Seven Reasons for Rejection
January 13, 2022 § 18 Comments
For editors, rejection is often a gut-level process: they’ve edited this journal for 5, 10, 15 years; they know instinctively if a piece doesn’t fit. For writers, rejection sucks. No matter how much we know that rejection is not feedback, we take it to heart. Question our worth. Wonder if we’ll ever write anything publishable. Rejection’s sting is the price we pay for the occasional, glorious feeling of acceptance—that we can’t predict or control.
But we can control our work. Often, a piece that’s been rejected multiple times has an identifiable problem. Take a look at your orphan essay, book or pitch. One of these issues might apply:
You’re submitting to the wrong outlet. The lowest bar to clear. Editor after editor has told me that half—half!—of what they receive is “wrong.” Not necessarily poorly written, but sent to the wrong place. A sweet personal essay sent to bitterly satirical McSweeney’s. A pitch about wolverine conservation sent to Glamour. Here at Brevity, we receive many submissions over 750 words, some of them thousands of words over. Double-check the guidelines and know the venue.
You’re submitting far above your skill level. Does our writing belong in the publication we admire? It’s hard to judge our own work, so judge theirs. Ideally, you’re already reading that press’s books, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Take a look at your own recent work. Are you actively or instinctively using those same (or similar) tools? This can be a sign you’re reaching for the right level.
The piece starts too early. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter situate the reader clearly in the story? Or is it backstory, set-up, or explanation? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph. For a book, cut the first 50 pages—then figure out what needs to be added back.
The piece ends too late. About half the essays I edit can cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper “button” to feel satisfyingly finished. Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have worked on that element of our craft.
Does your piece end with a summary, explanation, justification or excuse? Summarizing and explaining tell the reader, I’d better spell it out in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.
Instead, use the last line to usher the reader into a larger image, gently enfold them in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. More on endings here.
There’s too much filtering language.
I looked at James as he stomped over.
I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.
I heard him shout my name.
“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”
James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”
Removing filtering puts the reader more in the emotion of the scene. They can feel for us, instead of being told what we felt. Editing out most filtering language will immediately improve your work and increase your chances of acceptance.
Not making the abstract concrete. Often, our work deals with higher-level concepts, and it should! But are you embodying those concepts in concrete situations or action? If you grew up in poverty, are you telling how crappy that felt, how the other kids weren’t kind…or making “poverty” visible?
We bought mac and cheese from the dollar store and made it with water instead of milk.
Read your work. Can you make abstract concepts concrete?
No space for the reader. Explaining, filtering, excess set-up and wrap-up are all the same problem: we’re worried our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense? But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Make the reader a detective. Let them put clues together, notice dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guess a character’s thoughts from their gestures. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—meet them on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.
Seeing what’s wrong in our own work is hard. Be methodical in your later drafts. Identify what great writers are doing and try those techniques. Make checklists of specific elements to fix, change, and write better next time. Rejection’s hard, but it’s not forever—and the more we work to anticipate and fix problems in our writing before submission, the more likely we’ll be able to send our words into the world.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tired of rejection? Join her and Creative Nonfiction magazine for What’s Wrong with this Work? Turning Rejections into Publications January 19th (yes there’s a recording). Register here.