Saturday, March 19, 2016

Reading the Tea Leaves of Rejection: We regret ...

A number of writers report receiving some variation of this form rejection from an established (and excellent) online poetry journal:

Many apologies and thank you for submitting your poems to us. Due mostly to a packed publishing schedule at present, we're afraid that we’ve decided not to accept them for publication in our journal. We regret that we’re unable to write a more personal and in-depth note for every submission that we receive, due to the great number of e-mails that we receive every day. We hope that your work will find a place in another publication elsewhere and that you’ll continue to keep submitting work in the future.

There are some interesting things about this rejection, but the most unusual part of it is extratextual. A writer I know reports receiving this rejection only twenty minutes after submitting.

I don’t mind an immediate response; in fact, if the answer is no (as it usually is), the quicker, the better, as far as I’m concerned. As an editor myself, I’ve been both extremely fast and downright glacial at different times.

And sometimes I’m both fast and glacial at the same time. A rejection is often the result of a quick reaction, when work doesn’t measure up to what I already have in an issue, or when it represents the kind of work I see too much of, or even when it just isn’t to my taste. That work can get an instant rejection that I feel fine about; all submissions are subject to both editorial judgment and taste. But there is other work, the “maybe” work, which can require me to shuffle work and reexamine the potential lineup in an issue for weeks before I can arrive at a decision.

When I was at the top of my game (and I intend to get there again), there were periods when I had to sit on responses so as not to hurt feelings, but I was generally capable of instant responses. Submission came in, I read and decided on the spot, end of process. This didn't mean the work wasn't good—it just wasn't something I was going to accept. I quickly learned that a speedy response was a blow to most writers’ pride, and it was to everyone’s benefit for me to pause a week before sending a rejection. When a lightning response comes, writers don’t figure, “Here’s an editor at the top of her game.” Instead, they think, “She didn’t even read this.”

Maybe there is a fantasy that editors pace around the room reading work repeatedly and pulling out their hair to decide, but in actuality, many operations have a single editor reading, reacting, and rejecting all by herself. It takes virtually no time, but it seems rude to write back in twenty minutes with a negative judgment. There is no sense in hurting people’s feelings.

But this rejection actually does suggest in its very text that the work is not being read. Note this sentence: “Due mostly to a packed publishing schedule at present, we're afraid that we've decided not to accept them for publication in our journal.” The work is rejected because of a packed schedule. In this “TMI” moment, there is no indication that the work is better or worse than any other submissions—just that the journal is full up.

I call this sentence a too-much-information moment because truly, wouldn’t a simple no have sufficed? What if the editors had taken out the adverbial prepositional phrase beginning with “Due to”? A simple “We’ve decided not to accept them for publication in our journal” suffices, doesn’t it? The TMI phrase provides evidence that work—at least work by regular schmoes—is not even read. This may not be accurate—it’s a form rejection, and it seems unlikely that the editors are ignoring all of their submissions altogether. But hey, I’m quoting their own words, and they are talking about quantity, not quality.

Beyond that subtle sniff, there is something else I don't like about this rejection, and that is the tone of self-aggrandizement. We are so packed (~we are popular, important); we get so many e-mails (~we are beleaguered, selfless). Please. No one requires anyone to have a journal. What’s more, responding to e-mails can be time-consuming, but it’s not exactly equivalent to busting rocks on the chain gang.

Call this tough love, because I do love and appreciate editors who selflessly give their time to the life of letters, and I genuinely appreciate their sacrifices. But buck up, spunky. Do the job you’ve agreed to do, and don’t expect a bye because you’re a dedicated volunteer. Those submissions and e-mails are the job.

As final note on the rhetoric of the rejection, I feel compelled to point out all of the apologizing. Scan the note and you’ll see apology after apology: “Many apologies.” “We’re afraid that.” “We regret that.” There are even two “due to” statements—excuses, in other words.

There is nothing wrong with rejecting writers. Smart writers expect it. An apology is due if the editors truly are wasting everyone’s time by not reading work because of a “packed publishing schedule.” But in reality, what I think we’re seeing is some editors who feel kind of bad about hurting people’s feelings.

A palliative? Be personal and kind. Point out what you liked—which poem was the best in the pack. Thank people whose names you recognize from past submissions. Demonstrate care with more than an apology. It takes more time, but I promise it will make the work more rewarding, with fewer occasions for regret.


  1. I'm appreciative of this series on submission/rejection/acceptance. I have recently once more become active/pro-active in my writing/planning/submission process through the use of Submittable, Duotrope (How do you feel about this tool?), Poets & Writers Call for Submissions, and Allison Joseph's Call for Submissions listerv. It's cured my negative self-talk about not doing enough/submitting enough/writing enough. Knock wood, toss salt, light a candle! Thank you for your good words and advices.

    1. Thank you for the shot in the arm! It's nice to know you're reading this and finding value in it.

      I have some mixed feelings about Duotrope. Love the info, but I think it feeds the worst in us, making us so impatient for quick responses. Maybe it's healthy to level the playing field, though. I'm sure it is, if we use the info in the right spirit. :)