How many rejections do I let a story accumulate before I revise it? That’s a question I get asked a lot these days (maybe because I plaster my rejections all over the internet). It’s a good question, and my answer usually is something like, “Well, what kind of rejections are we talking about?”
It’s really the type of rejection that informs my decision to revise rather than the quantity of rejections. To show you what I’m talking about, let’s look at some of my recent rejections, and I’ll tell you how they factored into my decision to revise or not revise.
Rejection 1: Standard Form
We have read your submission and will have to pass, as it unfortunately does not meet our needs at this time.
I’ve received rejections like this a lot—most writers have—and, honestly, they barely even register on my revision meter. I mean, this rejection doesn’t tell me anything other than this publisher is not going to publish the story. Because there’s so little information, I would likely never revise a story on a rejection like this or even a few rejection like this. Now, if I get this rejection like ten times in a row, then I might reconsider. Thankfully, that has yet to happen on any story I’ve submitted.
Rejection 2: Higher-Tier Form
We have read your submission and unfortunately your story isn’t quite what we’re looking for right now. While we regretfully cannot provide detailed feedback due to the volume of submissions, we thank you for your interest in our magazine and hope you continue to consider us in the future.
Yeah, it’s still a standard form rejection, but it does give me some information I can use. This letter doesn’t give me any specific feedback, but it’s from a very tough market, and a higher-tier rejection usually means they saw something they liked. If I get this rejection early in the submission grind, like the first three attempts, I usually take that as a sign to keep submitting the story as is. If this editor liked it a little (and these decisions often come down to matters of taste), the next editor might like it a lot.
Rejection 3: Further Consideration + Rejection
1) “XXX” has been accepted into our final round of consideration. We will be letting you know before the end of April whether or not it is accepted.
2) Thanks so much for letting us consider your story “XXX.” While it made it to the final round of consideration, I’m afraid that we chose not to accept it. We had a lot of submissions and there were difficult decisions to be made. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.
It’s always a good sign if your story makes it to the final round of consideration, or, with some of the top-end markets, past the first round of readers. A further consideration letter is always a positive in my book, and even if it results in a rejection, there was something in the story the editors liked. In this example, they didn’t offer any specific feedback, so it only strengthened my decision to send the story out again as is. That turned out to be a good decision, as the story was accepted by the next market I sent it to.
Rejection 4: Further Consideration + Rejection + Feedback
1) Your short story “XXX” has made it through to the next stage of submission. This involves your story going to our editors at the end of the month for a final decision and can take a little while so we appreciate your patience.
Following is feedback from our readers.
– Nicely crafted urban fantasy story.
– Edgy piece, nicely written. I had to look up Baba Yaga to get the full meaning of the ending of the story, however.
2) Thank you for your patience while our editors reviewed your submission.
Unfortunately, XXX has not been accepted for publication in XXX.
We hope you continue to submit to XXX in future and I wish you all the best with your publishing endeavors.
This further consideration letter was somewhat unique in that it included feedback from the market’s readers. They had some nice things to say about the story, but one of them had a solid bit of critical feedback that I definitely took note of. In this particular story, I banked on the reader being familiar with Baba Yaga, a powerful witch or ogress from Slavic folklore. I wouldn’t go so far as to call her obscure, but Baba Yaga is certainly not as well-known as other mythological figures. The problem, as the reader pointed out, is that the impact of my story’s ending suffers if you don’t know who she is. That’s a legit issue, and it has certainly given me reason to consider a revision.
It’s also important to note that this story has received a number of rejections like examples one, two, and three, so it’s been out there a lot and had a fair number of near misses. I didn’t revise it because it was getting close, but this little nugget of information might be one of the reasons it hasn’t been accepted yet.
So, there’s a little insight into how rejections play into my revision process. It’s not a perfect system by any means, and there’s no doubt I’m drawing the wrong conclusions from my rejections from time to time. That said, when I do revise based on a letter like the last example, I feel like I’m on firmer ground with a clear direction and clear problem to fix. In my opinion, that’s the best position to revise from.
How do rejections factor into your revision decision? Tell me about it in the comments.
Aeryn, I can’t say I’m to the stage yet that I’ve received a #3 or #4 rejection. I did get one that, to me, was close to it, saying something like “we liked story X and would like to hold it for further consideration.” Then, I was lucky enough that that story ultimately was accepted. For me, it has been either rejection or acceptance and some level (sometimes none) of revision requested prior to publication. Just my experience so far, although you have inspired me to submit to a high-tier market. I’m afraid my story is still sitting in the “received” dungeon and I’m getting antsy and want to send it out again, but I don’t think that market accepts simsubs. Oh, also, I sometimes will self-revise a story to make it better fit a call for publication (or a certain theme that my story is already close to, but not quite). And finally, newbie that I am (I don’t know; this seems sort of a newbie thing to me), I sometimes just write to theme if the theme/genre/market is attractive. Nowadays, more often than not, however, I have enough experience that I’ve built up a pool (puddle?!) of stories that I think are decent and I draw from that pool for various markets and go from there. Anyway, long comment short, thanks for the insight into your revision-thinking process!
