. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite suit our editorial needs.

Again, thanks for thinking of us.

-Fiction Editor 

Aside from the lack of salutation and the anonymous signature, this, to me, is a perfect rejection letter. When I get rejections like this now, they barely faze me. I read them, write "no" and the date under the story title on my little tracking chart, and promptly forget about them. I've developed a pretty thick skin, and these kinds of rejections don't make much of an impression anymore. But occasionally, I still get rejections that prick, that sting, that I cannot dismiss as simply as I can dismiss the one from Seventeen.  For all you editors out there who don't want to discourage writers from ever submitting to (or reading) your journal again, here are a couple of things not to do in a rejection letter:

  1. Don't imply that the story sucked.  I recently got a rejection that said they would not be publishing one of my stories.  Then it said, "Not to say this story is 'bad' by any means, just not what we’re looking for." Okay, I know what the editor was probably going for here, but seriously... it isn't "bad"? I can't help but see that line and interpret it, "this isn't 'bad,' but it certainly isn't 'good' either." Ouch. I know I'm probably reading too much into that, but there's gotta be a better way to tell someone her story isn't right for your journal without implying that her story sucked. (Oh, right, there is. Seventeen showed us that.)
  2. Take the time to say something more than "Thanks, but no thanks." Seriously, it's a form rejection. At least make it sound like you took the time to read what I wrote. One recent rejection simply read, "We're passing on your story, but thanks for sending it." Another said, "We appreciate the opportunity to read your work, but we will not be publishing it." Another said, "Thank you for the submission. We're going to pass." The thing is, I got some of these rejections months ago, but they still stung just enough that when I went to find these examples I knew exactly which rejections to look up. And now when I think of these journals, this is what I think about. It's not that I take form rejection personally, it's just that I like to know that the journals I read and admire are kind to the writers that submit to them.
  3. Don't call people by their full names. When I get a rejection that reads, "Dear LACY MARSCHALK, Thank you for sending us RANDOM SHORT STORY," do you know what I assume? That the online submission application or some sort of software filled in my name and the story name, that the editor didn't even take the time to send the rejection him- or herself. I know editors are busy. I understand that they have hundreds and in some cases thousands of rejections to send, but could they at least use a program that makes my name and title appear in the same font as everything else, or that just uses the writer's first name instead of full name? At least pretend that they wrote this little form note just for me?
And that's all I'm asking for really. I'm not asking for personal responses. I understand how overwhelmed editors are. I know how many submissions they get. I've been in their position. All I'm asking for is a little courtesy. I'm not looking for encouragement; I just don't want discouragement (of the "this isn't 'bad,' per se" variety).

That being said, I have to say that I've gotten some fantastically encouraging rejections lately, the kind that are almost as good as acceptances. About one of my stories, Crazyhorse said, "Ultimately, the manuscript was not selected for publication, but we want you to know that we very much enjoyed reading your work. The manuscript was one of the best we've read recently. It was difficult to say no. We hope you will send us another manuscript to consider soon. Since we enjoyed this one, we hope to read more and to give your next manuscript our highest consideration." And about the same story, Mid-American Review said, "Although we have decided not to accept it for publication, we wanted to let you know that we read it with more than the casual amount of interest, that there is much to admire in your writing. We hope that you will send more work our way soon." For all I know, Crazyhorse and Mid-American say that in every rejection letter, but even if they do, I don't care. When I received those rejections, I felt special, like my writing mattered, like even if they didn't want my story, someone would. Those rejections didn't sting one bit; instead, they inspired me--to keep writing, to keep submitting, to keep growing, to get better.

Wouldn't it be nice if all rejections could be like that?


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