Why Your Essay Got Rejected
February 24, 2022 § 30 Comments
Last month I responded to 113 essays and book beginnings. A fraction of what a literary magazine might see in submissions; a lot for me to comment on. Nobody got a form rejection, because the pages were for a webinar—What’s Wrong with this Work: Turning Rejections into Publications—and the learning was the point. The authors listed their previous rejections from literary magazines, mass media, websites and agents, as many as 35 rejections for a single essay.
I hadn’t expected so many submissions. About 50 had arrived, and I’d been on a roll, picking pieces to edit live while screen-sharing during the webinar, and thought “Sure, I can do one comment on everyone!” Then the coordinator sent a reminder email. I wasn’t publicly committed to 113 responses—officially, I needed 2-5 volunteers—but I’m glad I plowed through them all, because I needed to know this and so do you:
It’s probably not your writing.
By “your writing” I mean sentence-level prose. The ability to frame a paragraph, write a rounded character, show setting and imply backstory. Almost every essay was well-written, from competently to marvelously. I only told two writers: “Consider working with a writing group or taking a class to improve your craft—your story is bigger than your ability to tell it right now.”
So why were they getting rejected? For that matter, why are you? And what can you do about it?
Many well-written pieces made a good point but didn’t say anything new. Writing about the pandemic, cancer, addiction, aging parents or cultural racism? Your angle must be something we haven’t heard many times before—and/or your writing must be incredibly moving or incredibly funny. The world doesn’t want another “sorry about being a white lady” piece. Sorry.
For memoirs, most opening pages lacked cultural relevance. How does your story intersect with the larger world now? What makes your book more than a family album?
Fix this: Read widely in the publication you want to be in and in your genre. What’s already being talked about? How can you add to the conversation? Make your fresh angle or new insights clear from the first page.
Many essays with strong concepts lacked a dramatic arc. The stakes weren’t clear. A series of observations showed another person’s character, or the narrator retold past events without a clear choice in the present. “Slice of life” pieces portrayed a particular family or group, but read as charming collections of characters rather than a personal journey for anyone.
Fix this: Ask of your essay, “What’s my state at the beginning? What’s my state at the end? What made me change and where in the essay does that moment of realization happen?” If you can’t put your finger on a sentence showing change, you don’t have a story.
Style of Writing/Where It Was Submitted
Literary essays had been rejected by mass media. Essays with the style and tone of mass media had been rejected from literary magazines. I could see why the authors were confused—they had strong writing and great stories! But they were trying to wear a ballgown to change the oil. Great dress, wrong place.
Fix this: Pick three recent pieces from your chosen publication. Analyze paragraph by paragraph. Where is the premise established? What’s an active scene and what’s imagery or reflection? Does the writer give advice, tell personal anecdotes, reference needed cultural change? That’s mass media. Crying at the end but you’re not sure why? Literary all the way. Now analyze your own work: do you see similar components to the published pieces?
When too many names, places or events show up in the first few paragraphs, the reader gets confused before they get oriented. They’re trying to track who or what will be important, and they don’t yet have the background to care about anyone.
Fix this: Count the nouns. Seriously. People, places, things. How many concrete things are in your opening? If there are more than three proper nouns, three objects or one location, make sure you have a specific reason to put them there…and that it’s working.
Opening with Death
I’ve seen many memoirs open with a loved one’s death, then flashback to fill in the story. But we don’t know why the person you’re mourning matters! You’re asking the reader to attend a stranger’s funeral and fully empathize with the chief mourner.
Fix this: The death was a big event…but this is still your story. Where does your journey begin? Start there.
Not many magazines take essays over 5000 words, and not many readers want to soldier through one. Most mass media essays are 900-2000 words, with the sweet spot around 1500. Most literary magazines take work up to about 25 double-spaced pages. Over 5000 words is long for personal essay that’s not deeply researched or culturally situated, and you’ll probably need previous publication credits in big-name, similar journals, or even a shorter piece in the same magazine.
