Advice

If You Can’t Say Something Nice… Say Something Generic

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Dear editors,

I’ve got quite a collection of rejections in my email today (and one sale! whoo hoo!).  I’m stealing some time to process them all – you know, update my submisions records, rat on you to Duotrope, that sort of thing.  Happily, there’s a higher-than-usual number of nice ones – some personal notes with regrets and reasons, some well-crafted and still-encouraging form letters.  But then there a few that make me shake my head, and some that make me want to find your address and come egg your house.

I won’t do that, of course – if I egged every editor who peeved me it would rake up my grocery bill, and I’m not getting paid enough for these poems and stories to justify that.

I would, though, like to ask you to please carefully consider the turn of phrase you use when writing rejection letters. 

You’d think this would be obvious, since these letters are part of the triforce of impressions you make to the public – next to 1) the magazine itself and 2) your website/guidelines, rejections say a lot about who YOU are and to what extent you give a shit about the writers who make your magazine possible.  But a lot of you seem not to realize how unfavorable an impression your letters are making to would-be contributors – and that should concern you.

For example, “your submission does not meet our criteria” is one I just received.  Seems bland enough, at first glance, but think about that word, “criteria”.   It means “conditions which must be met”, basically, or “the standard to which we are holding you up”.

We’re writers, see.  Words have nuance.  Words matter.

So while you may have meant “this is not what we’re looking for at this time”, it comes across to the rejected as either “you didn’t follow the guidelines” (which I did, indeed) or “you’re just not good enough for us.”

And that may very well be true, but for goodness’ sake, why would you SAY that? It’s elitist and rude.  Don’t be elitist and rude.

Also? Also.  Editors, suggesting that submitters read the magazine to “get a feel for our style and preferences” or to pay attention to the guidelines is perfectly reasonable IN THE GUIDELINES.  Forewarning is fair.  But saying it in the body of a rejection is just bad form.  Please stop doing this.

Yes.  Lots (LOTS) of submitters get it wrong.  They send things that are inappropriate.  They ignore the rules and attach their name when they’re not supposed to or send the wrong type of file or put all the poems in one doc instead of one for each, or vice versa, I KNOW.  (I reject dozens of poems unread for breaking guidelines over at Devilfish – READ THE GUIDELINES!!)

BUT. When someone has studied the magazine and done their homework and made thoughtful selections, this kind of blanket finger-wagging is really just an insult.  It alienates the writers who are behaving.  It’s like scolding the entire class because someone in the back was passing notes and talking. It means you’re lumping the poet whose work you just didn’t prefer this time in with all the rule-breakers because you’re cranky.

Don’t be cranky in a rejection email.  It’s just not professional.

I’m also not a fan of “I’m going to pass.”  Maybe this one is just on me, but doesn’t it sound like something you’d say if an ugly person came on to you at a bar?

I’m not an ugly person in a bar.  I’m a sensitive writer.  I’ve written you a respectful query letter, entrusted you with my creative property, and opened myself up to your judgement.  Is “pass” the best you can do?

I mean, really. “Thank you for your submission, but it’s not what we’re looking for at this time.” Is that so hard?

When I first started submitting work for publication in earnest, a personal rejection (when an editor or reader gives specific feedback, such as what they liked about your work and/or why it was rejected) was rare and valuable; almost as good as an acceptance.

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Almost as good like winning a free sandwich on a scratch-off game, to be sure – yes, I’d rather get published / win the big prize, but sandwiches are nice too.

A personal rejection means that someone took special notice of your work; it wasn’t just an auto-reject by a slush pile robot or an embittered assistant reader getting drunk on whiskey sours somewhere and reading snippets from your beloved story/poem/essay out loud for sadistic kicks.

For an under-published writer, a personal rejection isn’t just encouraging (though it can be that, too). A personal rejection is medicine. Having trouble finding a home for your work? Here’s why: your poem needs tightening. Your story needs a resolution. Your changing POV is confusing, your narrative is stilted, your something or other needs some kind of attention – it was an almost for us, here’s how it could have been a yes. OR – or! There’s nothing wrong with your work at all; we just couldn’t use it this time – please try us again.

postal_carrier_-_pigeon

an endangered baby bird carrying a gilded note with advice on how to improve your writing (and your chances of getting an eventual “yes”)

From what I can tell, personal rejections are becoming even more unusual these days. My rate of submission hasn’t changed, so either my writing IS SO GOOD it leaves editors speechless, OR, they have less time and inclination to make personal observations. It’s probably the latter, maybe having to do with the publishing glut and automated submission portals  (though the speechless thing sounds good, too).

Whatever the reason for their rarity, if someone sends you a personal rejection, treat it like precious baby bird.

 

Then again, sometimes – sometimes! –  personal rejections are dumb.

Recently I received a rejection for a flash fiction / vignette along with a thoughtful explanation for why it had been rejected – exactly the kind of thing I would have salivated over a few years ago. The editor even included a helpful full revision of the piece with suggested line edits and a total overhaul of the narrative style.

 

I hope you're saying Wait, what? because that is what I said, minus some creative and colorful comments of my own.

Wait, what?

It’s important to keep in mind that this editor is probably a lovely person. Her life is as full and evolved and as busy as yours or mine. She probably deals with hundreds of submissions on a regular basis plus whatever editor-ly duties she has hanging over her head. The fact that she took the time not only to comment but to thoroughly comment on my work was an act of enormous generosity for which I should be grateful. What I should have done was file the rejection away and move on.

That’s not what I did.

Instead, I broke my rule of zen and immediately hit “reply” to explain – as politely as possible while still sounding smugly self-righteous – that while I respect the editorial prerogative to reject my work, there is a difference between editing and re-writing.

Which is true. This editor crossed a line. In her zeal to be helpful, she overlooked personal style and creative choice and revised my (much polished) story to how she would have written it herself, which is unhelpful, at best, and more than a little insulting.

But I should have let it go.

coffee first

Never hit send before the owl mug has been drained. Preferably twice.

I broke the rule because I’m human (and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t had my coffee yet and/or was coping with a rash of rejections that week), which brings us back to the point that not every personal rejection is golden because editors are human, too. They have their own prejudices and preferences. They like what they like, and they’re looking for what they’re looking for. Sometimes they make decisions while under-caffeinated. Sometimes they mean well and do dumb things. Sometimes when they reject you, it may be for sound, objective reasons, or it may be because they just don’t get you, which is not to say some other editor/venue won’t.

Bottom line, personal rejections are like any other form of critique. Critique is valuable, it’s necessary – hell, it’s crucial – but only in general. If you’ve ever worked with a critique group or beta readers, you’ll know that for every 5 people you share your work with you’ll get 15 reactions, most of it contradictory, some of it downright dumb. Your job, as a writer, is to sort through it all, look for what’s consistent (if 13 people tell you your action sequence is dull, it’s probably dull) and balance that against your own judgment, your own vision. Sometimes, critique will point you in the right direction, and sometimes it will only muck you up.

Sometimes, you have to say “Dear Editor – thank you for your interest in my submission, but after careful consideration, I have decided that your rejection just isn’t right for me.”***

***Say it – don’t send it.  Drink your coffee.