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Rejection Slips: A Balm for Writers and as Certain as Death

A s an undergraduate at San Francisco State, having suffered my first rejection letter, I received valuable advice from none other than ex-Senator S.I. Hayakawa. Noting my droopy demeanor one day, he asked what was wrong. In tones worthy of Camille, I explained and he burst into laughter, then slapped my back. "Rejection slips! Hah! Just consider the editor nuts and send the work back out. And don't consider revising anything until it's had at least six negative responses."

Well, I've endured a good many rejections since then and Hayakawa's advice has been valuable, since I suspect that I've had more manuscripts accepted on third or fourth submissions than on initial tries. Over the years I've developed some strategies that alleviate, somewhat at least, the discomfort of rejections. For example, I've learned always to keep enough work circulating so that no single rejection seems overly important, and I give my attention to the next project without worrying whether each piece I've submitted will be accepted, since that decision is out of my hands. But even those schemes don't change reality: letters declining manuscripts are a certainty in most writers' lives and they can hurt.

Personal Notes Welcome

Some years ago, novelist Gerald Rosen and I managed to relieve the sting of rejection letters by exchanging messages on the back of various models we'd received, tacitly acknowledging their inevitability and converting them into symbols of our determination to continue writing. We wanted most of all to keep them in perspective: they were not death sentences, they were not definitive evaluations of our talents; they were subjective, conscientious judgments but no more than that. They could hurt only as much as we allowed them to, and we determined that a little was enough.

Sadly, though, such notices are frequently a new writer's only contact with the larger world of publishing, and this can be disheartening. Loss Glazier, who edits Oro Madre, observes: "It's an obvious fact that the submission and the rejection are the foundation of the writer-publisher relationship."

Frederick Raborg, who began sending manuscripts to editors in the late nineteen-fifties, suggests that rejection slips actually are a balm for writers. "I'm not sure beginners could continue without them or something similar." While they acquaint newcomers with many harsh realities of publishing, rejection letters may also provide precisely the encouragement needed to persevere. Most of us endure our fair share of perfunctory kiss-offs—I certainly have—but some are upbeat, such as this note I once received:

Thank you for letting us see your story. You surely write gracefully and well. Unfortunately, this particular story doesn't quite fit into our plans. We hope it finds a place somewhere else. And soon. Hope to hear from you again. Good luck. Yours most regretfully,

It's not as good as being published, of course, but such handwritten communiqué is nonetheless welcome.

Editors Overwhelmed

In truth, many writers will settle for that sort of assurance, but increasingly editors say they don't have time to pen personal messages, given the number of submissions they receive. As a result, many of us receive scores of printed, impersonal, "Thanks-for-submitting-but-this-isn't-suitable" note. Southwest Review, for instance, has a small staff and receives a great many submissions, so it employs two printed forms, one a card to which a handwritten comment is sometimes appended, the other a letter. "In our rejection notes," explains editor Betsey McDougall, "'we often tell the author that so much of selection is personal taste, and that another magazine may well feel differently about his work."

Poet Donna Champion says, "I wouldn't mind rejection so much if editors would just take the time to send a personal note. It really softens the blow." True enough, but most journals receive a staggering number of submissions; in a letter to Small Press Review, one anonymous editor of a little magazine wrote: "I sincerely can't see how a writer could expect an editor to respond without some form letter. I received 26 manuscripts today of 4-24 poems each. I can read them all in an evening….But to write 24 letters would be ridiculous." Most editors would, by the way, consider exceptional a day that provided two acceptable manuscripts.

Literary editors, most of whom are also writers, understand the feelings of those who submit material but are sometimes overwhelmed. Bill Tremblay, poet and poetry editor of Colorado Review, summarizes the situation this way: "Poets want editors to want their poems, but editors also face limits that are real." John R. Milton, a writer who edits South Dakota Review says that at the beginning, he wrote a personal note for every manuscript that was submitted. "But, as I sensed the approach of insanity, around the third year," he says, "I devised a printed slip that was supposed to ease the pain of rejection for the 90% of I would-be contributors I could not write to."

