28 May 2020
It can feel like a really harsh blow when the writing you’ve worked so hard on gets turned down. Here are our top tips on moving forward when writing gets rejected.
1. Acknowledge how you feel
Firstly, remind yourself that it’s OK to feel sad, disappointed, flat, dejected and hurt. We invest a great deal of ourselves in our writing. It’s a vehicle for our hopes, dreams and ambitions. We’ve spent time, love and care in creating something. There can’t be a writer in the world who hasn’t felt a flutter of hope when they press send on a submission email, and then experienced a pang of sorrow when it misses the mark with that particular editor or competition. It’s hard not to take it personally, because even if we’ve written it for a market, our writing is personal. Each piece we send out is unique, original, and could only have been produced by us.
2. Move beyond the personal
But, once you’ve acknowledged the hurt and disappointment and mourned the chance that has been missed, it’s time to take stock, and move on. Be realistic about the reasons the work may have been rejected. The work is personal to you, but the rejection isn’t personal – it’s not aimed at you as an individual, or as a writer. Perhaps there were 900 submissions for a poetry journal that is looking for 20 pieces. Maybe the competition you crafted a story for attracted 500 entries. The magazine you hoped to place an article in may have recently covered something in the same vein, or had a similar idea pitched by one of its regular writers, or had its freelance budget cut. The agent you sent your thriller manuscript to may now be looking for domestic dramas. There are so many variables. None of them are to do with you as a person and not all of them are to do with the quality of your writing.
3. Think like an editor
However, there was never a piece of writing that wasn’t improved by being looked at by a very critical editor’s eye. So having licked your wounds, turn on your editing brain. Return to the piece that got turned down, and go over it again, thinking not just ‘could I improve it?’ but ‘how could I improve it?’ Tip – this is almost certainly by taking words out, not putting more of them in. Clean up any typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that you may have overlooked when you sent it out – it’s amazing what can get missed even when a piece has had several drafts. But much more importantly, make sure the word choices in your piece are immaculate, your sentences honed, your thought process clear and engaging, and that the writing possesses a spark of originality that will make editors take notice.
4. Keep writing, keep submitting
Don’t pin all your hopes on one piece of writing. Have something else on the go. Have lots of things on the go. The more writing you send out, and the more places you send it to, the more chances you're giving yourself that something will stick. It will also get you used to the submission process – the whole thing is easier to deal with if you treat it like sending out job applications. You don’t expect to get interviewed for every application you send out and it’s the same with writing submissions.
Read this piece by Oneword editor Jenny Parrot for advice on how to put together a submission package
5. There is community in rejection
Pretty much ever writer, no matter how brilliant, gets work rejected at some point. It's part of being a writer. Welcome to the club.
6. Is there something you can learn from this rejection?
If this is your first rejection, regard it as necessary baptism of fire – an unpleasant but inescapable initiation into the realities of the life of a writer. If you’re a more experienced writer, it can be a useful reality check – perhaps a reminder to stay on top of your game, or a signal to check in with yourself and ask yourself important questions about what you want to write and what you hope to achieve with it. If you’ve had a string of wins or acceptances and then find it impossible to place a piece of writing, you might be at the stage where you’re coasting and you’ve got complacent about your work – do you need to up your game?
7. Don't spoil a beautiful relationship
Are you going to let this rejection spoil something that you love – writing? Regard it as a test of your relationship with your writing. Everything was going well and then you had a setback. The most healthy way to deal with it is to put it behind you and move forward. As with any relationship, there may be obstacles ahead with your writing, but if it really is valuable to you, it’s well worth developing strategies to help you through the bad points. While it’s understandable to feel sad that your writing has been turned down, bearing a grudge and fulminating over this rejection will have the same effect as in any other relationship – you will be the one that suffers, in this case as the knock-on effect may be to spoil your enjoyment of your writing practice.
8. A question of belief
Use the rejection to test your thoughts about the piece that’s been rejected. Be really honest with yourself – do you absolutely believe in this work? Is it really and truly the best you’re capable of? If the answer is yes, then don’t let the rejection put you off. Do the right thing by the work you believe in and find the way to get it to its readers. This can be a process that takes courage and determination – writing is rewarding but no-one ever said it was easy. It may be that you find the writing itself easy but have trouble plucking up the courage to approach editors and publishers or enter competitions. Whatever it is, be truthful with yourself and use this self-knowledge to work on a strategy to get your work to its audience.
If the answer to the above question is no, you don’t believe in your heart of hearts that the rejected piece is the best writing you’re capable of, then revisit it, rework it and make it better before submitting it again. There are no guarantees that it will find a market but it will have a much better chance if you have worked the piece into the best version of it you’re capable of.
9. The right fit?
Was the piece that got rejected tailored for that particular opening? If you’re sending out non-fiction pitches, each one of your ideas should demonstrate a knowledge of the particular market and show that it has been specifically designed to appeal to its readers. If you’re sending out poetry, make sure the journal publishes the kind of poems you write – it’s pointless sending out free verse to a journal that only publishes formal poetic forms, and vice versa. If you’re submitting short stories for commercial publications, make sure you’re familiar with the publication and that the story you’re offering is an original slant on a successful formula. If you’re entering a competition, ensure that your story matches the theme if there is one, and that you’ve followed all the rules. Consider wordcounts. Why are you sending a 10,000-word story to a literary magazine that asks for fiction up to 5,000 words?
Writing a non-fiction book proposal? Check out this guide.
10. Right piece, wrong time
Bear in mind that the timing may not be right for this particular piece. It may be rejected now but picked up on at some point in the future. There are many encouraging stories of writers finding homes for work that didn’t get picked up years ago, but strikes a chord now.
11. A matter of taste
Remember agents’, publishers’ and editors’ tastes are subjective. What one editor turns down, another may love. And market requirements change. Your writing needs to find the place where it’s a fit. Because it only takes one acceptance to make up for all the times our writing is turned down. That one editor who ‘sees’ your work and loves it enough to publish it is more than compensation for the places it wasn’t quite right for, or where it didn’t fit the bill. If you really believe in a piece of writing, don’t give up on it, or in your belief in yourself as a writer.
Why not give your writing the best possible chance of success by treating yourself to a Writing Magazine Creative Writing Course?