How to Deal With Rejection

Written by Emily Harstone | February 25, 2016

“Every rejection is incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work.”

– James Lee Burke

For the past five years I have had an average of 25 poems published per year. That means that I have received a fair number of acceptances.  For every acceptance I receive 20 rejections, at least.

I no longer take rejections personally, in fact I no longer take them seriously. Just because a poem has been rejected by 20 places does not mean it is a good poem, it just means that those 20 journals were not the right place for it.

Below is my advice for how to handle rejection letters. Some of this advice might be applicable to you, some of it might not. But hopefully this article will help encourage you to submit more. Because your work cannot be published unless you submit it.

Most work is rejected. I submit to literary journals primarily, although I have been known to submit to manuscript publishers as well. Most of the places I submit to accept less than 5% of the work that is submitted to them.  How do I know? Because I have a duotrope subscription.

But even if I didn’t have a Duotrope subscription I have been on the other side of the publishing table. I have been the co-editor of a literary journal where we rejected over 1000 poems and published only 10.

Were those 10 poems the best poems? I don’t know, because after you read 1000 poems, even over a month, it is hard to distinguish between them. Which leads me to the next point.

Sometimes work can be rejected for arbitrary reasons. I tried to be very thoughtful when reading, rejecting, and accepting work. However I was not the only editor reading all the work. There were also readers working with us. No one made the decision on their own. The co-editor and I had to agree on work before publishing.

With larger academic journals even more people’s opinions can factor into what is published and what is not. So your poem can connect with more than one of the editors and still not be published.

Sometimes there is a larger agenda. The judges of contests sometimes select friends or former students. Many journals might have an ideal author, in terms of age or race, so it could not even have anything to do with what you have actually written.

Fit is very important. Most literary journals officially, or otherwise, have preferences in terms of what they publish. If you regularly read a journal it is easy to spot this. Your work can really be good, and still not be a good fit for that particular journal. Even if it is a good fit, another factor can come into play – that they have recently published a similar piece by another author.

I received a personal rejection letter from a manuscript publisher that is very prestigious. They told me that they rejected my work reluctantly, because while they published similar prose they had not published poetry of that kind previously.

If an editor can only publish a few books of a particular kind per year, they have to make a lot of hard decisions. Because of that you cannot take it personally.

If you have the opportunity to be on the other side of the table as an editor or a publisher I highly suggest it, because it will teach you how arbitrary and overwhelming it all is.

What also helps is submitting your work widely. The more rejections I receive the less they matter.

Always remember that there are a lot of other submissions. Knowing approximately how many people are accepted are rejected by a journal is helpful. If you are rejected by The New Yorker you can’t take it personally if you know that they accept less than 0.1% of the thousands of submissions they receive.

If you are accepted by Eskimo Pie, you can’t get too excited as they accept a little under a hundred percent of they accept. Although most other journals are somewhere between these two extremes.

Having a duotrope account can help you know more about this, but you can also learn a lot by talking to other people who are submitting their work and by analyzing the publishers website themselves.

If you are more focused on submitting manuscripts, forums like Absolute Writes can be helpful.

When ever I have moments of doubt in terms of manuscripts submissions, I just re-read the following Barbra Kingsolver quote.

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”

Remember rejections are a sign that you are on your way to publishing. If you are not receiving any rejections, it is probably because you have not submitted your work anywhere, or anywhere challenging.