The third of Heinlein’s five rules was “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order,” and I generally adhere to that rule. Of course, any rejection that includes something like “if you make the following changes we’ll be happy to reconsider your story” gets my attention. While not an editorial order, it is, shall we say, serious incentive.
But we must consider what constitutes a revision. In your example, would slipping in a sentence or two to explain the reference to Baba Yaga, constitute a revision or a minor tweak? On occasion, rereading a rejected story leads me to make minor tweaks–correcting a typo, exchanging one word for a better word, inserting a sentence or a clause to clarify something that seemed clear at the time but no longer seems clear several weeks (or months) later.
When I revise a rejected story, it’s more likely because I’m shifting the market focus. For example, a few years ago I wrote an erotic ghost story intended for an open-call anthology. With no other potential market for the story as written, it disappeared into my files after it was rejected. I later reread the story and realized the erotic content actually detracted from the story I was trying to tell. I removed all of the erotic scenes, smoothed out the transitions, and sent the story back out into the world. The end result? The story sold to a top mystery magazine paying several times what the anthology would have paid.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s to not revise a story just because it’s been rejected. Revise only when you have a clear vision of how the revision will improve the story, regardless of whether that vision was prompted by editorial comments in rejection letters or your own clear-eyed assessment of the rejected story.
I would say the Baba Yaga thing is more tweak than revision, something I could fix in paragraph. I will say the note from that reader is one of the first bits of feedback I’ve had in a while that I really agreed with.
I think when most writers think about revisions, especially new writers, they approach it from the angle of “there is something wrong/bad about this story.” As you rightly point out, revision doesn’t always come from that place. Making a perfectly good story more suitable to a particular market is a very valid reason to rework it (maybe a better word than revise in this instance).
I have a few stories that have been rejected with specific criticism that I will rewrite before I send them out again (of course, I’ve been sitting on some of these stories for a year… ).
Then there are comments like “We were saddened by the ending – there was no redemption, no seeing the error of his ways, just further descent,” which comes down to personal preference. I’m planning on keeping the ending to that one as-is, and will submit happier stories to that market in the future.
Yeah, there’s not much you can take away from that feedback other than “We don’t like sad endings or protagonists that aren’t redeemed.” Not saying it isn’t a valid point from their perspective for their market, but it’s not something I feel warrants a revision.
They made a few other suggestions that I will consider before sending it out again, though.
Here’s one that I just got:
“Thank you for sending us XXX. We appreciate the chance to review it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us. I encourage you to keep submitting to us…
…The strength of the story was in XXX, though I wished for a stronger resolution. I wasn’t a fan of the XXX, which is a familiar idea. The objectification of XXX seemed unnecessary. One of our readers quite liked the story, so you may have better success with another venue.”
This was an interesting case for me. A former personal rejection conflicted on the “familiar idea,” so I didn’t touch it. The objectification was a small detail, but the world was a world where everyone objectifies. In the end, since it was such a small detail, I removed it because I understood how it could alienate a portion of the audience (if misinterpeted). Now we’re 1:1.
Perhaps the weakest comment was about the resolution. But after a reread, I agreed with the editor. My resolution was weak.
It’s at another venue now, and I’m eager to see how it does.
It depends. If I get a rejection with feedback, then yes, I will consider revising. (I don’t always agree with the feedback.) If I get a form, then it’s a little more complicated. I’ll send out a piece or pieces (with poems, I usually send 3-5 at a time) maybe five or six more times. If they keep getting form rejections, I’ll take another look at them and determine whether they should be revised. I usually go with my gut – and it works for me. For example, it took nine months to get this one poem accepted. It was rejected many, many times, but every time I looked at it, I thought, “This is already a great poem. It doesn’t need to be revised.” I stuck to my guns, and it eventually got accepted.
Yeah, that may be the simple answer to this whole question: trust your gut/instincts. They may not always be right, but the more you do this, the more you learn to separate good instincts from bad. 😉
It helps to remember that even editors can be wrong.
Example: Daniel Keyes submitted the short story version of “Flowers for Algernon” to Horace Gold at Galaxy. But Gold wanted the bleak ending changed. He wanted Charlie to keep his intelligence, marry Alice and live happily ever after. Thankfully, Keyes refused and later published the story in F&SF to great acclaim.
So I guess the lesson is that sometimes it pays to stick to your guns.