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Anatomy of a rejection

Last week,  I was confronted with a dilemma that gives every editor the shakes: blowback from a rejection.

I detest rejecting work as much as writers hate having their work rejected, even the stuff that’s really terrible. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of rejection and because most people take rejection personally, I chafe when I send a rejection because I know it will probably ruin someone’s day (if you’re not particularly adept at receiving rejection, you might want to read “Advice for Writers: How to Handle Rejection.”).

But not every piece of writing can or should be published. Here are a dozen or so reasons why:

*the writing is technically poor;

*the writing is conceptually lacking;

*the tone is too bombastic;

*the writer demonstrates a lack of care in his/her writing;

*the piece lacks focus, cohesion, and/or a narrative arc;

*the piece (in travel writing) is too “This is what I did on my summer vacation.”;

*the piece simply doesn’t fit within the thematic or stylistic interests of the publication, which usually occurs because the writer has failed to study the publication and/or submission guidelines well;

*the piece addresses a topic that has already been covered and doesn’t offer a sufficiently new angle;

*the piece is riddled with cliches;

*the piece is factually inaccurate;

*the timing of submission is completely off (someone submits a guide to Mexico’s Semana Santa… the week after Semana Santa);

*the piece simply doesn’t resonate with the editor for completely subjective reasons.


So back to the situation.

Andy, Matador’s Twitter handler, alerted me to a not-so-happy follower who was venting about having an article rejected. The follower was a writer who had submitted an article about a year ago that was rejected; last week, an article on the same topic was published, but by a different writer. In addition to venting on Twitter, the writer had expressed his feelings in the comments section of the other writer’s article.  He used words like “bitter” and stated that the published piece had errors, though these were not detailed.

The situation left me feeling yucky because I genuinely like the writer. We’d published a few of his pieces but rejected several more, with section editors offering feedback that his writing often felt “flat” or stated the obvious and didn’t really offer new information or a novel perspective.


The tweet and comment conveyed the writer’s hurt, but I wondered if he’d thought about his article and why it might have been rejected. Rather than reflect on his own piece and possibly improve his writing as a result, he was focusing instead on the other writer’s piece, a process which isn’t likely to be as helpful.

In addition to identifying the many reasons why a piece may be rejected, as I did above, I thought there’s something else to learn here, and that is this:

Your idea is not original.

Think of any topic. Go ahead. Something far-fetched and totally off the wall.** Write it down. Bask in the momentary glow of self-satisfaction, thinking “I know nobody has written about this topic ever.” Now go do a Google search.

It’s okay. Your idea isn’t original. Nobody’s is. It’s original to you, yes, but it’s probably not original to the world, and that’s fine. What must be original, though, is your take on that idea.

Writing a publishable piece consists of identifying an idea and then executing that idea well. Rejection involves reflecting upon your writing and identifying the reason why it didn’t fit with the publication at this time. If an editor doesn’t explain why your piece was rejected, you may want to ask for feedback. Acknowledge your hurt (privately, perhaps, is better than doing so publicly) and then move forward by continuing to practice your craft.

What have you learned from rejection? Share your experiences and advice in the comments.

**This point was driven home while watching “The Beauty of Ugly,” in which a scientist who has studied mole rats for seven years was featured. “Just think of the most obscure thing possible,” my husband said, “and someone studies it.”


16 responses »

  1. Haaaaa. Rejection 🙂 It really is a frustrating pickaxe that slowly chips away at a writer’s dreams.

    I also love that you’ve outlined various reasons why a writer’s article may be rejected. Writers should never, EVER take rejection personally. Rarely do editors actually attack a writer’s personal character.

    They’re just saying a particular story doesn’t work for them at the moment.

    Rejection is objective (most of the time). Of course, it can be frustrating when an idea you pitched was rejected, and then the very same idea was assigned by the editor to their regular writer buddy.

    Before pitching, I spend some time researching a particular section and then pitch a very specific angle that also includes the section in the subject line.

    Section Name->Subsection – Idea

    When the editor rejects that specific (thoroughly researched) idea, I turn around and ask them if there was a particular type of story they were currently looking for.

    This has worked a few times for me in the past; where the original idea was rejected, I got more info from the editor by asking, and turned around to pitch a more appropriate angle that worked!

    • Lola-

      I have to confess that there are times when I receive an article and it doesn’t quite fit into any of the rejection reasons I’ve listed in this piece. There’s just something that doesn’t grab me or doesn’t sit with me well, and it feels presumptuous to respond to the writer by saying “This doesn’t sound like your authentic voice,” when I don’t know that person.

