Rejection: It’s Not Personal

If you’re a writer who submits fiction on the regular, you’ve undoubtedly had someone tell you rejections aren’t personal. Hell, that person might have even been me! For the most part this is true, and in this post we’re going to discuss why it might feel personal, even when it’s probably not. Okay, let’s dive in.

Feels Personal but Probably Isn’t

First, let’s look at why a rejection might feel like you’re being singled out, then we’ll discuss the reasons why that likely isn’t the case.

1) Speed of the Rejection: This one tops the list because let me tell you, when you fire off a submission and get a rejection the same day or even the same hour, it can feel pretty personal. The feeling that the editor has not given your story due attention can really sting, but is that what happened? Probably not. There are definitely markets that have ultra-fast response times. This comes down to the market a) having a enough slush readers/editors to get to and through submissions quickly and b) those slush-readers/editors knowing exactly what they’re looking for in a story. They can sometimes tell by the first few paragraphs if a story is going to work for them. If it doesn’t, they don’t waste more of their time and yours and send the rejection notice. Personally, I love markets that respond this fast. If I’m gonna get a rejection, I’d rather not wait six months for it. This way, I can get that story out there again right away.

Now, of course, a super-fast rejection sure feels like the editor might hate your writing, but that’s almost certainly not the case. What it comes down to is fit (a word you’re going to hear a lot in this post). Certain stories are a better fit for certain markets and certain markets are very quick at identifying them. Here’s the good news. I’ve gone on to sell stories to markets that same-day rejected me (and one that rejected me in ten minutes flat). You will too.

2) Number of Rejections: Maybe even more demoralizing than getting a same-day rejection is when you get that tenth, twentieth, or even thirtieth rejection in a row from the same publisher. Talk about feeling like its personal. But again, we must ask ourselves, is it really? Does the editor think you’re a terrible writer? Again, my answer is probably not. As I’ve said many times on this blog getting a story accepted is about putting the right story in front of the right editor at the right time. If you miss even one of those, you get a rejection. Miss one of those a lot with the same publisher, and you get a lot of rejections from that publisher. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard editors on Twitter talk about having to reject a story they actually like because it wasn’t the right fit at that moment or for that issue.

Using myself as an example again, I have absolutely cracked markets that rejected me ten-plus times. If the past rejections were personal and they didn’t like my writing, that wouldn’t happen, right? I just managed to get that right editor, right story, right time combo correct for once.

3) Feedback: Sometimes a rejection contains actual feedback on why the editor rejected the story. Unlike the first two, this one is kinda personal. In fact, it’s actually called a personal rejection, but it is not a personal attack (big difference there). If an editor takes the time to give you detailed feedback on a story, more often than not, they’ve seen something in the story they like, and they’re trying to help you avoid those first two things I mentioned. You may not agree with the feedback, and that’s fine, but as long as that feedback is honest and constructive, try to view it as someone trying to give you useful and targeted advice and not a harsh condemnation of your writing. It is almost always the former and almost never the latter.

The Ugly Truth – When it is Personal

We’ve discussed the instances when a rejection feels personal, but very likely isn’t. But are there times when an editor sends a rejection to a writer that is, even a little? I think so, and here are some possible reasons.

1) Serial Guidelines Flaunters: The first rule of story submissions is follow the guidelines. if you make a habit of not doing this–using the wrong font, going over or word count limits, sending in genres the market doesn’t publish–it’s possible your rejection might have a little spice on it. The editor probably won’t send you anything but a form rejection, but if you’re a serial guidelines flaunter, they might remember your name, and maybe not read as objectively as usual even if you do follow the guidelines. I should point out that the vast majority of editors will overlook an honest guidelines mistake–it happens to us all–so don’t worry too much about the fact you forgot underline instead of use italics that one time.

2) Responding to Rejections: Don’t do this, and especially don’t do this if your plan is to argue with the editor about why they rejected your story. It’s a very bad look, and one that will get you remembered for all the wrong reasons. Personally, I don’t believe there’s some huge do not publish list floating around among editors. I do, however, believe individual publishers might keep a list of names of particularly obnoxious or abusive writers they’ve had to deal with in the past whose stories might then get rejected without getting read. (And who could blame them?) Don’t be one of those people.

3) They’re Just Not Into You: Look, this is an objective business, and publishers and editors are just like the rest of us. Some writing they enjoy, and other they don’t. If an editor is looking for stylish literary prose and you send them a stripped-down commercial style, well, I don’t like your chances (or mine either). Again, a story has to be a good fit for a publication, and, well, so does the author. The trick is identifying which publishers are not a good fit for you and your style and not wasting their time or yours by sending them work. How do you do this? Reading a couple of issues of a prospective magazine can help. though sometimes you just have to test the waters. A ton of form rejections without any feedback or shortlists is usually an indicator. So, yes, this kind of rejection is personal in the fact that the editor is not into your writing (even if they maybe recognize it’s quality), but it’s not a personal attack. It just means your submission time is better spent elsewhere.

4) The Corner Cases: It’s rare, but sometimes an author will get a rejection that is abusive, not-constructive, and absolutely an unwarranted personal attack. When this happens, it should be shared with other writers (so they can avoid the publisher). Editors who do this have no business in the business. Period.

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you that when one of your precious word babies comes back battered and bruised by multiple rejections, it can be difficult not to go full-on parental protective mode and take it personally. But before you do any of the things that might result in an actual personal rejection, stop, take a breath, and think about the first three points I listed. Your rejection is most likely not about you or your writing. It’s about THAT story not being a good fit for THAT publisher. It’s not a personal attack, it’s an invitation to send your work somewhere else, somewhere that it IS a good fit. So do that. 🙂

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