What To Do When Your Writing Gets Rejected

Though I have written 220+ writing advice blogs* I have never once spoken about rejection. 

Why? Because the topic is super common and everybody has written about it. I also felt like I had nothing new to add to the conversation.

As a writing teacher, coach, and editor, I am used to talking with students and clients about rejection.

Rejection is part of being a writer; it is a simple fact, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt. When our work gets rejected, it can make us doubt the quality of the work, our abilities, and whether or not we’re real writers. On the worst days, it can make us question whether or not writing is really worth it.

There are numerous reasons why your work might be rejected that have nothing to do with your story. 

The publisher may have recently published a story that is similar to yours; they’re overwhelmed with submissions, and their line-up is for the foreseeable future is full; their experiencing budget cuts or the publisher has some kind of genre biases–they’re looking for very particular works and your manuscript doesn’t fit the bill. 

You’ll note that all of these reasons are outside of your control.

When your work gets rejected, it’s important you don’t take it personally. This isn’t easy because, for most of us, writing is personal–even when it’s fiction. When people read our work, we feel judged. If the reader enjoys our work, we might be praised for our talent and cleverness, but if we receive feedback that the plot is weak or the characters flat, our immediate thought may be, I’m stupid. I don’t have ‘it.’ Who am I kidding? I’m not a real writer. 

When you’re in the submission or acquisition trenches, it’s vital that you develop habits for handling your inner critic. Fortunately, I’ve spoken about that a lot. Here’s a tidy list. 

Most of us will receive notifications from publishers via email. If you are rejected via email, do not re-read it a million times. Most rejection emails are automated. Therefore, they will contain little useful information and re-reading them will only make you feel worse. If you do receive practical feedback from a publisher, do not apply that advice until you’ve run through your ‘dream list’ of publishers (more on this later). 

If you do receive rejection after rejection, you may reach a point where you do need to assess your approach. 

  • Are you writing professional cover letters? 
  • Are you following the formatting and other general guidelines?
  • Are you sending your work to appropriate publishers?
  • Are the publishers you are submitting to open for submissions?

Something worth remembering is that Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected thirty times. The Help by Katheryn Stockett was rejected sixty times, and Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times. 

When you’re doing the rounds with a short story or manuscript, it’s well worth taking the time to research the market and to develop a top ten list of dream publishers, start at the beginning, and then work your way down. Be ambitious when creating this list. Choose big magazines with excellent reputations, because you never know who might say ‘yes’.

If your work is rejected by the first publisher, move on to the second and so on. If your work is rejected by all ten publishers, that is when you need to go back to those rejections and check them for critical feedback and remember to pay attention to repeated advice. 

You may also find it valuable to enlist some beta readers to provide additional feedback that can inform your rewrite. 

Robert Heinlein outlines five basic rules for writing. 

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. 
  4. 4. You must put the work on the market. 
  5. You must keep your work on the market until it is sold. 

The reason why you don’t want to drastically edit your work until it has been rejected numerous times is that your story may have been rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality. 

If, however, you have been rejected by at least ten publishers, then this could be (though again, not necessarily), an indication that the work needs more … work. 

After you’ve applied your edits, you can either choose to work through your top ten list again or develop a new list of less competitive markets. 

Learning how to separate yourself from the work is incredibly valuable during this stage. Rather than seeing yourself as the creator of the work who is trying to get it published, approach this stage from a business and marketing standpoint: you are an industry professional trying to secure a deal.  

I admit all of this advice is easier said than done. 

Last year I finished working on a short story that is the best thing I’ve ever written and for the past few months, I’ve been submitting to all the big magazines within its genre. Magazines that have published some of my favourite authors. 

Despite everything I just said, when I received my first rejection from my number one publisher, I was super deflated. I was so confident about the story, that for a second, I seriously thought it was a mistake. (Like, did you read it? What about the part with the hawk and the rabbit and the killing … that was good stuff, man!). Then I submitted the piece to the second, third, and fourth publisher on the list. 

Every email I received began with that awful adverb, unfortunately.

After the second rejection, I was convinced that the story needed more work. The story is obviously not that great because two publishers said no (…drama queen…). Never mind the fact that I picked literally the biggest publishers in that genre, making getting published super competitive (by competitive, I mean they receive a high volume of high-quality submissions). 

All the advice I gave to students went out the window because my situation and my story are different. Even though I tell students not to take it personally and to treat submitting work as if it were a business transaction, adopting those techniques myself was so difficult.

The point of this blog is to provide some practical steps around submissions and handling rejection, but it is also a way of saying that having your work rejected totally sucks. You don’t always have to pretend that you have thick skin. You’re allowed to take it personally, at least initially, but you also need strategies that will help you move forward. (And by ‘you’, I mean ‘me’). 

Getting rejected is part of being a writer, but the only way you receive an acceptance letter is by continuing to put your work out there. Even if it means potentially getting hurt. 

*Each blog is roughly 1000 words. That’s 220, 000 words. That’s a lot of writing advice. 

Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

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