Sunday, February 21, 2016

Reading the Tea Leaves of Rejection: The basic necessity of "no"

What information do we seek from rejections?

To an extent, the answer varies from writer to writer. You know by now my feelings about the importance of a “thank you” from editors—for every submission, every time—and we all scan for any hint of coded language that says, “We like you!” or “You came close!” or “Send more!”

But when it comes right down to it, we want to know the editor’s decision on our work. We’re hoping for a yes. Numbers-wise, it’s more likely to be a no. Whatever it is, we want to see it.

That’s what makes today’s rejection slip so odd. The journal, which I won’t name (editing is hard enough without some blogger calling you out), is a good one. I’ve submitted to it many times, and I would love to be in one of its always-beautiful issues—but rejections are not its strong suit.

See for yourself:

Dear XXX, Thank you very much for sharing your story "XXX" with us on [date]. You know, each work we receive is important to us—deserving the same kind of attention it most likely took to create it—which makes us especially grateful for your patience in awaiting our response.

So even if this particular submission wasn't a fit for us, we're very appreciative of the opportunity you've given us to both read and consider it for our pages and therefore encourage you to share more work with us in the not too distant future. Thank you for thinking of us now! Sincerely, [Editor]

The big surprise in this rejection slip is that it lacks a rejection. The closest it comes is the dependent clause that reads, “So even if this particular submission wasn’t a fit for us ….”

Yes, editor, I hear you, but what if it were a fit? What if it is? I see no clear indication that it isn’t. Therefore, as a glass-half-full kind of gal, I’m counting this one as a yes, and I look forward to seeing my work in an issue.

I’ve written rejection language before, and I’ve sent rejections to thousands of writers. It’s hard to do. Personally, I’m thick-skinned about the whole matter, and I started out that way—I never invested any emotion in whether a stranger said yes or no to me. Knowing the numbers were working against me, I figured I’d probably be rejected, but I always opened a response with a gentle optimism in the face of the numbers.

Likewise, an editor’s “yes” doesn’t rock my world, either. I prefer them, but I’m not staking my self-opinion on the matter. I don’t think a “yes” is a full measure of my work. Sometimes people just resonate with what you’re saying, even when the poem isn’t strong. Sometimes they don’t. In part, it all comes down to chance.

Editors know that a lot of submitters, maybe the majority of them, are not like me. They’re opening an e-mail with shaky hands and bated breath. If they get a “yes,” it might change their lives. If they get a “no,” it might be the last straw—one more rejection in a string of them, whether poetry related or otherwise. It’s important to be kind.

It is a mistake, though, for editors to gentle up a rejection too much. At the very least, they have to say no, directly and respectfully. This journal fails to do so, and as a result, it fails the writer.

A writer who receives this rejection can take heart in the invitation to “share more work … in the not too distant future.” Editors don’t ask if they don’t mean it, and a writer receiving this rejection should offer another manuscript soon—not immediately, I would recommend, but within three to six months, with a note of thanks for the encouragement and the invitation to submit again.

The rejection language clearly needs to be reworked, but where this journal absolutely does not fail is in the kindness department. When kindness is in the foreground, errors can always be forgiven.


  1. I had to go back and re-read this post after receiving a similar note today to make sure I was reading the tea leaves correctly. The editors said they appreciated the chance to read the entry, said unfortunately it wasn't quite right for them at this time ( what IS the right time?) but then go on to say: "Would enjoy reading more of your work in the future! Sincerely...."

    It's a form, but there's that exclamation point. If editors don't say things they don't mean, I'm seeing this as a form rejection with a twist of hope. Do you agree with my reading of the tea leaves?

    1. Absolutely! Most editors have two or more rejections to choose from -- a regular one and a "good" one. Some also have a "bad" rejection -- "Please familiarize yourself with our magazine before sending again" -- and I'm not fond of that strategy. (Easy rejections are, well, easy! No need to insult people.) An editor who says he or she would enjoy reading more work really does mean it -- I feel very confident saying that. Even if it's a form rejection, it's a good form rejection, and those are more rarely given.