Humor and Rejection Don't Mix

Jim Villani (editor of Pig Iron) for several years sent a humorous rejection notice that was a parody of the "Chance" and "Community Chest" cards used with Monopoly. It was an attempt to lessen the pain caused by more formal approaches—an editor trying to do for writers what Rosen and I had done with our correspondence: put these missives in perspective. Many writers appreciated the note; poet Johnny Wink, for example, wrote back and said, "I wasn't charmed by the rejection, but I was charmed by the form the rejection took and put the slip on my bulletin board."

But a couple of years ago, responses changed. "We started getting complaints," says Villani, "some very nasty letters, and one disgruntled writer dashed off a letter to the Ohio Arts Council complaining that a press with such bad taste as ours had no business being funded." So much for humor. Villani wonders now if the community of writers itself is changing, it now seems that "writers want everything straight. Do we have a new type of writer? My pragmatic philosophy of rejection slips today is to play it safe, to be formal and sanitized."

Some editors of little magazines, no matter how heavy the volume of submissions, refuse to send printed notes to authors. Poet Leo Mailman (Maelstrom Review's editor) explains, "I take longer than most to respond because I have a policy of always sending a handwritten note and I generally read every manuscript twice. I also try to make a positive statement of some sort." Kirk Robertson, another poet and editor of Scree, doesn't send form letters either, but "due to time, I use only a brief note—thanks, but no thanks. If there's something that hits or comes close to hitting, I try to talk about that."

The Small Press Is Different

While he never intends to employ printed rejection notices for his own journal, Amelia, Frederick Raborg—also a free-lance writer—understands their use: "I see the need for them at large, slick magazines." But the small press is different. Glenna Luschei (writer and editor of Cafe Solo) explains that despite the abundance of submissions, she still tries to pen a brief personal note to each author because "the whole purpose of the small press movement is to work toward intimacy and the personal touch." Raborg agrees, suggesting that in literary magazines, "using printed slips is merely laziness because it takes only a second to scribble an unsigned 'Sorry' on a blank sheet. It tells the novice and the pro that someone saw, read, didn't buy, but cared."

There is a negative side to penning notes, however, one that every editor surveyed mentioned: even the slightest encouragement may lead to a deluge of submissions. "I got so many poems back after sending notes that I collapsed underneath them, actually ceased publication for awhile," says Glenna Luschei. While Southwest Review tries to reassure writers, editor Betsey McDougall says, "We are wary of being too encouraging, however, because we can't afford to spend much time on projects that clearly are not for us."

Novelist Wayne Ude candidly confirms those editorial fears when he says, "I always feel a printed slip means the piece didn't get very far—that a little fresh ink on the page means it got past first readers, anyway—and a hand-written note means it got to the editor, who'd like to see more from me."

Another aspect of personal comments is brought up by John Milton, who adds that he has found "that an attempt to be helpful, in the form of an observation or two, often brings argument or criticism from the writer." One reason for this is simple misunderstanding: harried editors penning suggestions that are, in turn, read by vulnerable authors who may consider editors insensitive, even arrogant. Some are arrogant; writer Charles Stetler was recipient of a note that advised him to keep writing because, "sooner or later (or never perhaps) youll (sic) come to some conclusion about what poetry can do and what it can't."

Editors' Suggestions Can Be Helpful

On the other hand, I have over the years received from editors a number of sensitive, useful suggestions that have helped me shape flawed material. Poet Rafael Zepeda recalls: "Marvin Malone (editor of Wormwood Review) sent me a rejection slip that was also an invitation to rewrite a poem. He told me to cut down on the number of characters so that I'd get at the poem. He was right and I rewrote it in my own way. He later published it." Yet, writer and editor Bill Tremblay remembers once asking an editor for specific criticism; in response, he was asked a memorable question: "Was I really going to reshape my work according to someone else's notion of publishability?"

