How To Read Between The Lines of Your Rejections

photos by Steve Johnson & Lad Fury

Here’s the sad truth: 95% of your submissions will be rejected. Or maybe it’s 98%. Or maybe 99% — what do I know? I’m a writer, not a math…person. 

But 1% will be accepted. Or maybe 2%. Or maybe 5% or even more. The point is, if you’d like your writing to see the light of day, you’ll have to submit it and put it out there for others to see. Which means you will suffer the sting of rejection. Congratulations! That means you’re one of us now. 

But here’s the truth about rejection that many writers don’t understand—you can read between the lines to know when you’re close and when you might need to go back to the drawing board. Yes, my friends—there are different types of rejections. And I’m not just talking personal versus form. There’s a cold, dead form rejection, a higher tier form rejection, a slightly personalized rejection, and a real-deal someone talked to me personalized rejection. Each of these is unique and special in its own rejection-y way, and each can offer you insight into whether you need to go back and edit, keep submitting, or pack it in. (Good news—you never have to pack it in unless you really want to.) 

Let’s go over them, shall we?  

Each [rejection] can offer you insight into whether you need to go back and edit, keep submitting, or pack it in.

1. The Cold, Dead Form Rejection

What is it?

Exactly as described. Often takes the form of: 

Thanks for thinking of us. This piece is not for us. Best of luck elsewhere.

What does it mean? 

They appreciate that you thought of their journal when you were sending out your work. They didn’t connect with the piece in any way. They don’t wish you dead, but they do want you to go elsewhere with the piece. 

It’s really not the end of the world to get a cold, dead form rejection. It’s very, very common. It simply means your piece did not make it past first readers to get to the editorial team. This could mean any number of things revision-wise — the piece has a slow start, the opening is garbled, there’s a fatal flaw in the story that needs to be rectified, or the piece just doesn’t fit their aesthetic — or it could be a problem with the submission (meaning you didn’t follow submission guidelines or you sent something the journal doesn’t publish), or it could even be that they recently published a piece just like yours and can’t re-tread that ground. It’s not personal. It’s never personal. It’s just the quickest way to send you onward. 

2. The Higher-Tier Form Rejection      

What is it? 

Still a copy and pasted rejection that they send to many, many people, but includes something a little extra. Often takes the form of: 

Thanks for sending to us. While we enjoyed the piece, it’s not a fit at this time. We look forward to more of your work in the future.

What does it mean? 

They liked the piece but it’s just not going to fit in their journal/mag at this time. They want to see more work from you soon. No, really, they do. 

One of the more frustrating things I hear from writers I consult with is that they confuse these higher-tier form rejections with the cold, dead form rejection. Here’s the thing: if an editor says they want to see more work from you, they really, truly do. They’re not blowing smoke. No one has time for that. If you receive one of these rejections, it likely means one of several things — that the writing was strong but the subject matter had been done before recently, that the writing started strong but had some flaws that made it not quite ready for publication, that the writing was strong but the editorial team fell in love with other pieces more than this one. If you receive one of these rejections, take it as the encouragement it’s meant to be. 

3. The Slightly-Personalized Rejection      

It’s important to remember the cold, hard numbers of submissions.

What is it? 

Much like the Higher-Tier Form Rejection, it includes some bonus info or feedback about your work. Often takes the form of: 

While we enjoyed your work, specifically the pacing and the tension between the two main characters, we are still unable to accept it for publication. We’d love to see more of your work in the future—and you can party with us any time. (An actual rejection I once got. Still waiting on my chance to party.) 

What does it mean? 

They liked the piece, specifically the parts mentioned. It’s still not a fit for them. They want to see more work. And sure, at a future non-pandemic AWP, visit their table. 

This is very similar to the Higher-Tier Form Rejection but contains just a little nugget of non-copy and pasted text to give you even more encouragement. It’s usually a sign that the writing was strong but it either wasn’t going to fit thematically with the issue they were creating or the editors fell in love with other pieces a little more than this one. But do submit again. And mention this piece and your thanks in your cover letter. 

4. The Real-Deal “Someone Talked to Me” Personalized Rejection      

What is it? 

Exactly what it sounds like. An editor actually took the time to write out an editorial note on your work, even though they still opted to reject it. 

What does it mean? 

It means that you got really, really, really close. It means your piece made it all the way up the chain of readers to the final editorial board where they argued for and against your piece. They likely debated it at length, with at least one person who really fought for your work. But in the end, it just didn’t make the final cut and this letter explains exactly why. 

I have to say — I’ll take a higher-tier form rejection or a slightly-personalized rejection over this one any day. That’s because I’m an odd duck. It’s hard to know you got so close and still no dice. But it is really nice to get some real, editorial feedback on your work. However, it’s important to remember that it’s still just one person’s opinion. 


So how do we read between the lines of these rejections? How do we know when we need to go back and edit versus when we need to just find the right editor? 

It’s important to remember the cold, hard numbers of submissions. There are hundred of journals out there, thousands of other writers submitting to those journals, and a slew of editors and readers who all come with their own subjective tastes. Just because you’re receiving rejections on a piece doesn’t mean you need to scrap it. It may just mean you need to find your editor. 

Here’s my quick and dirty guide to knowing when to revise and when to keep going. 

I’ve received only cold, dead form rejections on this piece (at least 5-10) = This piece is probably not ready. Go back and edit, paying special attention to the opening.

I’ve received higher-tier form rejections = Keep going. I may just need to find the right editor. I also may need to aim my sights just a little lower for now.

I’ve received a mix of slightly-personalized or real-deal personalized rejections all mentioning the same issues = The piece needs to be edited. I’ve got a great concept but editors across the board are seeing the same issue. Look closely at that issue and revise.

I’ve received slightly-personalized and real-deal personalized rejections that all say something different = Keep going. (Unless the feedback really speaks to you, in which case, revise.) The right editor is out there. I just need to find them.      

Happy hunting! 

Lisa Bubert

Column by Lisa Bubert

Lisa Bubert is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Washington Square Review, Carolina Quarterly, Cleaver Magazine, and more. Her story “Formation” was named a finalist in the Texas Institute of Letters Kay Cattarrula Award for Best Short Story. She has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2020. She works a day job as a librarian and a staff member at the Porch Writer’s Collective, where she leads Lit Mag League, a literary journal reading club, and Draft Chats, the Porch’s group for critique and writer support. 

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