Friday, 28 January 2011

What do rejection letters really mean

I’m quite an expert in this field. I used to keep all my rejection letters until I could no longer climb over them all to get to my desk. The paper cuts on my knees were awful.

I had to buy a shredder because I risked dislocating my thumbs every time I ripped a rejected story into tiny pieces (because as we all know perfectly well if you put your rejected story in the bin whole the dustmen will find it, read it and laugh at you).

It’s the same thing that makes you put ten feet of sellotape round your envelope when you send a story in – just in case the envelope should accidentally fall open and every postman between here/there and London/Dundee will die laughing at your nerve.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a comment with a rejection. What exactly do these comments mean?

First of all I’ll give you a writer’s interpretation (not all writers will agree with this, but I know some who do) and then I’ll give you the Real Meaning, the one you should take notice of.

We enjoyed reading your story, but:

It gave us all a right laugh. We were rolling round the office. We simply couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to submit such crap.

Real meaning – they enjoyed reading your story, but it didn’t quite hit the spot.

The plot wasn’t strong enough:

It gave us all a right laugh. We were rolling round the office. We simply couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to submit such crap.

Real meaning – you hadn’t written a strong enough plot.

The characters were too unbelievable:

It gave us all a right laugh. We were rolling round the office. We simply couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to submit such crap.

Real meaning – you hadn’t made your characters believable.

We found the main character too unsympathetic:

It gave us all a right laugh. We were rolling round the office. We simply couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to submit such crap.

Real meaning – they didn’t like your main character. The readers wouldn’t be able to empathise with them.

It was too predictable:

It gave us etc etc (oh you know the chorus by now).

Real meaning – they knew what was going to happen. Saw it coming a mile off and the reader would too. We all know the disappointment of getting a couple of paragraphs into a story and knowing how it will end and editors do not want disappointed readers.

So what should you take home from these comments? If they enjoyed reading your story, but it wasn’t quite right then at least you know you’re on the right track. Maybe they’ve simply had too many with the same theme lately, or bought one with a similar plot.

As far as the other comments go, you can look at your story and see how you could improve it. Could you make the plot stronger? Can you pep up your characters and make them real? Can you do something to that bad-tempered old main character to make them likeable? Or at least give them a damn good reason for being bad-tempered/bitchy/bitter? Could you change the ending to surprise the reader?

And what about that gem - We look forward to seeing more of your work:

Yeah, when hell freezes over (they hate me!) OR Please send us everything and anything you’ve got – now and do it fast because we are waiting… (bored fiction editor drumming fingers on empty desk, chin resting in hand waiting impatiently for your next submission).

Real meaning – they would like to see more of your work. When you next have a story you think would suit them and it has pressed all the necessary buttons on their guidelines, send it in!

Giving you a reason for rejection isn’t an invitation to revise a story and send it back. If they want you to revise it and resubmit it, they will ask you to do so. But there is nothing to stop you taking their comments on board, improving your story and sending it elsewhere.

Given the volume of stories that editors receive, the fact that they give you a reason at all is hopeful. It shows they read your story and if it’s been gone a while before it comes back, it almost certainly means that it has gone to the second readers.

Of course it may have been lost down the back of the radiator or used to mop up spilled coffee or to line the cage of the office hamster, but in most cases you will hear something.

Not all editors give a reason. You are not the only one getting standard rejection letters. Whether you’ve been writing for them for 30 years or 30 minutes if it is usual to send out a standard rejection letter, that is what you will get.

As for rejection letters with encouraging comments – I kept/keep mine. My knees are in no danger from those, but I treasure them.


  1. This made me laugh a lot. But it's also a very useful reminder of things that are easy to forget when you're stinging from a rejection. Specific comments from a fiction editor are like gold dust and should be treated as such.

  2. I think it's difficult not to read things into comments/rejections you receive from editors on your stories - your list made me laugh, Teresa! Whatever the reason for a story being rejected I think it's important not to take it personally but take any comments on board, revise your story accordingly and, as you suggested, send it elsewhere. It's a process I'm going through at the moment, having submitted more stories recently - I'm trying to make sure I have a stock of stories to send out as soon as any rejected ones come back to be - on the premise that if you fall off a horse you get back in the saddle straight away!

    Julie xx

  3. I do enjoy looking for the hidden message behind the comments on rejection letters, but I have a sneaky suspicion you're right and that generally editors only put what they really mean.

    I shred my rejects, compost them and use the compost to grow myself a nice bunch of flowers.

