How to Read a Rejection Letter
I am a writer, but I’m also an editor. For decades, I’ve worked with writers to improve and publish their prose. (I’ve also edited over a dozen anthologies, for a number of different publishers.)
Because my own work has run in every publication you can think of, from the Funny Times to the New York Times (including 13 Chicken Soup for the Soul collections) I can offer my writing clients solid advice about not only writing but getting published.
One of my writers recently submitted an essay to a prestigious literary magazine and received a rejection letter.
“Was it a form letter?” I asked her, “or was it personal and encouraging? Are they saying ‘Thanks but no thanks’ — or do they want you to redraft and resubmit?”
She wasn’t sure, so she shared the letter with me and we went through it together. I thought it might be useful to share that experience here.
Thanks for sending us Your Essay. We’re sorry to say that this submission isn’t right for Our Publication.
This is how a form rejection letter begins. Totally generic and impersonal. It’s the very least they can do, and they’re doing it.
This isn’t a reflection on the quality of your writing. We receive many excellent submissions and can only accept a few.
Again, generic verbiage. You have no idea how much of your work they’ve actually read or how seriously they took it. Did one screener take a quick look, or did several editors read and consider it? There’s no way to tell.
If a publication is actually interested in receiving more work from you, or wants a redraft? They’ll say something that lets you know that they’ve actually read the entire thing and seriously considered running it.
For instance? A note about what they enjoyed about the piece, and good advice about how to improve it.
Please know that we have read your work and appreciate your interest in the magazine.
This is a polite and meaningless brush off. With perhaps a gentle hint that you subscribe, if you aren’t already a subscriber.
We wish you the best in placing your writing elsewhere.
The key word here is elsewhere.
Not only did your submission fail to work for this crowd, but it’s fine with them if they never hear from you again.
For this to constitute an Encouraging Rejection, you’re looking for a sentence or two that says either (1) Redraft and resubmit or (2) Send us other work.
We really enjoyed this essay, but feel that it needs more work. Please consider the following suggestions. We’d be happy to look at it again.
This runs a little long. If you’d consider trimming it, we’d love to see a rewrite.
This piece doesn’t quite work for us, but please keep us in mind for future submissions.
Even better? Praise for your submission, along with a specific reason why the editors couldn’t run it.
We loved this piece, but we’ve already published 3 essays about wombats this month. We’d be happy to consider work on a different topic.
The editors thought this was hilarious, but it’s a bit edgy for our readers. Please try us again.
Again, totally generic.
If an editor likes your work and wants to see more, they’ll usually sign it your rejection letter with their name and email address so you can submit future work directly to them rather than lobbing it over the transom and into the slush pile.
(This isn’t always the case. I’ve made it into the Christian Science Monitor’s “Home Forum” section three times, and even though their correspondence with me always comes from a particular editor, when I tried to submit new work directly to that person, I was politely told to submit it through the portal like everyone else.)
So what’s the takeaway?
This wasn’t an encouraging rejection, just a form letter. If the writer has her heart set on being published here, she needs to carefully read what these folks have already published, figure out why her essay was rejected, and keep trying.
But if she isn’t set on appearing in this particular publication? It makes sense to move on and find a place where her work will be welcomed. (And it will be — she’s a terrific writer.)
Writing Coach and Medium Sherpa Roz Warren writes for everyone from the Funny Times to the New York Times, has been in 13 Chicken Soup for the Soul collections, and is the author of Just Another Day At Your Local Public Library. Drop her a line at roSwarren@gmail.com.