Dan Burgess, editor-in-chief of literary magazine Firewords, shares an editor’s perspective on the loathed but unavoidable reality of rejection letters.
At a recent book fair, we were talking to several writers about their experiences of submitting to literary journals. It was surprising to hear that they had all given up trying after receiving rejections.
We were aghast and quickly reassured them that they shouldn’t take rejections personally. We know (first hand!) that rejections are hard to take, which is why we try to give personal feedback to every single submission we receive, even though it makes our job infinitely harder (we’ll go into our reasons for giving feedback in a later blog).
Rejections are, by far, the worst part of the job for an editor (unless they happen to be some kind of sadist). All these talented writers have chosen your magazine from the hundreds available to submit to, to put themselves and their writing out there in the most vulnerable way. During the last call for submissions, Firewords received almost 500 pieces. There’s no conceivable way we can publish all the good writing, which means we have to reject over 95% of the submissions – a lot of which are of a publishable standard.
There are any number of reasons why a piece may not make the cut. A few of these are:
- Another accepted submission is too similar in theme/style.
- The piece unbalances the overall tone of the issue.
- A particular member of the editorial team doesn’t connect with the piece, when others may have loved it.
- The topic is very specialised and would not relate to a wider audience.
- It’s not right for that particular publication.
Notice, none of the above reasons have anything to do with the standard of your writing.
Just because one magazine, or one editor, or ten editors, don’t like a piece doesn’t mean you should give up. Just because one story doesn’t make it doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a writer. Keep writing. Keep improving your craft. And most of all, never stop putting yourself out there. No one will ever enjoy your writing if it stays on your computer.
Well, that’s all well and good, but when you submit to a Lit. Mag. and they keep your piece for a year and a day (not literally, but usually close enough!); don’t answer the query they’ve said you should write after a certain amount of time has passed (and that time HAS passed!), and they have a “no simultaneous submissions” clause, so your work is tied up with them and on hold, and you’re waiting…and waiting…and waiting…, well, then you really don’t feel like putting your work out there anymore.
These two editors seem like stand-up guys that treat writers well. I think they should teach seminars so that other editors could learn to treat writers like the talent, instead of like nuisances!
Hi Darla. I never did understand or like the ‘no simultaneous submissions’ rule. It hardly seems fair for a journal to have that kind of power. So the piece gets snapped up by another magazine – too bad. They should have been quicker in reading their submissions.
Anyway, sorry to hear you are having problems with a magazine. If they are being unresponsive and taking too long, I would recommend forgetting them and moving on to other publications that treat their writers with more respect. Luckily, there are plenty out there!
If someone takes that long to get back to you, the simultaneous submission agreement is null and void. It’s not a contract. If they are unreasonable about it, screw them. Unless they are a really really good prospect or a very prestigeous publication, why wait? They’re abusing the agreement.
I am not afraid of putting my out there–writers are not, generally. The real–and perhaps the only–problem is the unjust and biased criticism that proves destructive. The same critical analysis may need improvement in its way of analyzing or giving feedback for a piece of writing. The negative criticism can be hard, sometimes, to swallow. I guess writers, today, are far luckier in many ways, as there are a hundred more, though may be expensive at times, avenues to get your work published without having to go through the negatively subjective and unnecessary criticism. I guess a good is always a good critic of his work. If one cannot analyze his work, in terms of its quality and standard, one cannot hope to learn and improve.
I would definitely like to go for self-publishing instead of being discouraged through the rejection of my work just because my work (good by any standards) did not suit the journal’s tone or theme!
Hi Nadeem. I don’t think many journals, or at least any worth your time, would send criticism for no good reason. At our magazine, we try to provide feedback with our rejections because most writers appreciate some reasoning behind our decisions, rather than a stock, impersonal rejection. If you can, try to avoid taking a rejection or a critique of your work as a negative thing. Best of luck in your future endeavours!
Good advice! I think I’ll follow it! 🙂
I am a great fan of Firewords. I submitted my poems for your last edition but unfortunately they weren’t shortlisted.
However the feedback that you gave me in the letter was quite positive and motivated me. It was unlike any other rejection letter. It may sound funny but I took a printout had it framed and hung it on my bedroom wall.
It’s a constant source of inspiration and I would like to thank you guys for the critique as it helped me grow as a writer.
Hi Swati. Rejections are never going to be a nice thing to receive, but our aim is to make them encouraging and helpful for moving forward. Thank you so much for leaving this message and letting us know that was the case with your rejection. Keep at it!
Theres stock rejection letters but sometimes there’s carefully crafted rejection letters with positive feedback and criticism…which isn’t really criticism but ways to improve!That’s always a good sign.But even then,althouhgh its human nature, don’t take it too personally-even being accepted is something you shouldnt hold too dear to your heart-don’t let praise and accolades get to your head.Just write to write and improving your skill.The rest doesn’t matter.I learnt this more from life and love than writing actually.
Excellent statement with which I heartily concur.