Making the Most of Rejection

Monday, November 2, 2015

All writers want acceptance letters, and I’ve received my share. But it’s the rare writer who isn’t drowning in rejection letters (or tears), and I’m not in that elite group.

Even so, I’m a fan of rejection letters. They tell me that I’m not a failure.

I can see your puzzled look, so let me explain.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, but he did make it practical. He tried thousands of filaments before he found one that burned long enough to be commercially viable. He could have given up at number 10, or 100, or 1000, but he didn’t see those tests as failures. He saw them as successes because each trial ruled out another filament that didn’t work and moved him that much closer to the one that would.

In that same way, each rejection letter is a success. By ruling out another publisher that isn’t perfect for my book, the rejection gets me one submission closer to the publisher that is. I’m not a failure until I stop trying.  

Still, some rejection letters make me feel better than others do. Most, of course, are no more than a generic sentence or two, such as this one that I received in August: “Thank you for submitting your story. Unfortunately, it is not a good fit for us.” That’s the kind I expect, and I’m okay with them. But letters that vary from that formula can be good or bad in terms of how they make me feel.

Within the last ten days I received two rejection letters that had opposite results.

The first was for Mirage, which is a contemporary Christian women’s fiction novel. The e-mail started with the standard rejection language, then continued with: “While it is not possible to go into specific details on every submission we receive, the following list conveys the most common reasons we find we must decline publication.” Then came eight paragraphs describing some common writing problems, with a very brief primer on how to improve each one. The list was clearly generic and not tailored to my story, although some of them are areas where I already know I need to improve. I’m sure they were trying to be helpful, but giving me a laundry list without any guidance didn’t work. I merely felt scolded.

The second rejection was for Desert Jewels, which is middle-grade historical fiction. This was a personalized e-mail from Alyssa Mio Pusey of Charlesbridge. It read like this:

Thank you for your patience while I considered Desert Jewels. You write about sensitive topics like race, prejudice, and patriotism during war with compassion and intelligence. And Emi is a very likeable protagonist, who allows the reader to see history through a child’s eyes.

Unfortunately, as much as I like your proposal, I am already editing a nonfiction book about Topaz. While it is nothing like Desert Jewels in approach, I feel that Charlesbridge’s smaller list can’t support two MG books about the same topic.

I’m sorry I don’t have better news, especially after all this time. I wish you the best of luck finding a home for Desert Jewels, if you haven’t already, and look forward to reading more of your work.

Not only did that rejection letter make me feel good, but I’m going to watch Charlesbridge’s catalogue so I can buy the nonfiction book about Topaz when it comes out.

I also appreciate rejection letters that point out the weaknesses in a story when those letters are tailored to my manuscript. My first attempt at fiction was an early chapter book, which I submitted to a number of publishers. In the JourneyForth rejection letter, Nancy Lohr made several suggestions and pointed out two examples of conversations that were too old for the audience. Her comments were extremely helpful, especially since they made me see that I didn’t understand how to write for that age group. Although I could have tried rewriting the story, I decided that I would concentrate on an older audience, at least for the time being. But that was a progression, not a backwards move or a failure, and I am grateful for the personalized comments.

In my opinion, rejection letters should either be short and sweet or provide personalized comments. Even negative comments can be constructive when done correctly, but they must be tailored to the particular manuscript.

So if you are an editor, either keep your rejection letters short or tailor them to the manuscript.

And if you are a writer, celebrate your rejections. You aren’t a failure until you stop trying.


The picture at the head of this post shows Alice drowning in her own tears. It was drawn by John Tenniel as one of the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and is in the public domain because of its age.

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