Learning From Rejection

by Brandi Reissenweber

Any writer who has sent their work out into the world has had to face the note of rejection.

Some of the more cynical among us probably hoard all those rejection letters, tack them up on the wall of their office to proclaim their defeat as a challenge to succeed. Others among us may crumple them up and put them immediately to trash. Out of sight, out of mind. But the savvy writer does a little something before sending that rejection to its fate: she sees what she can learn from it. Rejection is a part of the process and usually it is given in a good spirit, but even the most mean spirited (or worse, non-responsive) rejection can become a learning tool if you approach it the right way.

Perhaps you've been marketing a story to several magazines. You've gotten many a discouraging form rejection and one or two rejection slips with something scrawled at the bottom. Let's start there: with those personalized notes. Read them (or, if the handwriting is particularly bad, try to decipher them). Write the note out in your own hand. Really, read those notes. Take in what they’re saying. Unless it’s a quick “thank you” or “sorry” an editor doesn’t bother writing on a rejection slip unless she or he saw something in the work that gave pause. Editors are so inundated with stories that, while they’d love to encourage every writer, to do so means they’d be getting more and more submissions from writers they know they’re highly unlikely to publish for one reason or another. As a result, you will only receive a note if you’ve sparked something for the editor.

Often, that something is good. Perhaps the story got close to the final rounds. Or perhaps the editor saw promise in your work. A scrawled note that says “try us again” means “We liked this but it's not quite right, so try us again. We think your next story might be just what we're looking for.” Or something along those lines. Sometimes these written-on-the-bottom notes can be less heartening. These sorts are fewer and farther in between, but you still want to look at what’s there—what you can learn from it. It might sting to hear ‘these characters are dull’ or “you're such a dolt you forgot an SASE and you're lucky I bothered to send you this at all” but both those comments can help you in the future.

Make sure to fully read those form letters, too. Sometimes magazines use different form letters for different responses. They might use one form letter for their “sorry but no thanks” rejections and another form letter for their “sorry, but we invite you to submit more” rejections.

Once you learn what you can from the individual rejections, take a moment to see what the rejections, collectively, are saying to you. The only way to get an idea of the message is to take a few steps back to make sure you're walking in the right direction.

When a knitter misses stitches, she can't just forge ahead; she has to go back and fix that loop; otherwise there's going to be big trouble later on. Nothing like a lovely sweater unraveling on the first wearing.

Writers who meet with constant rejection are facing one of two very hard truths:

1. Their work is wonderful and ready to be published and the right editor hasn’t yet seen the work to be able to make that discovery. Or:

2. The work isn't ready to be published yet.

Both are situations that you, as the writer, can help along. That’s where taking a few steps back is going to help you.

Look at the story that you've sent out. Actually, don’t just look at the story, read it and read it closely. Perhaps you finished it three, six or eight months ago (depending upon how long you’ve been waiting for those rejections). Is it still the gem you thought it was when you sent it out? Has your experience writing and learning while collecting those rejections helped to show you its flaws a little better?

Perhaps it is still the gem that you remember. If that’s the case, reassess your own personal market listing. Since you should have done market research to figure out where to submit the story, reassess if those are good matches for your story.

Do more (yes, more) market research and see if you uncover some appropriate venues you hadn’t known about before. Once you review and redo some of that market research, you should have some new names to send out to. Make sure to read their guidelines. If you’re ignoring them, some journals won’t even read your story, so possibly your work isn’t getting rejected but rather the story is being rejected based on something much more arbitrary and fixable. If the quality of work is strong and you do your administrative work well, your story will see the light of the page, even if it does take some rejections. Mary Yurkai Waters wrote a story that was rejected over forty times. It was eventually published and went on to win a Pushcart Prize.

Now, if you read your story and find that it’s not quite the gem you remember it to be, you have a decision to make. You can revisit the work and take it back to the revision phases. Or, you can decide that it was a story you learned a great deal from and immerse yourself in something written more recently and once that’s set, start marketing that.

I make no judgments or suggestions on which is the better option. It depends upon you, the story, and how you’re both feeling about each other at that point in time.

In the meantime, though, make sure you’re writing. Waiting should always be your opportunity to create.

This article originally appeared in Letterpress.