Wayne Ude feels that however an editor responds, he or she must be sensitive. "Editors should realize that writers make judgments based on the courtesy, tone, virtually everything a magazine does, including listings and rejections," he says. Frequently an author is interpreting everything, from how long a submission is held to those coveted traces of ink on paper, so even an impersonal printed slip may stimulate a heated response. Tremblay advises writers to attend editorial remarks "as one would a workshop, with an ear for what is useful."

A small but reportedly growing number of writers "reject rejection," firing angry letters to offending editors, and this has prompted a few journals to cease accepting unsolicited material. Other editors, however, collect irate responses in the same spirit that some writers save rejections. Steven Brady, Cache Review's editor, thinks highly of what he calls "a wonderful tongue-lashing" he received from a poet he had three times rejected. It began: "You inconspicuous little chip in fried oil; who do you think you are?" Says Brady, "It's the best writing he ever sent me."

In general, experienced writers accept rejection notes without much fuss, keeping matters firmly in perspective. "They're part of the business, no big deal. I've got better things to do than worry about them," says poet Richard Sale. My own habit is to send brief thank-you notes when I receive what seems to be conscientious criticism from editors, but not to ship a landslide of manuscripts. I don't bother responding to letters I find offensive. Gerald Rosen adds a practical perspective: "All rejections are matters of taste. As long as editors acknowledge that in their notes, fine. But when you get one of those letters saying or implying that your story is bad, you have to wonder about the editor."

The Great American Rejection-Slip Contest

David Holmstrom, a free-lance writer, not long ago conducted what he called the Great American Rejection-Slip Contest, with entries limited to his own incoming missives. The results, which were published in the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle-Examiner, named as grand prize winner an editor "who scribbled the single, unmistakable word 'NO!' on my query letter." Mr. Holmstrom is nothing if not a realist.

Another free lancer, Larry Levinger, has developed a response to rejection letters that is both practical and idealistic: The thing to do is keep sending the stuff out: pay no attention to suggestions for a rewrite, no attention to opinion. Write. Write and send. If it comes back, write something else. And send it again. The main thing is don't change the writing to prevent the rejection. Believe in what you're doing.

Without exception, writers surveyed said they considered letters of rejection entirely subjective. They also admitted that they could understand the editorial dilemma posed by the contemporary explosion in numbers of manuscripts; not everything submitted is competent. But there is no reason to suspect that writers of incompetent material are an more willing to accept criticism or rejection than a others. In fact, just the opposite may be true, complicating the already difficult balance between authors and editors. And no one, not even the most hardened pro, claims to have developed a total immunity to the little stabs of pain rejection can cause.

On the other hand, everyone admits having enjoyed some. David Holmstrom listed a comment from the editor of an airline magazine as among the funniest he has received: "Hey, what do editors know anyway." That's a question many writers ask themselves. My own favorite note spurning a submission contained the following lines: "… I wish Taboo could use it. Unfortunately, Taboo is not as taboo as you might think."

It is important to recognize that there is no sham in receiving rejection letters. For someone who wants to be published there may actually be shame in not receiving some, since that often means a writer is not really trying. Jack London once claimed to have received 400 in a single year, but he hung in there and eventually saw a great deal of his material in print.

Rejection letters are not merely denials. They actually constitute a complicated and delicate form of communication among two diverse, related communities. In general, both editors and writers operate with good faith, and each extends considerable trust to the other, especially when dealing with unsolicited manuscripts. Just as editors need writers to provide acceptable material, so writers depend upon editors to offer sensitive responses to submissions. That writers and editors do not always see eye-to-eye on manuscripts in no way diminishes the importance of their communion.

Rejection Slips: A Balm for Writers and as Certain as Death
originally appeared in Coda, June/July 1986