  4. I had a wonderful time reading this. It really struck a chord with me. But your list has a great purpose in reminding us that we all suffer that sting that injects a shot of writerly insecurity. But the important point is that the sting should be fleeting. After it disappears, we can get back to business, take advantage of the comments and improve the story for a new market. By then, if not before, I can often see why the story had to be rejected.

    I think the most painful sting I had was from a rejection (albeit a kind and pleasant one) that arrived after I'd sent two requested re-writes, having followed the suggested alterations to the letter! But, on reflection, at least I knew that the story was very close to being acceptable. And I learnt a lot from the revisions I needed to make.

    Thank you for a lovely entertaining post!

  5. Wonderful! Thanks for putting it all in perspective, Teresa. One of my most enlightening moments was hearing Della Galton tell us at a conference that she also gets rejections. So it's good to know it happens to everyone.

  6. This gave me a right laugh, Teresa, and had me rolling around the office ... (!)

    Absolutely spot on - I think we all suffer from those paranoid feelings from time to time! But of course, it's a great compliment to receive a rejection letter that gives you any feedback at all - and no sane writer would disregard the message/advice given.

    Sane writer? What am I saying?!? Is there such a thing? x

  7. Great post, so much truth in it. Also, good writers, and those wanting to improve, doubt themselves. Only the mediocre, or eye-wateringly bad, think they're brilliant.

  8. Love the bit about the postman, Teresa. Maybe that's why mine looks at me a bit funnily.

    I have had some searingly blunt comments in rejection letters - including saying that my main character should be arrested, that they seemed to be schizophrenic and that they had no redeeming features. It's all information - even if it wasn't particularly well received at the time.

  9. Very funny :o)

    I remember feeling upset about People's Friend's comment that 'my plot was too weak to hold the reader's interest' - until I realised several other writers had had the same rejection letter and realised it's probably one of their standard ones.

    Or maybe it really was too weak to hold the reader's interest ...

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who worries about the dustmen finding stories and laughing their heads off!

  10. So funny Teresa. Thanks for cheering me up no end! I've only started on my short story submission - about 12 so far - and all have had a standard rejection - except one which I sent in April and still haven't heard anything! I'll take that as a "I'm sorry we've lost your story" and will have to re-send it in! Caroline x

  11. It does sting doesn’t it, Helen, but as you say once you’re over the initial eek, those comments are indeed gold dust.

    Good point, Julie – that we shouldn’t take it personally. I think we all do a little don’t we? You’re absolutely right about getting straight back on the horse!

    What a brilliant idea, Patsy! Flowers from the rejections.

    That has happened to me too, Joanna when those requested (sometimes multiple times) rewrites are still rejected. Those really are painful.

    It is, Rosemary. Until I got hooked up to the internet, I honestly believed I was the only one getting rejections. It was hugely enlightening when I started to correspond with other writers who had the same stories to tell.

    Oh, Olivia, you mean you wondered how I had the nerve to post such crap ;-) It is good to know that most of us suffer the same paranoia. Sane? I’m as sane as you :-)

    I think you have a point there, Laura, we’ve all met those. But I know of talented writers who know they are good and don’t mind telling you how brilliant they are.

    Bernadette – your postman looks at you funnily too? It’s not just mine then. My mum was told by her postwoman that I was the talk of the sorting office as they wondered why I got so many big brown envelopes!
    Those blunt comments can really hurt can’t they – and make you feel as if perhaps you should be locked up well away from writing materials, but as you say it’s all information!

    I think I’ve had that one, Karen. It’s a reason I suppose. I’m happy to know someone else who thinks the dustmen live to laugh at their rejected stories.

    Where did you send it, Caroline? It has been known to take a year for some mags to get back to you. It would be worth querying it.

  12. Certainly made me smile. Some standard rejection letters don't change either. I got a rejection from a womag last year that was identical to one I received from the same magazine ten years before (the first story I ever submitted).

  13. It's nice to know my lost story may have been put to good use by lining the office hamster cage. You really cheered me up!
    My favourite rejections are still from PF, I always find their comments helpful and they don't seem to mind seeing the same story again,(as long as I mention it's been submitted before and re-written).

  14. It's not the dustman laughing at me I would worry about; it's some closet writer/dustman finding my story, improving it and selling it somewhere! Or maybe I am just paranoid!

  15. GreatExpectations30 January 2011 at 13:50

    Hey Karen Ive had that "too weak" rejection letter from PF too! - glad not to be the only one... sniff...
    and I worry about my postie laughing at the amount of "self adressed" brown envelopes I get back.. I get alot of "not quite suitable" altho probably quite suitable for Hammys cage !!!!
    Pip x

  16. When I edited Loving Magazine, I compiled a check-list rejection letter, and we would tick the boxes to show people which points they had got wrong, e.g. weak ending, had too many along similar lines. Many authors told me how useful that was. I wish more publishers would adopt the idea, then all we writers would know how to improve our books and short stories.