      And yet… there have been times when I’ve said exactly that and the response has been incredible. In fact, 9 times out of 10, the writer has replied and said, “Thank you so much for saying that. It’s NOT my voice, but I was writing the way I thought I was supposed to and now I feel free to be myself.” This approach has actually led to a couple pieces being published on Matador that I’d rejected initially, and it was a mutually good feeling for myself and the writer to work together on crafting a more authentic piece of writing. As an editor, I love those moments!

  2. If you give back honest feedback, the writer should turn that into future writing improvements. I think too many people take rejection as a failure rather than as an impetus to get better.

    • Ah, you’re right… “should” being the operative word. I wonder whether the defensiveness goes beyond simply feeling like a failure. Perhaps many writers take rejection so much to heart because they’re not exactly sure how to pick up the piece and start anew.

  3. A writer is made when he or she receives the first rejection. But the real writer doesn’t grow until they learn something from the rejection.

    Though rejections frequently come in the form of form letters, if there are any notes or indications at all from an editor about why something I pitched was rejected, I reevaluate my pitch, article angle, etc. with those comments in mind. That doesn’t necessarily mean I change anything, but I do consider what the editor has to say.

    I think rejection is just a natural part of the writing life. Yes, it sucks. But if writing is worthy enough, someone will recognize that and reward the efforts of the writer eventually.

    • JoAnna-

      You allude to an important point here: The editor is not always right.

      Though the editor may be right that the article doesn’t fit the publication he/she represents, that doesn’t mean that the recommendations made regarding revisions should necessarily be followed.

      I once wrote an article that I knew was solid and it was the article I wanted to write. The editor rejected it and essentially wanted me to recast the entire piece. I sat with his request for a few days and then I wrote back and let him know I wouldn’t be rewriting the piece. If I rewrote it, it would be the piece he wanted, not the piece I knew I needed to write.

      You always have to be true to your own instincts, yourself, and your subject, even if that means that a piece may not get published.

  4. I have to say that something similar like that happened to me with my second or third submission to Matador. I found something that interested me on the Bounty Board and submitted my query. It was a go, so I worked pretty hard on a draft and submitted it. It was rejected (and Julie you were very nice about it), and someone else’s article was published within a couple weeks. At first I was bitter, but when I read their article and then re-read mine, I realized that the chosen piece was much more Matador appropriate anyway.
    I think writers take rejection personally because we put so much into our writing and thoughts, and in a way it’s putting ourselves out there. I try to keep in mind that the editor isn’t out to get me (hopefully!) or discourage me, there is just something about my article that isn’t right for the publication.

  5. I agree with Abbie.

    Also, it’s totally in the writer’s best interest anyway to have an article rejected that doesn’t quite fit the ticket.

    In the end, it’s WAY more beneficial to learn from that rejection instead of having a *insert one of Julie’s reasons* piece of writing published? Makes you look bad/unprofessional anyhow. I don’t want any sub-par writing of mine published – only the best of the best! If that ends in fewer publications, then so be it… Quality over quantity?

  6. Abbie & Alyssa-

    So many writing programs teach us how to write, but they don’t really teach about learning from rejection. Maybe that’s something that *should* be taught.

  7. I’ve often thought of whether this is weird, but article rejections have never bothered me. I’m absolutely unemotional about the process of acceptance and rejection. Like Lola has said above, I ask my eds if they might consider a different angle to a pitch that doesn’t “work” according to them and If I ever pitch something and it gets rejected and another writer writes about it, I read the piece carefully and see what it is about the piece that draws the attention of the readers and the editors and try and learn something from it.

  8. Pingback: Why I like Terrible Runs (and How That Relates to Writing) « The Pen and Paper Chronicles

  9. Interesting to hear what happened with the writer whose article was rejected. It’s so easy to take these things as a personal attack, particularly with writing.

    I try to look at finishing my project/submission/proposal or whatever it is I ultimately want to achieve as my goal. Writing the letter and sending it in. When I’m done, I’ve reached my goal and I move on. If it’s published, even better.

    Btw, did you know Noah studied mole rats and also wrote about them. Very cool animals. I wrote a sci-fi short story based on his research, which, btw was rejected from a magazine that recently published something else of mine.

  10. Pingback: Why I like Terrible Runs (and How That Relates to Writing)

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