So you got rejected. If you’re like me, you utter a “darn” and then update your log and wait for some acceptances to roll in.
But wait. What if you came close … again? What if editors really admired your work … again? What if editors want you to try again … again?
I know a lot of writers who can handle a straightforward rejection, but who feel tremendous frustration with the “almost” rejection. It’s especially hard when a journal has sent more than one of these rejections with a note saying a particular element of the submission was appreciated, or editors would like to see more work.
I’m not sure why slightly warmer rejections cause such frustration among writers. They strike me as a very positive message. I’m always in favor of a little encouragement—a small sign that I’m on the right track.
But they do cause a fair bit of consternation, and for an obvious reason. Lose a footrace by a furlong, with dozens of people between you and the tape, and you’ve lost a footrace. Lose a footrace in such a way that you brush against the falling tape another runner has broken, and that hurts. You nearly had it.
As an editor myself, I can attest that these rejections are not, in fact, a silver medal, but they’re also not a green participation ribbon. They offer some useful information for submitters, and the encouragement is real.
A major literary journal might get five thousand submissions per year. Most of this work is instantly rejectable—and some of it is very solid and good, but still instantly rejectable. Editors sometimes complain about their volume of submissions, because the work can be a lot to weed through. But the great boon of a huge submission pool is that editors can let good work go and still have a lot of really good work to choose from—so much, in fact, that not all of the really good work can fit.
The fact is that it isn’t enough to write good work, when it comes to top journals. A good story has interesting characters and a compelling plot. A great story has unforgettable characters involved in a series of events that compel a reader’s attention.
Likewise, a good essay has strong writing and some interesting ideas. A great essay changes the way we think about some aspect of the world, and it remains on a reader’s mind for a long time after it is read.
And the difference between a good and a great poem is pretty obvious, too. A good poem may have some clever wordplay, some images that linger, a set of ideas that matter. I can think of plenty of good poems that I really appreciate—that speak to me and have memorable passages. But an editor can usually do much better than good. An editor with thousands of poems to choose from can probably find something that approaches a level of really-goodness or even, we can dare to hope, greatness.
Let’s be clear—greatness is a pretty high expectation for even a large slush pile. But it becomes harder to stand out when our work is among other work, some of it excellent or at least memorable and different. It’s especially hard for those quieter pieces to break through.
What an encouraging rejection means is that the work is good, or even very good. A personal note from a busy editor is like gold; when a piece of writing is singled out for praise, there is a reason. Someone who reads a lot of stuff thought this particular stuff had, well, the stuff. Because most editors care deeply about writing, their encouragement reflects a wish by an educated reader for more work from a specific writer. They’re in a position to know when a voice is special and the work has promise, and their sheer busy-ness ensures that they aren’t sending this personal encouragement to everyone (although I certainly hope they’re taking the time to say thanks—but that’s a post for another day).
My suggestion: Writers should try to resist feeling frustrated by specialized rejections. They’re a good thing. They show the writer’s progress; they offer an endorsement by an educated reader who sees promise in the writer’s work. And that’s something to celebrate.