I’ve written at length about the myriad reasons a story might get rejected, but let’s look at six of the most common and review them. As with all things on this blog, what follows is my (somewhat informed but hardly expert) opinion based on my personal experiences out there in submission land. So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.
- Ignoring the guidelines. Let’s start off with the obvious one. The quickest and surest way to get a rejection is to not follow the submission guidelines. It’s the literary equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot . . . with a bazooka. Your story is not an exception to the rules. Say it with me. Follow. The. Guidelines.
- Needs work. No one wants to hear this, but sometimes we have to face facts. Our writing may not be up to snuff, and even if it is, we all write the occasional clunker. This is why it’s crucially important to work at your craft, identify the weaknesses in your work, and then strive to improve on them. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to gather a group of critique partners who will be bluntly honest with you. It’s no fun to get a story back from a trusted reviewer filled with comments, questions, and red marks, but I think it’s the best way to improve.
- Editorial preference. Look, editors are people, and people have a wide variety of tastes and preferences. You can write a good story about superheroes, or baseball, or whatever, and if you send it to an editor that just doesn’t dig those things, you’re probably gonna get a rejection. Helpfully, some editors are up front about their preferences, and their guidelines will include a “do not send” or “hard sell” list to alert writers about subjects or tropes the editors don’t want to see. Pay attention to those.
- Bad fit. Similar to editorial taste, but more of a big picture kind of thing. Some markets, despite accepting the same genre you’re writing, might just be a bad fit for your style. If you write more commercial fiction, you might have a hard time selling to a market that leans literary or experimental. If your work tends to be downbeat and dark, a market that generally publishes more uplifting pieces is probably going to pass on your stories. You can often tell if your work might be a good fit by reading an issue or two from the magazine in question, but not always, especially of new markets that don’t have back issues for you to read.
- Bad luck. If you write an awesome story about, say, rabid space monkeys and send it to a magazine that just accepted another awesome story about rabid space monkeys, guess what? You’re probably going to get a rejection. Or if the publisher has, for whatever reason, seen a shit-ton of rabid space monkey stories lately, it’s gonna stack the odds against your rabid space monkey story. Yeah, it’s a bummer, but sometimes the editor will tell you this is why your story was rejected. I always appreciate that because it’s useful data, and I can send that story out again with some confidence.
- Lots of competition. If you’re submitting to big pro markets and anthologies, your story is going up against a lot of other stories, many from the best writers in the industry. These markets get a lot of quality submissions, but they can only publish so many stories, hence their very low acceptance rates. For more on that, read the excellent and inspiring article Nectar for Rejectomancers by C.C. Finlay, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Three of the reasons I listed above you can do something about. You can keep refining your craft and submit your best work, you can and absolutely should follow the guidelines to the letter, and you can do some research and sharpen your submission targeting. But, even if you do all those things, you’re still gonna get your fair share of rejections because of the three reasons beyond your control. That’s okay. It’s all part of the gig and it happens to every writer. Accept it, keep writing, and keep submitting.
Any other reasons a story might get rejected? Tell me about it in the comments.