Columns > Published on September 14th, 2016

9 Ways To Punch Rejection In The Nuts—A Positive Outlook

What are your odds of facing rejection as a writer? High! High as a motherfucking kite, my friend. This is a motivational piece, by the way.

I’ve come across a few articles with generic motivational mantras. These bits of advice have their points, but when you’ve been in the game long enough, you really want to punch the next person who says one of these to you right in the teeth: "Don’t take it personally—it's the business of writing what sells"; "Remember, it’s subjective"; "Even some of the greatest bestselling novels were rejected at one point in time." One of my favorites is:

Each rejection brings you one step closer to publication!

No. No thank you, and go fuck yourself. Each rejection actually brings me one step closer to the wine rack, and it keeps me from getting a particular piece published, or from snagging an agent. We writers know it’s an unavoidable part of the process, but rejection is actually a step away from publication, not a step closer. However, a rejection certainly has its practical uses, like letting you know you are not God’s gift to literature, and you definitely need to work on fixing the issues. It’s a cold dose of reality to learn your writing isn’t up to snuff, but there really is a bright side. For someone who likes to dole out reality checks as much as I do, I also know it’s important to focus on the positive once in a while. Or maybe even often.  

Real writers have not only the desire, but the need to create. If we don’t, something feels missing.

Recently, something out of the ordinary happened in my small neighborhood. Gwen Stefani was performing in Cincinnati, and she happened to stop by our local family-owned ice cream shop—the Norwood Creamy Whip—along with Blake Shelton and her three boys. Norwood isn’t exactly a hotbed of activity, so this generated a lot of buzz. A story came out in the local paper, and it was all over social media. We were small-town folk eating up the celebrity sighting. I even posted about it. Something like: Why, oh, why was I not at Creamy Whip today, five minutes from my house, right across from the elementary school I attended? I wanted to meet her! I probably wouldn’t tell her I’m a fan of the “old stuff,” which I am (is that rude to tell a musician?), but it would have been so cool. I was proud she and her young children didn’t snub their noses at our local dessert eatery.

A few minutes after I posted this, another post popped up in my feed. Someone who used to live here (but has since escaped) was reacting to all the excitement, basically stating that if you are spreading this celebrity garbage, and you aren’t instead spreading the real news of all the problems the city has and what hell-on-earth it actually is with its demons and plagues of locusts and drunk politicians, potholes everywhere, and apocalyptic flooding due to an old sewage system (those last two are true), then shame on you.

Oh. Oh no. I got my fingers all warmed up and blasted a response right back (all polite and shit), something like: We have to have a little fun sometimes. We can’t always focus on the negative or we'd basically have to kill ourselves. No, we can’t forget there are problems that need to be worked on, and we need to work on them, but we have to celebrate the small joys as well. 

I realized that the same thing goes for writing. If you only focus on the problem at hand (being rejected all the damn time), you will go nuts, and likely quit trying. Here’s a few dos and don'ts when battling rejection.

Think About Why You Write

You know, besides all that fame and fortune that pretty much ever writer gets (haha), why do you write, truly? Real writers have not only the desire, but the need to create. If we don’t, something feels missing, not unlike that empty feeling you get when sex has gone out of the relationship. The craft of writing is like a romantic relationship—you have to nurture that shit. Even if a short story gets rejected, or an agent doesn’t want to take on your novel, think about the fact that you enjoy the writing process, you enjoy breathing life into a work of art. For real writers, writing is therapy. Even if a work never sees the light of publication, you and that work had a good old time together.

Focus On The Fact That Rejection Teaches You Something

There is really a lot you can learn from being rejected. If you can figure out what you are doing wrong, there is power in that knowledge. In this way, rejection can be useful. Figure out the "tiers of rejection." Sometimes it's an impersonal "not for us." Sometimes it's more encouraging (please submit again in the future). If you get an impersonal form rejection that gives nothing back in exchange for your offer of blood, sweat, and tears, try writing your rejecter and politely asking what didn’t work so that you can improve. They will likely completely ignore you, but there is the off-chance someone out there admires your chutzpah and will maybe teach you something about what didn’t work.  

Know That Sometimes It’s A Numbers Game 

Maybe you’ve listened to critiques and applied revisions. Maybe you received a personal rejection listing the problems with the piece, and you’ve fixed those. Maybe you’ve done everything right, but you get rejected still. Sometimes there just isn’t room. Let’s take a magazine that is looking for ten stories to publish. Out of 3,000 submissions that month, there are 20 stories that totally work and fit the bill and are worthy of that publication. Still, 10 have to go. It’s competitive out there. Sometimes the only thing keeping you down is the fact that there wasn’t room for all the talent, so all you can do is keep submitting. 

