Giving Up on Giving Up

July 20, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Kirsten Voris

Photo by Bill Hatcher

Five rejections in two months. I should be congratulating myself. It’s simple math—submitting more = more rejection.

I still find the stream of “nos” dispiriting. And draining. I was at the bottom of the drain, and calling a summer submissions break, when I attended How to Publish Your Writing in Literary Journals. The editors of Radar Poetry, Rachel Moles and Dara Shrager, appeared as part of a free monthly Zoom series on writing and publishing, offered through Authors Publish Magazine. (Which, by the way, is a great resource for fee-free submission calls.)

I was looking for surefire acceptance tips. What I heard was more math. The “pandemic effect” meant submissions to Radar Poetry’s 2020 summer contest were up by 50 percent from 2019. Increase in competition = higher bar = more rejection. I felt a touch less dejected.

Then Rachel and Dara shared the news that there are different kinds of rejection. That rejection is nuanced. Sometimes, they said, rejection is an invitation to try again, with a different piece of writing.

I’d imagined rejection emails were boilerplate assigned at random each time the editor pressed their big, red “no” button. Some are short, some have two paragraphs. Some describe the sheer volume of spectacular essays cascading through the submissions window. Some wish me luck, elsewhere. All of them amount to the same thing. Or so I thought.

Not so. Rejection, it turns out, is tiered. The difference between a standard rejection and a tiered rejection is encouragement.

A tiered rejection may not refer to the name of your piece. But if the editors have read your work with interest, enjoyed your writing, and/or encouraged you to submit again, this is good news.

Google “tiered rejection” and you’ll find increasingly granular breakdowns. Here, I offer a simple, three-tiered cake:

Top-tier rejections come with suggestions for improvement, praise of particular elements, encouragement to resubmit.

The middle tier includes the invitation to resubmit, perhaps praise for your story, and regret that it’s not the right thing for right now.

Standard rejections are a brief statement of polite regret, scrubbed free of reassurance or praise. And, like the foundational, bottom tier of the wedding cake, most of us get a slice of this.

Rejection is part of writing for publication. Sadly, my usual reaction doesn’t reflect this understanding.

I internalize rejection as an erasure—of my person, my sensibility, my ability to string words together. I cop an ungracious attitude. Get resentful and act like a baby– in front of my cat. This has nothing to do with journals or editors and everything to do with the climate of my upbringing. Thankfully, amassing rejections has made it easier for me to see this pattern. Which means I can change it—at my leisure.

Here is where I admit that I haven’t actually read my rejections. I skim. Absorb the sting and try to forget. Which cuts me off quite neatly from actionable information. What would happen if I went through my Submittable queue? Dug out the most demoralizing rejections and read them? What, I wondered, is actually in there?

The contest rejection that felt so cold? “Judges change every year, we hope you’ll consider submitting again…”

The third rejection of a piece I love? “You’re a good writer and this is a difficult task…”

Armored in a new mindset, I began to see the difference between “Unfortunately this is not a fit” and “We read your submission with great interest.” I begin warming to my oft-declined pieces, because maybe they weren’t so terrible. Maybe it is the math.

Even better, I found myself interacting with my rejections. Responding, instead of reacting. And one potential response to a tiered rejection is to resubmit.

When you resubmit, choose a new piece; then help the editors remember how much they liked you. Duplicate the language of the tiered rejection, and reference the previously submitted work in your cover letter.

For example if the rejection said, “We read your work with interest and hope you’ll consider sending us another piece,” you could write “Last year you read Y with interest and said you hoped I’d consider sending another piece.”

Some standard rejections always invite resubmission. If you’re not sure where your rejection falls, head over to Rejection Wiki, where you can search for sample rejections by journal, to determine whether yours is standard or special.

Radar Poetry’s Dara and Rachel wanted us to know that the editor who sends a tiered rejection is overwhelmed with submissions. They have day jobs, their own writing projects, small children. Despite this, they took time that they didn’t necessarily have to send you a personal message of hope. Because they think you have promise.

The fact of tiered rejection blew open my all-or-nothing thinking.  Knowing the nuances is compelling me to read my email. To give up on giving up. Rejection, like everything else, is complicated. In fact, it may actually be a little cheer for you and your beautiful writing.

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

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§ 11 Responses to Giving Up on Giving Up

  • kperrymn says:

    Thanks for this, Kristen. Helpful and hopeful!

  • Eilene Lyon says:

    Thanks for the great advice and links. I, too, tend to react, rather than reflect and respond – but I’m learning, too!

  • I always took rejections seriously until I began reading suibmissions for a well known journal . For one call the journal received more than 1500 submissions, many by writers with impressive awards and publications. Two readers read every submission. The finalists, and there are already many, go to the main editors. They will choose a very small number for publication. The submissions are often on the same two or three subjects. Many are longer than they need to be , and are not structured for maximum clout with the real meaning arrived at by the end signaled at the start. I.e they are not really finished.A number of writers have not read the journal, or so it appears.( No one can read all of them) Some haven’t proofread the work. Some submit pieces that would be great for a different publication. Sometimes they just don’t appeal to me, sorry. Ive learned a lot about my own writing by reading for this journal. Meanwhile, put your work aside before you fire it off again, then read it aloud before you resend. And if there is a publication you really want to get into, for heaven’s sake, subscribe.

    • Kirsten says:

      Thank you for the great reminders, Vicki. The increase in competition makes it even more critical to send out things that are finished to journals you’re choosing intentionally because your writing is a good fit. If only I had known this years ago. I would have saved readers, such as yourself, a lot of time! I’m looking forward to your guest blog about…reading for journals! Should you choose to write that.

  • judyreeveswriter says:

    This is such good information for those who are all-or-nothing-ists. One way I stopped taking it so personally was, instead of using the word “rejection,” in my self-talk, I started saying: “took a pass” or “chose not to accept.” A small thing, but then, when it comes to self-criticism, I’m pretty small-minded. Thanks for this post.

    • Kirsten says:

      I love this idea, Judy. I don’t think its small at all. Language is powerful, especially the kind that never leaves my head. I will experiment with this idea. This is actually wording that I’ve read in “rejections” –we’re passing on this piece.

      Maybe it’s the writers, feeling terrible about themselves, who have chosen to name this thing, rejection.

      Happy writing!

  • Exactly what I needed to read! Thank you, Kirsten 🙂

  • youngv2015 says:

    I just want you to know that I still reread your post on the topic of rejection and that I learned a lot from it. I went back and looked at my old rejections and realized some were soft rejections. I keep submitting, learning more about my craft, and resubmitting. In the past few months, I’ve received some very encouraging rejections. I recently received a rejection with some encouraging words and a couple of suggestions for improving an essay. Shortly after that I read an article that dealt with the same topic for improvement the editors had suggested. I sat down with my essay and made some small revisions. I believe I now have a better essay to send out.

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