No, Thank You. No Really, Thank You.

May 29, 2015 § 19 Comments


Really? You thought that was right for us?

Some days the submission process is a joyful flutter of anticipation–but let’s face it, it’s mostly a grind. And not just for the authors. Before I started regularly weeding through piles of incoming writing, I had a very specific image in my head:

An overworked intern staggers through a door, arms piled high with envelopes. She chucks her armload at the base of an enormous pile of manuscripts, some half-out of their envelopes, others with footprints and pizza stains. Squatting atop the pile is Jabba the Hutt, wearing an old-fashioned editor’s eyeshade and typing on a MacBook Air. He speaks: “Well, Emily, another delivery of hopeless crap? Why do you add them to my Pile of Sadness? Why not just cast them directly into the Pit of Rejection, where they will burn in wretchedness for eternity! BWA HA HA HA HA.”

Sometimes in my nightmare there’s a dart board, on which the choicest bits of literary failure are impaled, a group of hipsters mocking each submission as they keep score.

But now that I’ve seen the other side of the process, nothing is farther from the truth. Most of the time, most magazines read every single submission. Most of the time, most editors open the email with a sense of anticipation, wanting the writing to be not just good but amazing, something they’ll be proud to publish, be thrilled the writer thought to send it. It’s true: Editors want you to be good. They want to open the first thirty emails and say, “Well, that’s it, we’ve filled the next issue! Let’s go get gluten-free pizza.”

And when a submission’s not right for the magazine–whether it’s a near miss or a total misfire–there is very little gleeful cackling. An editor is more likely to sigh and say, “I wish I could talk to them about what’s working in this piece and deserves more space,” or, “I wish it was my place to tell them to rewrite this in past tense, third person,” or even “I wish I had time to make a list of magazines this piece would be perfect for.” But there is so rarely enough time. The editor has fifty more essays to read that day, before grading the papers they really meant to do over the weekend except the dog was sick and the sitter cancelled.

Sometimes an editor makes time. Over at The Review Review, Emily Lackey has written a lovely post about the best rejections she’s gotten. The ones that show, somebody read this, somebody thinks it’s close. The type of rejection that sends an author back to the typewriter instead of out to the bar. Emily writes:

…there are journals out there that understand the difference it can make in a writer’s life to receive a rejection that is a little more thoughtfully worded and that encourages us to try again.

So, for the sake of making this process as bearable as possible, here is a list of journals that I have found to be the most consistently considerate. While it is nowhere near an exhaustive list (one can only be rejected by so many journals in one’s lifetime) these journals in particular have reminded me in their generous rejections of the incredible community I am participating in. And, more importantly, they have reminded me how fortunate I am to have something to share.

Check out Emily’s list of The Top Five Mags With the Kindest Rejection Letters over at The Review Review. And then send out another submission. Who knows? Maybe this is the day you’ll be encouraged. Or even better, accepted.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her five most recent rejections came from The Nub/Broken Pencil, Rappahannock Review, The Toast, McSweeneys, and a porn anthology.

§ 19 Responses to No, Thank You. No Really, Thank You.

  • Thanks for the insight into the ‘other’ side.

  • Jill Schmehl says:

    Jabba the Hut! Yes, that is exactly what my own ‘image of rejection’ was missing! Love it.

  • Jeff says:

    Are you being paid to read these? I used to love reading, marking and feeding back on undergrad submissions. I’m currently reading through someone’s blog to select and order the text for publication. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand where ‘grind’ comes into it. Editorial work is a privilege.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Of course she isn’t being paid, or isn’t being paid what she’s worth. It’s fun for a while, and always some sort of privilege. When you receives dozens of submissions day after day, not so much fun. I have read others’ work for 25 years and frequently edit for friends. I’ve done this for many years. Sometimes it’s exciting and wonderful. Sometimes it’s just work and my eyes burn and I struggle to be tactful about errors I make all the time myself.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Most literary magazines have an unpaid staff supervised by one or two professors who have editing as one of their professorial duties. Non-institutional magazines are very often a labor of love. (Guernica, a prominent and well-regarded magazine, just acquired their first paid staffer this year.)

      I adore reading submissions (and sidenote for context, I’m not on the Brevity panel that does that). But when I’ve read 200 of them, every week for months, it does become a grind. No matter how much one loves a job or avocation, it can get tiring to do it many times with no end in sight. The part that is most tiring is reading ‘almost-there’ work and not having the time to give a thorough, respectful, helpful response.