Bask In Your Glories, No Matter How Small

Maybe you don’t feel like you’ve “MADE IT” just yet, but you’ve been published in a small online zine, or won a contest with a cash prize that one time two years ago, or received some really great feedback from your critique group. These things are moments to celebrate. Keep them in mind every time you get rejected. 

Don’t Focus On Negative Social Media Posts

(Or other people’s positive success posts that make you feel like a total failure). Perhaps you’ve shared your work on Facebook or Twitter and you get a nasty response as opposed to a helpful critique. Perhaps it’s not a negative post, but a positive post from a fellow writer sharing his/her glorious success at finding paid publication. Perhaps it’s a comment from your mean Aunt Fanny telling you to focus on something more practical, like your day job or a backyard renovation—the writing thing just isn’t working out. All you can say is fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em all. (Meaning, ignore it the best you can and keep trying.) 

Don’t Save The Rejections!

I hate this. I do. Even if a publication you have always loved was just so nice and sweet with their rejection, and they sent a personal (cold, electronic) letter giving you a helpful critique and saying what a near-miss it was and please submit again—don’t print and save that shit. What they didn’t do is publish you. Do submit there again, because you are obviously a writer they want to watch. But you don’t need to print the email, frame it, and hang it up next to your BA in English. Maybe print it and send it through a shredder. Or even better, burn it. You'll feel much better. Just don't forget to keep writing. 

But Do Keep Track Of Them

Even though you shouldn’t cherish your rejection and keep it in your wallet next to your children’s photos, you should keep a record somewhere of pieces you’ve submitted and where. You can use online software like Query Tracker. Or, like me, write it down on tear-soaked notebook paper and place in a binder as black as your heart. You’ll need to keep a list, right? Because you should be submitting to many, many places. There is strength in numbers.

Think Of Your Rejection As An Opportunity For Action / Don’t Just Take It Without Putting Up A Fight

Don't just get depressed and burn your rejections, do something about the fact that you aren't there yet.

  • Study up on the publications you are submitting to. Read their works (of course, I'm SURE you've already done which case, you can move on to the next step). 

  • Take a class. There are plenty online (LitReactor offers so many—all fantastic), or even a class where you have to interact with actual people! 

  • Not only that, try taking an editing class. Richard Thomas has one coming up. It’s a course on self-editing geared towards writers called Trim the Fat—Edit Yourself Like a Surgeon. But you could also take a course geared toward editors. You'd be learning things from the other side, and this could be a tremendous advantage. Whether it's a boring grammar class (because really, a few not-so-obvious grammar mistakes is sometimes all it takes to get rejected) or a developmental editing seminar, pinpoint your weakest writing area and take an editing class that focuses on that.

  • Join a writing community that's not online. I know this is a scary one. It's the tendency of the romantic tortured writer to be an introvert, but join a critique group. Join a workshop. Join a poetry slam. Do something that surrounds you with writers and creative people. This will not only help your craft, it will feed your creative motivation. 

  • Have your manuscript edited professionally before you submit to a publication or agent. This takes research and funding. It's an investment and an incredible learning experience to see what an editor suggests and why. But working with the right editor can make all the difference when submitting your work to professional publications. 

Drink More And Enjoy "Writing Zen Mode"

I’ve found an adult beverage or four helps my stamina. I can write for longer periods of time when I have a little buzz going. But drink and write responsibly. I once had a client make one of the story's serious plot points something about baby goats…it didn’t really work for the story. He admitted he was sloshed at the time.

But seriously, whether you are drinking a fine pinot grigio, coffee, or a healthy spinach smoothie while you are enjoying a vigorous writing session, do realize that each time, each session you are working on creating something, is really something to experience. Enjoy it, and keep coming back to it.

About the author

Holly Slater is a freelance editor and writer. She slowly built her business at until that glorious day she was able to quit her regular job and venture into the world of full-time freelancing. She loves to tell you everything that’s wrong with your book, but she’s super-duper nice about it. Holly holds a B.A. in English and creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University and has been editing and writing for ten years. Her short story collection, Sweet Violent Femmes, is a display of bizarre erotic horror with a feminist bent. Holly lives in Cincinnati with her filmmaker fiancé and her talented theater-performing son.

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