One thing you don’t always hear when you’re starting out as a writer is that your work is going to get rejected most of the time you send it out. I’ve seen a variety of statistics, but it seems that in general, literary journals accept between 1% and 2% of their submissions. A magazine such as The New Yorker accepts an even lower percentage: .14%. That means they reject 99.86% of the work sent to them.
In fact, if the work I submit to literary magazines, publishers, and theaters is accepted even one tenth of the time, I feel as if I’m doing terrific. The reality is, there are many, many talented writers, and a much smaller number of outlets to publish in.
On top of all that, rejection is never easy to take. We work hard on our literary creations, and we pour our hearts into them. For that reason, rejection often feels as if our very souls are being turned back from the gates of Heaven and banished to literary hell.
So, how to deal with rejection? Well, one lesson I try to take away from a negative response is that my work can always improve. After a rejection, I imagine I’m the editor who reviewed my work, and then…poof, I accept it!
No, actually, I imagine I’m the editor, and I attempt to see my writing more objectively. I think how I can make that submission better before I send it out again. I try to consider each rejection as an opportunity to rethink and to polish my writing. That doesn’t mean ripping up what I sent and throwing it out. It means striving to raise the work closer to my aspirations for my highest potential as a writer.
Another takeaway from getting your work turned down is that not all rejections are completely negative. In some cases, an editor takes the time to say that they liked your work and they hope you’ll submit your writing to them again. Do not take that as a polite version of a flat “No.” That means an editor really did appreciate your work. Make sure your submissions spreadsheet has a place to note rejections of that sort, and periodically go back to those notes and send more work, maybe six months or a year later. In your new cover letter, thank the editor for encouraging you to resubmit, as a way to remind them that they liked your earlier submission. Do not resubmit the same work, however—that would be ignoring what the editor told you in the first place.
One of the reasons you send out your work is that you’re hoping to reach out beyond your solitary labors as a writer. As the poet André Breton once said, “Writing is the loneliest road that leads everywhere.”
|André Breton: |
“Writing is the loneliest road that leads everywhere.”
While rejection may not be the kind of connection you were hoping for when you submitted your work, it still means you were brave enough to risk sending your work out into the world. That’s a victory. Someone also saw your writing, and weighed it in their mind and heart. That’s also a connection. View your attempt as an achievement, rather than as a negative.
If a particular work of yours keeps getting rejected, try sending it to a different kind of magazine. Over a two year period, I sent out a poem I thought was very publishable to 50 magazines. It got rejected at all of them. You read that right: 50 rejections! The 51st journal I sent that poem to, with an editor based outside North America, emailed me to say, “Congratulations! We loved your poem and would like to publish it in our next issue.” Sometimes it makes sense to mix it up a little.
But given that rejection is the most likely outcome of a submission, make sure you really celebrate when your work is accepted. Savor that moment. Don’t boast, but don’t be too modest, either. When the publication is posted online or arrives in the mail, share that with your friends and on social media.
It’s rarely easy to get your work printed online or on paper. But publication is, after all, one of the great thrills of being a writer. Yes, rejection is not the fun part of a writer’s life, but it helps us to improve our work, and it reminds us to keep faith with our literary calling, even when that is painful.
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris
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