Wednesday, 15 February 2012


Hands up who likes rejection. Thought so. Which is a shame, because as a writer, you can expect a lot of it. An awful lot. Doesn’t matter where you are on the hierarchical ladder (if such a thing exists), you will experience a lot of rejection. I know of some rather successful writers who have submitted to rather successful journals, expecting to grace their pages with little more than a glance at their words from an editor, and have been, well, pretty pissed off with the Sorry-it’s-not-for-us response.

But generally, if you’re any good, and are open to learning, to criticism, and a lot of hard work, the frequency of rejection will fall.

So what should you make of a little slip in the post, a generic, impersonal email, or, worse still, no response at all?

Well, firstly, for the most part, let’s say 95% of the time, there’s good reason why your story, sample chapters, proposal has been returned to you unwanted. (Yes, there are genuine times when editors, agents, publishers get it wrong, but don’t kid yourself that they just aren’t seeing your genius all the time.) Get your disappointment out of your system in whatever way you choose (I’ll tell you mine one day), and then sit down and have a good look at both the rejection (if you’re lucky enough to receive any feedback), and your submission. Be honest with yourself. Was it absolutely your best work? Had you revised it to within an inch of its life? Had you let it sit alone in a drawer, and come back to it with fresh eyes a few weeks later? Had you researched the journal, agency, publishing house you submitted to thoroughly, knowing what does it for them? Do you read almost everything that’s currently being published that resembles your own work? Are you a lucky person? (Okay, forget that last one, but I'm reminded of the person who said, Funny how the more I practice, the luckier I become.)

If the answer is No to any of these, then, well, you haven’t given yourself the best chance of success. If the answer to them all is Yes, and you’re still getting rejection after rejection, then perhaps this mucky world of writing isn’t for you.

Either way, you have to expect a low strike rate, especially when you’re still learning your craft. You wouldn’t expect to play Carnegie Hall after a couple of years on the piano. Give yourself a chance; start with the smaller competitions/publications, which will give you a sense of whether this is for you or not.

And when you’ve been rejected, it’s best not to tell the bearer of this news what they can do with their note/email (quite creative, some of the ones I receive). Editors talk to each other.

Try to see rejection as a nod that the work isn’t quite good enough. Yet. Leave it a while, and come back to it. Lots of my rejected stories have gone through a few more edits, emerging successful on their next submission.

Devour winning stories, work out why they’ve done well. Look at the few chapters of yours that agent didn’t like, and be objective. Do they really stand out from the hundreds of others on the pile that day?

And keep going. When you least expect it, you’ll open a letter, an email, and be pleasantly surprised.


eimearryan said...

Great post. I have a bad habit of casting aside stories that have been rejected - somehow can't bring myself to send them out again. Will have to remedy that.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Absolutely. I've rejected hundreds of very nearly stories, and there just isn't the time to give feedback. Another few drafts and any of them 'could' be very strong.

kbxmas said...

I once received an acceptance notice for a piece of flash fiction I submitted to a magazine. I was overjoyed. When the magazine came out and my piece was not included, I wrote them and they wrote back and said, "oh, we're sorry, we sent that acceptance by mistake." Doh!

Paul said...

Ouch. I rec'd a rejection over the weekend. I'm getting the story ready to send out again.

TOM J VOWLER said...

KB, that's inexcusable.

Paul, perhaps sit on it for a while... Did you get any feedback? Did it just suffer in the numbers game, or can it be strengthened? Good luck.


Rejection gets easier to take as the years go on. When we get really annoyed about it, perhaps we are being defensive/overly sensitive. I do as Tom says and take a good objective look at the work.
Some rejections hurt more than others, but I try to use them as spurs.
There is one mag that consistently rejects my stories. I am DETERMINED to break into their pages. Just once!

120 Socks said...

Writers have to be sensitive people or I guess they might never master the skill of writing emotions well. But I remember hearing once that you learn so much more from rejection than the opposite, which is very true. If the work improves then there is great value in the process. Great post!