If You Can’t Say Something Nice… Say Something Generic
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?
So if you go here, you can hear me perform my poem “Beansidhe” – a classic Irish ghost story turned tragic romance – on the SFPA’s Halloween Reading page (which I’m co-editing with poet Liz Bennefeld).
As noted on the page: “The pronoun play in “Beansidhe” can be misleading—it may be helpful to remember that not every narrator is reliable.” “Beansidhe” (the Irish spelling of “Banshee”) first appeared in Ideomancer and later my poetry chapbook, UNDOING WINTER (Finishing Line Press 2014) , which was nominated for the SFPA’s Elgin Award.
If, however, you stay here, you can listen to me, my daughter, and my cat playing with my new headset.
— we could encourage more young people to express themselves in the arts.
My mother and father were, unquestionably, a positive influence on my writing. My teachers, too — were it not for their mentoring, cheer-leading, and instigation, I might not be who I am today. But perhaps equally important to my development as a writer was the opportunity to showcase and compete.
I had my first poems published when I was ten: one in Creative Kids (which, whoah, is still around?!?) and another in Piano, two magazines with content by and for children.
I won my first writing award in middle school: honorable mention in a student essay contest sponsored by the Postal Service, for which I earned a shiny stamped certificate signed by Some Important Government Official (fun bit of trivia, I missed the award ceremony because the invitation arrived in the mail a week late. Hahaha – no, really.)
And, no, I didn’t always win, and, no, I didn’t necessarily take losing gracefully. But the opportunity to compete was just as valuable. It felt good when teachers encouraged me to try; the fact that they believed I could win helped me believe it. The feedback I received was usually very rewarding – I remember to this day when one of my classmates told me that her mother, who was a judge for a local competition, thought my story was the most imaginative of the batch. And even if/when I didn’t win, competitions and journals and creative arts programs showed me that writing was something that mattered outside of the classroom. That my words could go places I’d never imagined. So even if/when I didn’t win, I kept writing.
It was a community that valued the arts that fostered the artist in me.
So when I heard that the Delaware PTA needed writing judges for the 2015 PTA Reflections contest, I jumped at the chance to pay it forward.
In my kitchen right now there are 69 essays, poems, and short stories by Delaware student writers, grades K-12, along with a table for scoring and a short blurb to guide me in my judging. Having poured my heart into this responsibility, I’ve found it fabulous, fascinating, and, frankly, overwhelming – in the best possible way.
Over the last few days, I’ve decided that being a teacher must be REALLY HARD. Imagine putting a grade on some budding author’s precious work of art. How do you carefully and thoughtfully soak in someone’s heartfelt written work and then squeeze it into some arbitrary shape by which it can be compared to a ream of other uniquely conceived masterpieces? Oy. I honestly don’t know how people do this without breaking off little pieces of their hearts every day.
I have new appreciation, also, for the editors and judges who handle slush piles on a regular basis. Even piles of the most stellar submissions start to swim before your eyes after just a few hours.
I learned that entering national writing contests is not a top priority for high school students — I handled a total of FOUR high school entries, compared to dozens from middle-schoolers and younger grades. Hey, kids — What’s with that? Why U No Compete? Something to look at more closely, methinks.
I also enjoyed a glimpse into how young people are thinking these days. This year’s theme, “THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE IF…” opened up a wide range of ideas, from personal wish-fulfillment to frustration with society to highly sophisticated analysis and solutions for global problems. I took special joy in the poems and stories, of course (including a lot of science fiction, of all things), but the essays and narratives were also surprisingly creative.
In short, I believe kudos are in order — for the students, obviously, but also for the village of families, teachers, and arts enthusiasts who have encouraged these kids to put a pencil in their hands, their ideas on paper, and their writing out in the world.
I read each entry several times over, in between Babycakes care and laundry and what passes as my own”writing work” these days (which is to say, some lazy shifting of words around my keyboard like cold peas on a dinner plate). A small sacrifice of time and brain power, but to me, totally worth it. Contributing to this process for the sake of young Delaware writers has been truly an honor.