From the Editor: How to Interpret Rejection

February 26, 2014
Like you, I submit my work to literary publications and like you I’ve received my fair share of rejection notes. The first time I sent a short story out, as an undergrad, it was a story that I was very close to and when it was rejected I felt like I was being rejected. If I knew then what I know now I would have lifted my chin, set my jaw and sent it somewhere else. Instead, I received my first form rejection letter and I was left with an unfamiliar emptiness. All of the hope that I’d been harboring after dropping my manuscript in the mail was swept away and what was left was disappointment and self-doubt.

Over the years I’ve learned to separate the work of writing fiction from the work of placing it with a journal. This is difficult for writers because the two acts are different beasts. Writing requires sensitivity and a willingness to explore the vulnerability which accompanies tough emotional truths. Coping with rejection demands emotional fortitude, resiliency – perhaps even stoicism. But the truth is that if you’re putting yourself into each one of your stories, essays or poems (as you should) it doesn’t matter how many times you read the words “good luck placing this elsewhere” … rejection stings.

PictureThis is not me.
During my time working as an editor at The Iowa Review and now as the editor of ARDOR I’ve gained some perspective on rejection and I thought I’d offer what I’ve learned about the other side of the process to those writers that have never worked on the editorial staff of a literary journal or to those who are just starting to send their work out into the world.

As an editor I send four different “types” of responses to unsolicited manuscripts. These are:
  • Form rejections
  • Form rejections asking the writer to submit again
  • Personal rejections
  • Acceptances

I’ll talk briefly about when and why I send each type of response in the hope that this will shed some light on our process and, in doing so, offer you some insight into what other editors are thinking as well.

Form Rejections

While it’s easy to think that a form rejection means that your story wasn’t read or wasn’t good enough to merit a personal response you should know that this isn’t true (at least not here). Many fine stories that receive careful scrutiny can expect a form rejection and this says more about the fact that I, as editor, have limited time than it does about the quality of your manuscript or my engagement with it.

When reading submissions I am faced with a choice: write a personal reply or send a form rejection and use the time I save in doing so to examine the next manuscript more closely. Often I feel I’m serving writers better by investing my time in their work rather than in an elaborate response to their work.  If your story or poem was great but it wasn’t the right style for ARDOR then you can expect a form rejection. If your story was plagued with typos and inconsistencies in tense (or the name of your main character changed for no reason half-way through your manuscript) then you can also expect a form rejection.  In either case you should know that I genuinely appreciated your interest in placing work with us and that I treated your manuscript with respect – offering it careful consideration before sending a response.

At larger publications a form rejection doesn’t always mean that your manuscript was read in its entirety. When I worked at The Iowa Review, for example, unsolicited manuscripts were screened early-on in the process. An editor read the first page or so and, if the story showed promise, he or she would flip to read the final page. If the beginning and end of a story seemed well crafted the story would be assigned and read in its entirety at which point it was either rejected or (if it was still promising) it was passed along to another reader and on up the chain.

If this seems cold and heartless allow me to offer some context. In 2005-2006 I managed the slush pile (a common, if not kind, term for stacks of unsolicited manuscripts) for The Iowa Review. I ran weekly meetings for the staff of readers and editors, assigning work and leading some preliminary discussion. That year we received over 7,000 unsolicited fiction manuscripts between September and December. Only 4 or 5 of those short stories were ultimately accepted. As you handle that many stories (and know how much space you ultimately have for unsolicited fiction) it becomes clear very early on if a story is promising and, on the other end, when a story hasn’t put it all together yet.

Form Rejections That Invite the Writer to Submit Again
At ARDOR I send this type of response when a submission show’s promise. I realize that “show’s promise” is a vague term, so I’ll make an effort to elaborate:

Writers that submit a story written in a well-rendered, authentic voice or writers who submit stories with well-structured endings (which, it turns out, is one of the rarest things to come across in a submission) will often earn this sort of response.
A few lines in a poem may strike a chord – lines that are particularly beautiful or surprisingly honest. If this happens but the poem as a whole isn't what we’re looking for I’ll ask to see more work.

In nonfiction I look for a certain pressure which exists behind the prose – the feeling that this writer needs to tell his or her story (this is something I look for in all writing). Even if the essay you sent is one we pass on I’ll send a response which invites you to submit again if that tough-to-define, know-it-when-you-see-it quality is evident.

If you receive a rejection which invites you to send more work from me (and the same is true if you receive this response from any editor) you should make a point to follow up and send something else. What you shouldn’t do is instantly submit something that may not be finished or that isn’t the right fit for the publication. Don’t, in your excitement, send just anything. My advice is to wait until you have a piece that you feel is right for the publication and when you do make sure to reference the editor’s request for more work in your submission’s cover letter.

If you receive a rejection asking you to submit again what you should do immediately is pat yourself on the back - your work stood out. You’re getting there.
Personal Rejection

Editors write a personal reply to a writer’s submission for a couple of different reasons. If I wavered about a piece, arguing with myself before ultimately deciding it wasn’t right for ARDOR then I’ll often write a personal note – referencing why I enjoyed the submission. Sometimes I’ll include a short explanation of why I made the tough decision to pass on the writer’s work. If I do this I do so in an effort to help the writer understand what it is I’m looking for rather than to make suggestions for revision. What’s wrong for ARDOR might be perfect for another editor and I don’t think it’s my place to suggest major changes to a piece we’ve decided to pass on. At the end of the day I recognize that evaluating creative writing is subjective and I realize that I’ll certainly make the wrong decision sometimes.  All editors understand this fact and as a writer you should recognize it too.

Editors make mistakes – use that knowledge to buoy your spirits in the face of any rejection note.

I’ll also write a personal rejection letter if a writer has submit work a number of times (in particular if they are submitting again following my invitation to send more work). I'll send a personal response if the writer is a former contributor to the journal. This effort is to encourage persistence in writers I identify with.

Faced with rejection it's easy to get discouraged, but it’s important for writers to remember that if an editor was interested in your work once he or she likely will be again … even if they pass on your submission. When you know that some of your work has resonated with an editor you should continue to send that journal work (though you should submit only when you have something polished … don’t do it every day). It could be that your fifth story is the one that’s the right fit. It could be your tenth. Each rejection should strengthen your resolve and invite you to improve as you work toward the coveted ...
Acceptance Letter

If your work is accepted, celebrate! Your story, essay or poem resonated with an editor and he or she understands that your submission matters.

Remember this feeling and use it as fuel to propel you past the next wave of rejection letters. Know that if you weren't faced with rejection the private thrill of receiving an acceptance letter wouldn't be as sweet.

In closing, while receiving a rejection note from a literary journal never gets easy it helps to know what’s going on behind the curtain.

When (not if) your work is rejected, the best remedy I’ve found is to submit again and to have work under consideration at several markets at any one time. If you send one story to one market and wait 3 months for a form rejection that can be devastating. It’s easier if you know that 4 or 5 other journals are still considering that story (there’s still hope!), and it helps to submit the story to a new journal the same day you receive a rejection. Wrestle disappointment to the side and make room for the optimism that always comes when you send your writing out into the world.

Finally, know that ARDOR (and many other fine journals) are depending on you to send your work and that I, like other editors around the world, am excited to open the next submission and to discover what waits inside.

Joe Hessert is the founding editor of ARDOR Literary Magazine. He earned his MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and his short stories have recently found homes in The Los Angeles Review, New Haven Review, Pebble Lake Review, Fjords Review and McSweeney's (Web). He lives in Maine with his wife, Danielle, and his dog, Jake.

Follow him on Twitter: @joehessert

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