Fix this: If your story’s big, make a choice: either tell sections of it in a couple of shorter essays; or write the whole book.
Rejection is often not “bad writing.” Often, the submission is a mismatch with the venue, the opening is muddy or the overall point isn’t clear, or someone’s narrating their family album. You can fix this. Why not pick your favorite piece without a home, and fix it now?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want to fix your essay(s) in Costa Rica? Find out more at Rebirth Your Book.
These points are all pertinent to (my) short form fiction. I will print it out and stick it on my bookshelf as a constant reminder.
So glad it’s useful!
Thanks for sharing!!
[…] Why Your Essay Got Rejected […]
Thank you for this, and I just received your Seven Drafts book. Look forward to it!
Thank you for getting the book! (psst – review it on Amazon if you get a chance?)
Hello – kindred spirits!!
As usual, your advice is clear and on target. You are a gift to writers.
So pleased you like it 🙂
I attended this class and came out of the wash with a mother lode of information. It was great to go back for another spin with this timeless piece. Thank you for your time and energy, it’s a real booster to the writing community.
You are so very welcome!
The A-to Z of rejection with specific examples to answer why. this belongs in every writer’s toolbox. Thx for sharing this.
You’re so welcome!
Thank you for the good info here. My story is too long to be an essay or even a series of essays, mainly because I don’t want to chop it up and leave readers hanging in between. I believe my message is strong enough to be one book and will hold to that belief through the hand-wringing process of writing my memoir. For a bit I toyed with the thought of breaking up the memoir into a series of 2 or 3 books, but soon learned through some advice that since I’m not a Kardashian that strategy might not pan out well! : )
Patti, focusing on one part of your journey and sticking with that message is such a smart choice!
I especially loved your comments on openings. I start to read a piece only to find I don’t know or even care to know about the who and what (or many whos and whats). Give me a reason to care in the opening.
That is such a perfect way to think of it!
The phrase “this story is bigger than your ability to tell it right now” — so perfect. I am going to borrow it for my students who are often in that position. As for the rest of this . . . I am going to read this every time I get a “no” and tell myself “it’s not me, it’s not me…”! Great essay
Borrow away! And I was honestly astonished at how many pieces were so well-written and just not aimed or focused in the right direction.
Totally love this. Such excellent advice, especially about openings.
This is great! So helpful for me as a writer and teacher. Thank you for being so organized with your suggestions. I’m going to share this with my zoom classes not my college students. They are a different audience.
Ellies play is so good. The first night it was good – the second nigjt it was awesome. She’s getting good reviews and a lot of positive feedback. I’m going back to my tomorrow to see it one more time.
If you want to watch it remotely let Ellie or me know.
[…] “Why Your Essay Got Rejected”—more sage thoughts from Allison K. Williams. […]
SO much good advice! I’m printing it out for my own use and sending the link to my writing friends. You’re a gift to aspiring writers—thank you!
Thanks for this good advice!
hi Allison, that was a big personal commitment on your part – not the reading of over 100 essays (maybe loosely akin to sympathetically scanning article submissions in a tech publication – and then realising that no one’s going to write what you’re looking for) – but your willingness to let all that material go through your brain – and then your generosity to feed back constructive views. Sounds like the ideal English teacher some of us were lucky to have back in the day when we and our written submissions were a lot shorter. I admire and commend your efforts – and if you gained any insights from that investment of your time – you earned them.
[…] We all get our essays returned to us, so here’s a handy guide to Why Your Essay Got Rejected over at BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]
Been struggling with my writing confidence. I’m an experienced broadcast journalist finding transition to print/digital v.challenging. It was so helpful to read your practical advice. Many thanks.
So helpful. I will print this article and place it in front of my work table. I read your book Seven Drafts, slowly because it is not easy to read (for a French speaker). But I find your advice so rich and valuable.
Wow! This is one of the most informative and helpful articles I’ve read. I’ll be consulting it regularly from now on. Thank you.
[…] Why Your Essay Got Rejected. “So why were they getting rejected? For that matter, why are you? And what can you do about […]