Wednesday, January 20, 2016

More rejection tea leaves

I recently wrote a post in which I analyzed the content of my most recent rejection note. (It’s at the top of a rather lofty stack!) A regular reader of this blog wrote me today to ask me if I would consider breaking down another. She wrote, “A friend just got a rejection letter that I'd like to send you (with all identifying material taken out)—because I wonder if there's benefit in continuing a conversation about rejection letters.”

Indeed, there is great value to the activity, and I’d like to return to it from time to time as I go along. I’ve edited for litmags large and small over the last two decades, and I’m also familiar with this means of correspondence on a far more personal level.

I don’t mind rejections. Each one feels like forward progress to me. I took a chance; I put my work out there for a reader. I found an audience, although it may have been an audience of only one or two. But that’s why I write—to reach readers. I really want to connect with readers, and a rejection means I’ve likely fallen short of that goal. But it makes me want to keep trying, and to find that reader who will share my work with many more.

Rejections also provide a little bit of limited feedback. A “yes” means someone thinks we’re doing something right. A “no” means the opposite. Lots of yeses, lots of nos—either sends a useful message. Often that message is best ignored; I’m certainly not going to quit writing or change how I write because I got a form e-mail rejection or a crookedly cut slip of paper.

The rejection my reader sent along repeats a mistake I see in a lot of rejections. I won’t spoil the surprise; here it is in its entirety, but with identifying information for the writer and the journal redacted.

Dear [Name], we readily admit that the lyric essay is a tough form to master, if it can even be "mastered;" can we corral an insistent sun, a shy moon? Yet the author committed to making sense of it must be, yes, committed. This is why we hope you'll look at the [Name of Journal] as a training ground for the lyric (and lesser so, the experimental) essay. Learn with us. If we have specific thoughts on a submission - and we often do - they'll be below. Let us add that if you give up now, after having received this decline notice, you will have given up on a chance to continue building your skills in this uniquely beautiful sub-genre, and that would be unfortunate indeed.

Our thoughts, if we have them, on: [“Name of Submission"] -- "A nurse's thoughts about traveling back to an ill wife. Another one that's pretty much straight narrative. Not objectionable, but not hugely compelling."

Here is an online text from Annie Dillard we'd love you to analyze as an example of what we're looking for:

Please be sure your work 1) focuses first and foremost on lyricism, word usage, language strings, 2) (similarly) consists of high level and surprising prose, and 3) is generally family-friendly (topics can be tough, but take care not to be offensive). Also, please visit the page on our website re: the lyric essay: [redacted]

We are truly looking forward to seeing more from you. Keep trying! The small honorarium you would receive if accepted, along with the contributor's copy and a chance at the $150 essay prize in May, is our way of saying please don't give up.

“If you give up now ….” “Keep trying!” “Please don’t give up.” What in the world are the editors thinking with these statements? This rejection from a largely unknown literary journal uses rhetoric consistent with talking a would-be jumper off a bridge. But who quits writing because of a rejection? And if such people do exist, isn’t it best for them to go ahead and move on to some endeavor that they feel a modicum of commitment toward? The kindness of the impulse cannot be denied, but the self-importance of these statements is astonishing.

The rejection note also errs in its use of an instructional tone. Writers don’t submit work because they seek instruction (although the rejection itself can be useful information). Instruction happens in the workshop. Submissions are finished products, and they either work or they don’t. Consider the tacit message here; “We are not accepting your work because you need more training,” this rejection seems to be saying. But in my extensive editing experience, I always rejected work because I didn’t want to print it in my magazine. I certainly didn’t regard all rejected work as the product of the junior varsity squad. It’s just a no. Nothing personal.

I am certain that I’ve made a large number of mistakes throughout my editing life. I’ve turned down work that I wasn’t ready to understand; I’ve not seen the quality in excellent writing; I’ve been too frenzied to hear the heartbeat of the quiet poem; I’ve been pressed for time and I’ve overlooked things in the process. I’ve also made mistakes with acceptances, either from listening to the wrong opinions or from letting my enthusiasm for subject matter color my reception of the work. (My love of dogs does not, in fact, mean that all dog poems are pure gold.)

These editors need some humility, and I don’t mean the false humility written into the rejection note: “This is why we hope you'll look at the [Name of Journal] as a training ground for the lyric (and lesser so, the experimental) essay. Learn with us.” They have their take on the lyric essay, and it’s finite and particular to them. The form is bigger than they are. Talking down to writers while presenting themselves as authorities on the subgenre does not build their authority. Their opportunity to establish their authority is in their pages.

The rejection has little to recommend it, but I haven’t even addressed my least favorite part of it yet. Here it is:

Our thoughts, if we have them, on: [“Name of Submission"] -- "A nurse's thoughts about traveling back to an ill wife. Another one that's pretty much straight narrative. Not objectionable, but not hugely compelling."

Wow. I try to imagine how it would feel to receive this rejection with this section left blank. “Our thoughts, if we have them”? This language is very dismissive of the writer. It’s transparently the language of a form rejection; some writers get a little squib in that section and some don’t. There are more natural ways to write this, but the editors want the writer to know, from the obvious change in syntax and style, that they’ve just jotted down some quick thoughts in the middle of a paternalistic form. It’s personalized, but please, don’t take that personally.

Look, too, at the content. There is a fragment of summary: “A nurse’s thoughts about traveling back to an ill wife.” Why is this included? The writer knows what the essay was about. This move is a deliberately dismissive one. The essay has been effectively reduced to just a typical nurse story—“Another one that’s pretty much straight narrative,” the reader offers with a sniff. This is, apparently, “another one” in the interminable stack that just offers a narrative, and this reader is SO OVER THAT. As an English instructor, I’m struck by the disconnect between the overall instructional tone of the note and the poor teaching offered here, in the only personalized part of the rejection. You’re just another hack, writer—another in a steady stream of submissions that show no awareness of how a lyric essay operates.

The final part of the personalized section is another fragment—this writer is not worthy of complete sentences, see—that informs the writer her work is a big zero, a cipher, a nonentity. I happen to think that writers deserve more respect than “Not objectionable, but not hugely compelling.” This is not helpful. It also happens to be the tacit message of every rejection.

My previous post was adamant on one point above all others: Writers deserve editors’ thanks for submissions, even rejected ones. Notice, this rejection offers not one word of thanks. Its unstated message is that the editors are doing writers a favor by considering their work and by offering unsolicited instruction (in the form of a few generalizations and links).

I’m an editor. If you have submitted work to a magazine, any magazine, you have contributed to the life of letters, and you have lived boldly and openly on the page. You have written when you could have been doing anything else. You have entrusted readers with your words, and chances are, these are the very best part of you.

So on behalf of all editors I offer thanks. And to editors themselves, I say this: Remember where it all begins—inside each writer’s uniquely swirled brain; at a desk or a kitchen table or a coffee shop; through a pen or a typewriter or a printer. Someone chose you to receive it. Someone is trusting you to treat the finest part of themselves with respect.

You owe them gratitude.

I’d love to read the tea leaves of your latest rejection. Write me at and I’ll give it a whirl.


  1. Thanks for sharing your insights and experience.

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    1. Thank YOU! I love analyzing these. It's always been a hobby of mine. :)

  3. There is nothing in this rejection that would encourage the writer to submit again, so it seems really odd that they explicitly ask for more work as long as it is "right."