Sometimes literary editors are discouraging, and sometimes they miss the point—but sometimes their rejections are just … well, odd.
I recently rounded up some of my friends’ bizarre experiences with rejection, and the stories ranged from comical to heartbreaking. There was one theme, though, that fascinated me, and it happened when responses almost seemed like afterthoughts.
For almost all rejection notes, the wording is as meticulously crafted as in any submission the magazine might receive. I remember my first stab at writing the text of a rejection. A few considerations seemed vitally important.
- “No” should never be tacit. A writer is looking for one key piece of information when an editor responds to a submission: Is it accepted? A rejection slip needs to say “no” directly, and early; I always tried to include my “no” in the first sentence.
- “Thank you” is necessary. A magazine needs submissions. Writers are critically important to any journal’s mission, and they deserve appreciation for helping to contribute in that way. (I know plenty of editors who regard large numbers of submissions as undesirable—a problem. While they are a lot of work, I welcome every one. More submissions means better work.)
- False encouragement should never be offered. “No” and “thank you” are the basics. “We invite you to submit again”—now, that’s special. I never offered this language to any writer unless I actually wanted to see more of that person’s work. Journals get enough submissions that they don’t need to ask for more.
- There should be no tone of apology unless the journal has done something wrong. If my response is late, I apologize. I’m not sorry for a simple no.
- There should be no excuses. A rejection should not suggest that the journal “can’t” accept work.
- There should be no counseling or patronizing. It is inappropriate to point out that a journal’s decision represents only one person’s or group’s opinion, or that there are a lot of other fish in the litmag sea. Empty platitudes are disrespectful, and they have no place in rejection correspondence.
Most editors think about the message they are sending to writers, and how it reflects on (and how it will be received by) all parties involved. Suffice it to say, though, that “most” does not mean “all.”
Here are some of the less considered responses some of my writer friends have received:
- Many writers report the new trend of the non-response: If you don’t receive a contract, you should consider yourself rejected. This is the response that shows up when you log in to the submission management system and see that your work is declined without comment. A handful of magazines acknowledge up front that this is how they operate; some just quietly click “reject” without sending word of the decision. (Sometimes they do this accidentally.)
- R. reports that she once received a note that informed her “Only one of these even came close.” Remarked R.: “OK, then.”
- J.’s favorite rejection told him, “We don’t publish this type of material, and even if we did, we wouldn’t publish this.” A similar magazine later accepted the pice—and sent a nice-sized check.
- L. received a rejection that said simply, “We prefer poems that laugh down the well.” I admit I’m not sure what that means.
- One of my most celebrated writing friends, D., reports, “I once received a form rejection from a journal and then, two days later, a handwritten note from the editor saying that the form rejection wasn’t sufficient to express his dislike of my work—that he found it flat and unmusical and completely devoid of merit of any kind.” He adds, “A few years later, this same editor published a memoir about his unhappy childhood, and I thought, nah, not unhappy enough.
- C. says that an editor told her to read previous issues of the journal, because they publish only “phenomenal” poets. The weird part? C. herself had been in the journal twice before. “Does that make me a part-time, or an only-once-in-a-while, ‘phenomenal’ poet???!”
- S. remembers when he was a grad student, and as a class project he subscribed to a journal to write a detailed critique of it as a class project. Later, when he sent his work to that journal, he mentioned a few pieces he particularly enjoyed. “Within a week I received an angry handwritten note on my cover letter stating that it was ‘clear I had never bothered to read their journal, that my cover letter was an insult because the editor personally knew that he had no subscribers from Arizona, and that my submission went in the trash as soon as he saw praise for the poems from their last issue that I had clearly not read.” S. sent back a copy of the issue with a mail stamp addressed to him and “drew a big, full-fingered bird on the cover.”
- G. tells me that he has received a Post-it note rejection, as well as another rejection for which the first page of a manuscript was returned with “NO!” scrawled across it.
- R. notes that she received an acceptance on a Post-it—“the entirety of which read, ‘I’ll take [poem title].’”
- M. once received a standard rejection with an additional note that said only, “A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Because we all know there’s only one kind of story ….
- H. got a handwritten rejection once that was completely illegible. She says, “It was handwritten, presumably in English, but I literally couldn’t read a word of it, and it was also super-late, like over a year.” (Incidentally, H. says that she’s been writing a long time and isn’t bothered by rejection—“But when I think of beginning writers or writers who are insecure about the value of their work receiving the responses people are describing here and being hurt by them, I’m disgusted.”
- P. says she once received a a snail mail rejection with a flyer containing submission guidelines, with the submission window aggressively circled and highlighted. The editor had scrawled a message: “FOLLOW GUIDELINES CORRECTLY.” The problem was that the dates on the flyer contradicted the dates listed on the website, which had her submission occurring within the window. “This stuff doesn’t bother me as much now, but when I was just starting to send work out, it stung a bit.”
- F. remembers sending a note in her cover letter explaining that she felt a particular group of poems might be a good fit. The editors responded, “No matter how you feel, these poems aren’t a good fit for XXX Review.” The editor signed the note, “I.B. Scrood.”
- L. received a poetry rejection that said, “Your poetry is good, but alas, we can’t use it.” Alas?
- E. received a rejection slip in the mail in the old days of paper submissions. The clean but oddly angled cut made it clear an intern had prepared the rejection with one of those guillotine-style paper cutters. As did the smear of blood across the quarter-sheet ….
- Someone—an editor of a well-known feminist journal—once rejected A. with a note that admonished, “Only famous poets can write in lowercase.”
- Poor J. received a rejection once that had none of the typical language of a rejection slip—just a single sentence saying, “Don’t quit your day job.”
I may need to write another post about rejections that run the gamut from the cruel to the ridiculous to the nearly sublime. There are so many stories about odd and inappropriate rejection notes that I feel affirmed in my approach: Editors should just say no, politely and respectfully—and humbly.
There is never any need to hurt a writer. A simple rejection says all they need to say.