      As a freelance editor, I do get paid to give those responses, and responding thoroughly to a short story or essay takes about an hour for every five pages. It’s not just reading and going “this is what’s wrong, fix it” – it’s phrasing carefully so that the author feels respected, encouraged and challenged rather than put-down and criticized, and finding specific places in the text that support the comments and illustrate what to do next. Even if 10% of a week’s submissions were ‘close’ and I spent half that time responding less thoroughly, that’s still 10 hours a week on top of reading the other 90%, working with the accepted authors, laying out the magazine or website, blogging, and fundraising. And we’re not even at teaching/working the job that pays the bills yet, or generating any creative work oneself.

      It is indeed a privilege to edit, one that I take too seriously to do poorly. I’d rather send a form reject than a half-assed commentary that could do more harm than good.

      • Jeff says:

        I’m not at all surprised that it’s a lot of work, that the people who do it are committed, or that they respect the authors who submit it to the extent of providing detailed and tactful feedback whenever possible. What surprises me is that the experience could be termed as a ‘grind’. Assuming we’re talking here about mind-numbing monotony, exhaustion, and all for scant reward or any sense of an end in sight, then, for me at least, the kind of activities that come to mind include working on tills in retail, filling dustcarts, and answering phones in call centres. I can accept that a lot of prolonged reading is tiring. It can induce a degree of nausea, headaches, shaking hands and brain-clog. However, I think a reasonable difference between this and work that involves grind is that people doing the latter are usually doing it either by accident or because their options in life are limited. I’ve never heard of anyone working for a magazine so they can free up time to pursue their interests in serving customers at a supermarket.
        Please accept that I don’t doubt the sincerity and fortitude of yourself or any of your colleagues in what you do. I think it’s brilliant that you take the trouble to encourage writers and give balance in how their submissions are treated. I’m sure it makes more difference to them above and beyond improving those submissions. It wouldn’t surprise me if editorial generosity is more the exception than the rule. An extra mile is all the more admirable when it’s for others, especially when they’re unknown.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    My favorite rejections were simple. My most aggravating was a rejection of a story about a 4 year old boy. The reader told me the voice was too mature for the character. Yes, that’s why the story is told in omniscient POV. sigh. To be fair, the reader was clearly a well-intentioned young person, someone trying to be helpful, and probably an undergrad who didn’t have her million words yet. The story found a home elsewhere.

  • So very true, so thank you, no really, Thank You, for the fresh reminder about the people who toil in service to the word. I myself have received some high quality rejection letters. 🙂

  • I once had an online literary magazine and I would read every submission. The ones I rejected I tried to give a good critique. It was surprising to me how often writers would respond saying that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that other magazines would have been very happy to have their work, that I was a hack and how dare I criticize their work. So, I try to keep that in mind when I submit to places now. We tend to forget that on the other side of the fence, which ever side that is, there are real people doing the best they can.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      So true! Even the venerable Modern Love editor recently commented that he gets people emailing back to argue about their rejection!

  • Jen Falkner says:

    I find so many of the same problems coming up in submissions, most of them to do with pretty basic grammar and punctuation, that I’ve grown tired of making the same critiques in rejection letters. That’s what can make it a grind. But finding the diamonds among all the chaff, that really makes my day.

    • Allison K Williams says:


    • ryderziebarth says:

      I suggest to every writer to find a good, inexpensive copy editor, even a college newspaper editor looking to make some cash. I stink at punctuation and I am dyslexic to boot, so I don’t even “see” my mistakes. I send NOTHING out without my pal, Brooke raking it over the coals.That being said, I just wrote up an interviewI had with Blake Bailey for his new book “The Splendid Things We Planned,” and called it (twice) “ALL The Splendid Things We Planned “( Brooke has not read the book.) We are human, I guess.

  • elackey says:

    This is better than even the best rejection. Thank you, Allison!

  • I could really relate to this post. As an editor, I have always read every submission thinking, “this could be the one’…, and often it’s not as if it couldn’t be the one if the writer had studied the publication, it’s style and focus and perhaps just spent a little more time crafting the submission itself. Yes, rejections are disappointing to the writer, but they’re disappointing for the editor too.

  • ryderziebarth says:

    The Rappaponock review wrote me the kindest personal letter about a lengthy submission that they “Loved. And did I think I could rework A, B and C You are SO close and with these changes, we would love to have it.”
    I reworked it. With two authors at grad school I resent it with a cover letter saying , here it is, reworked as suggested. I got a form rejection letter back. The process sucks

  • […] of dreams. Allison K. Williams describes it pretty much the way I always imagined in a post on BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog: “Sometimes in my nightmare there’s a dart board, on which the choicest bits of literary […]

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