Rejection Is (Still) Not Feedback

April 18, 2023 § 12 Comments

By Allison K Williams

Five years ago, I wrote about rejection:

Rejection is not feedback.

Rejection is not feedback.

No really. Rejection. Is not. Feedback.

As writers submitting our work, we often get mad at ourselves and the process when our work is rejected. It’s easy to feel they thought my work was terrible, or I’m a bad writer, or I’ll never be any good.

None of those things can be determined from any single rejection.

The process of reading work for publication is not the process of reading to give feedback. When journal editors read, yes, they are evaluating the overall quality of the work. But they’re also asking, Does this fit our mission? Do I personally like it? Did we already accept something similar last week? They are assessing where the work fits in the overall structure of the magazine and its mission. A piece that isn’t the right fit must be let go, regardless of how good it is.

Our job as writers is to display our work to its best advantage, with skilled craft and professional format on the page. To enlist friends and fellow writers and teachers and mentors to give us constructive criticism, and to incorporate the notes that help us write the best essay or story or book we can. To do many drafts until we truly feel a piece is ready to send out. And that’s where our control stops. Like owning a clothing store, we can’t make the customer want our particular sweater–we can only be ready with an excellent sweater when they walk in, or a rack of options we’ve prepared to appeal to a selection of shoppers. We must focus on knowing our buyers, reading their journals, finding out about their taste and style and mission and what else they recently bought–not agonizing about why one person didn’t want one thing.

*

Last year, I wrote about rejection:

Author after author asks on Twitter, in writing groups and workshops—why can’t they just say what’s wrong? Make a checkbox or a copy-paste? At least tell me, is it the writing or the story or what? It would take thirty seconds!

[Editors and Agents] don’t actually know what’s wrong with your book. They only know where they lost interest in the first pages. Maybe they don’t want to spend time with the hero. But if that problem gets solved on page 50, then “Your hero is unlikeable” could send an author into a long and fruitless revision, when the feedback they really needed was “Cut pages 1–49.”

*

What I wrote is still true. But what’s even truer is that very often, an essay rejection isn’t based on your actual quality of writing. Reading hundreds of essays sent in for workshops, working with clients, I’ve noticed key elements that are self-sabotaging many essays. None of them is bad writing. Every one of them can be fixed.

Watch for:

  • Topics that aren’t new, or lack cultural relevance. If your work engages with an issue or topic that’s a hot conversation now (yes, even literary essays!), you’re more likely to catch an editor’s eye. This doesn’t mean you have to write about the latest hashtag. But part of what made The Crane Wife go viral was that women’s sense of doing all the emotional labor within relationships had become a larger conversation.
  • An essay that’s a remembrance or a eulogy. Writing to honor your dead is a beautiful and important practice. It may not result in publishable work. Share it with your family, with the deceased’s other loved ones, on your blog or newsletter. But the dead lack meaning to those who didn’t know them. Your larger emotional context is rarely visible to the reader.
  • Openings that give away the ending, or heavily foreshadow. Once you’ve told the reader what it’s all about with something like, “I had no idea this would be the worst day of my life,” they lean back. They stop engaging and start skimming, because they feel like they know what’s coming. Instead, start with a situation, mood or action that’s the opposite of the ending, or at least very different, so the essay takes the reader through change.
  • Endings that wrap up with a tidy little bow or an explained moral. For literary work, allow the reader to deduce their own meaning from the cumulative effect of the essay without telling them what you meant. End with an image, or a thought that suggests expansion of the primary idea. For commercial work, your essay needs a tidy little bow–but it’s still not “and that’s what I learned from this whole experience.”

Submitting work often feels like dropping our words into a black hole. But editors often discuss on social media what they’re seeking. Reading the magazine you want to appear in is research, too. Rejection isn’t feedback–but as your skill and ease with writing develop, you’ll be able to give yourself the feedback you need.

__________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts. Want to find out more about why your work is being rejected (and what to do about it!) Join her for the CRAFT TALKS webinar, Moving From Rejection to Publication April 26th at 2PM Eastern time (registrants also get the replay).

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§ 12 Responses to Rejection Is (Still) Not Feedback

  • mainecacho says:

    Couldn’t have come on a better day! Thanks.

  • Thank you, Allison, for this reminder. Rejection is not feedback, except rarely when it actually includes feedback. And usually not then.

    [As I revised and revised and kept sending out work, the personal, encouraging, and very occasionally more useful rejections came from the better-known journals.]

    And I will note that only Toni Morrison could give away her entire story on the first page—something she did over and over. Endings too: “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly…” (206). Go reread her novels to understand how she could get away with something the rest of us never will.

  • rose2852 says:

    I woke up to a form rejection addressed to “dear writer.” Then I read your post. Thank you.

  • stacyeholden says:

    Rejection is hard to process, no doubt, and I appreciate the reminder that it isn’t really personal.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      It still hurts even after years, but it no longer stops me from moving forward. Some comfort, I guess?

  • Love it! I don’t have a great number of submissions, but so far, when I get a rejection, I end up being really happy that I did. Something about hitting send and waiting six months helps me to see that it just wasn’t ready. I was just done with it at that moment in time.

  • youngv2015 says:

    So true! And a good reminder.

  • […] Before I got down to work yesterday, I was reading blog posts on the nonfiction blog for the journal Brevity. One on rejection really stood out – Rejection is (Still) Not Feedback. […]

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