Rejection: A Critical Device
Most writers who publish with any regularity are familiar with the soul crushing experience of sending out a story, only to see it systematically rejected by ten, twenty, fifty publications at a stretch. The process imparts this uniquely slow sinking feeling, wherein writers find themselves counting the facsimile slips that come back, one at a time, many of them printed on inappropriately colorful paper, wrought with placating gestures like “this story just wasn’t right for us,” “we wish you luck placing it elsewhere,” and “please, submit again!”
Beneath these troubling developments the writer may feel some waning enthusiasm for the project, a tacit acknowledgement that perhaps, just maybe, the story they worked on for months is no good. To be clear: this crippling self-doubt is far more damaging than the spates of rejection that all writers face at one time or another. It’s one reason many quit altogether.
It took me years to figure out I’d been looking at this process all wrong. While rejection is always a bitter pill to swallow, it’s actually one of the greatest critical tools there is. It might sound strange, but writers should learn not only to accept rejection — they should embrace it. After time, you may realize rejection has played an undeniable role in strengthening your work; you may discover you’ve improved your craft not merely in spite of being rejected, but because of it.
I don’t mind admitting that I’ve been turned down, at one point or another, by virtually every publication out there. For starters, I realize stories that were once mediocre were later strengthened when universal rejection eventually compelled me to ask myself: what isn’t working here? More important, I also realize some of the best critical feedback I’ve ever received has come not from peers or workshops, but from editors who rejected my work, and then took the time to tell me why they did so.
First, let’s highlight the obvious. Rejection can work as a litmus test to show whether a story is premature for publication. Some writers are harder on themselves than others; if you’re anything like my younger self, you may have a habit of sending out work before things have really started to cook. Rejection is a reality check; it asks the writer to step back and look at the work with a more critical eye. After a while, after it seems everyone with an ISSN number has shot you down, it may dawn on you to consider that the work is still too early in the drafting process to be considered complete. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take the time and get the story right than receive another notch in the publishing belt for a half-baked effort I’ll be embarrassed about in a year anyway.
Then there’s the real silver lining, when rejection manifests itself in the form of a helping hand. Occasionally, if your story lands on the desk of a particularly gregarious editor, they may take the time to tell you why they’ve declined taking it. Depending on how much they liked it — or how much time is at their disposal — they may even write a personal note on the rejection slip detailing what they think would make the story better, or scribble advice in the margins of the returned manuscript. Sometimes they even send an email.
In case you’re still not with me here: these editors are giving you critical feedback. You’re basically getting a top-shelf writing critique for free. This is worth its weight in gold, because you’re getting detailed guidance similar to what you’d encounter in a workshop, only by a seasoned pro who knows better than anyone what it takes to land a piece of writing in print. Best yet: it cost you nothing more than a postage stamp.
This is yet another reason why writers should constantly be engaged in the (admittedly) arduous process of sending out work. When the writer begins using industry rejection as a critical tool, temporary dismissal becomes less of a death-sentence for your story and more of an ongoing dialogue that will improve the work — and your overall skills — in time.
There’s something else that bears mentioning. Those editors who offered you critical feedback, the ones who were nice enough to take the time to respond personally to your work: these people are now your contacts. Keep them on file, and make sure to hit them up when you have another story ready for publication (and one you think could be a good fit for their journal). Remind them about the time they wrote you and expressed an interest in your work. Tell them how much you appreciated their advice, and if their feedback helped you get the work published elsewhere. You may have found a way to bypass their slush pile.
Also, look on the bright side. Editors are a distant and capricious bunch, though by no fault of their own. Journals are understaffed, staff is overworked, and they’re hit with more submissions every month than anyone can possibly read (hello, interns). A bit of math will tell you that if a publication receives in excess of 1,000 entries an issue, and someone took the time to write you a detailed letter regarding what they thought about your story — even if it’s just a few lines — obviously, your work offered something to bring it several steps in the process away from the utility closet. Even if your pride has taken a hit, you can find solace in the fact that you’re clearly doing something right.
Master the art of the short story: Jon Gingerich's writing class, Fundamentals of Short Fiction, begins May 30th here at LitReactor.
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