  17. PS: Grammatical point... should it be 'all us writers'? I think so!!!

  18. I still put a roll of sellotape around the envelope in case the postman laughs at me. Hurray for e-mailed submissions.

    Great post, Teresa. Thank you.


  19. Hydra - it should be "all we readers". Trust me. I'm a pedant!

    Liz - I think they just pick any random rejection. Some of the ones I have received have been totally inappropriate for the story, even if rejection is justified. I really think they stick a pin in a list because they don't want that kind of story at that particular time!

  20. Thanks for an amusing, enlightening and encouraging blog post, Teresa. (I'm so glad to read that I'm not the only one who has a fear of the dustmen, or, EEK! would-be-writer dustmen, reading my stuff and laughing, or, worse, reading it, making it better and damned well getting it published.)

    Having been both a proof-reader and a sub-editor, I know that your advice makes sense but I still think Frances has a point about random rejection slips.

  21. Now you come to mention it, Carol I think you’re right.

    I think I’ve made a lot of hamsters very happy over the years, Penandpaints. And useful info there about PF, thank you.

    Oh now Marian you’ve given me something else to worry about! And of course you’re paranoid, you’re a writer

    Those brown envelopes are horrible in so many ways, Pip.

    You were a great editor to work with, hydra. I will always treasure one particular comment you made about a story of mine many years ago. A kind word from an editor means so much and can make the difference between carrying on and giving up. (But don’t ask me about grammatical points – not a strength of mine, so thanks to Frances)

    I hate to think how many fingernails my envelopes have broken over the years, Suzanne. What sends me into a panic is when a brown envelope comes back and it’s come open for the world to see! It feels like having your knicker elastic go in the middle of a crowded high street!

    Frances, I’ve had that feeling too about the pin sticking at times.

    Jacula – all those poor innocent dustman and postman out there… or are they?

  22. Great post! It made me smile and yes I think nearly all writers are self critical and think the worst.

  23. What a great post, Teresa. I've spent the last couple of days mulling over the true meaning of a rejection I've just received for a partial sub for a novel so this really hit the spot.

  24. OMG! It's like you have a window into my brain each time I have ever got a rejection letter.
    Maybe, I should go read them all again with a print out of the real meaning next to the letter so I can translate it.
    Thank you :)

  25. I was at an editorial meeting where we rejected some projects today (evil laugh). I have to say though... don't worry about people laughing at your work, because there's no time! It's possible someone will think 'hm, that's not very good' about your baby, but then it's just on to the next one.

  26. LOL! This really had me chuckling at my keyboard! Where would we be without the internet and our writer friends? At least this way we know we're all in the same boat - and it's sinking under the weight of all those rejection letters.
    It doesn't matter how many times you get one or how many stories you've had published each and every one of those dreaded Rs hurts just as much as the first one.
    You learn to accept it as part of the paranoid writer's territory, but they always FEEL personal because you've put something of yourself in the story. And because it was personal to you when you wrote it, rejection of the story does feel like you're being told you're rubbish. Heaven knows we all have enough self doubt to sink our own boats without all that extra weight!
    Woman's Weekly do have a tick sheet, but I have to say the reason ticked often doesn't seem to bear much relation to the piece sent in. Most of mine seem to have been sent back for the same reason...but maybe that's because they all had the same fault and I'm rubbish and the whole office and the dustmen and postmen are all laughing! And don't even get me started on Take A Break. I've had so many standard Rs from them I feel like throwing something at the TV every time their advert comes on.
    I find, despite the strain on my fingernails, it is still most satisfying to take their letter and rip it into tiny shreds - that's before I head back to the keyboard to reshape and resubmit elsewhere, of course.
    Thanks for a lovely post, Teresa - you made my day! x

  27. I sometimes think that self-critical part of us can be a right bitch, Emma.

    Ouch, Gail. Hope the comments you got were helpful.

    Lol - Anita! It amazes me how so many of us have the same thoughts. THanks for linking to me :-)

    I heard your evil laugh, Anna! I think a "Hm, that's not very good" might be even worse than a laugh. Now you've given us something else to worry about ;-)

    Thanks Lydia :-) It is really good to know so many of us who have been doing this for a while feel the same, but I've been chatting to a new writer - or should I say one that has only just started submitting and I feel I need to write another post about rejection letters - a more serious one.