The Rejection Audit: What if Your Writing Rejections Are Actually Good News?

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Getting rejected is no fun for anyone ever. But the road to publication for most writers is littered with rejections — from agents, from editors at publishing houses, from contests.

Rejection feels so awful in your heart and your mind and your body that it’s easy to put every rejection into the same pile wrapped up in the same story, which is some version of, “I guess I must suck.”

That is a mistake because some rejections are actually really good news. Knowing the difference between a good and a bad rejection can help enormously as you navigate the path to being picked.

Black Hole Rejections

Sometimes rejection comes in the form of a black hole, which is no response at all. Nada, nothing, sip, zilch. Those are bad rejections — they feel bad, and they are bad news. It means you didn’t get over even the first hurdle, which could well be that someone literally never opened your email.

Form Letter Rejections

These are bad news, too. They are exactly what they sound like: nice but generic “no thanks” letters. The agent may have read your query and sample pages (if they requested them as part of their query process) but they had no interest in seeing anything more from you. Here is what one looks like:

There is really nothing encouraging in this letter at all.

Trickier are the form rejection letters that are longer and more encouraging, like this one:

This is a very nice note, but it’s still a form rejection letter. There is nothing personal to indicate the agent actually read your pages. It’s easy to think it’s personal, but it’s not.

Stories We Tell Ourselves About Rejection

In the case of no response or a form letter rejection, as outlined above, many writers come up with excuses like these:

  • You have to know someone in publishing
  • You have to already have a huge platform
  • The system is rigged
  • The system is unfair
  • I heard no one buys first person YA anymore
  • All they want are #ownvoices
  • They don’t really want #ownvoices
  • What really sells right now are vampire dystopian cat mashups

Publishing is a complex, massively big and multi-layered business universe. There is no “they.” There are just people who love books and make a living selling them who are constantly on the lookout for projects they think can attract readers.

Your job as a writer is to write what you are called to write, to master your craft, to understand what readers want, and to to learn the rules of the game of how to reach those readers. Part of this work is taking a cold hard look at your rejections.

Rejection is Never a Mystery

As a book coach, I am often called in to help figure out why a book is getting rejected, either by agents, or once an agent represents it and puts it out on submission, by publishers.

I ask to see all the of the rejections letters in their entirely — and here’s the truth: rejection is almost never a mystery.

I see a lot of rejection letters in a year, and most often, the writer is making some kind of obvious mistake.

Common mistakes include issues with the strategy of the pitch:

  • You sent it to the wrong kind of agent
  • You sent it to an agent who is not accepting submissions
  • You didn’t follow the agent’s clearly stated submission guidelines
  • You pasted pages in instead of attached or vice versa
  • Your subject line is not what they asked for or weird or off-putting

Issues with the query:

  • Your letter is long and rambling or defensive or unprofessional or just plain weird
  • You don’t understand your genre, the marketplace, what agents do

Or issues with the writing itself:

  • Your writing is flat
  • Your writing is boring
  • Your writing is filled with mistakes big and small (tense shift, POV problems, info dumps, passive construction, mechanical errors, etc.)
  • You have not written what you promised in the query

If you are getting form letter rejections or no response at all, take a hard look at your pitch materials and consider getting professional guidance on what you are doing wrong.

A Good Rejection

Good rejections are personal. They indicate clearly that the agent (or one of her representatives) has read the material and thought about it. Someone who takes the times to send such a note is sending you a message: don’t stop querying.

Here is an example of a good rejection

Agents who send good rejections often use the word “love,” as this agent did, above — I wanted to love it, I thought I would love it, I just didn’t love it. Agents and editors really are looking for some kind of connection to the work, for something they can feel excited to get behind. They want to love it. It’s a business to be sure, but it’s still based on love.

If you get a rejection that indicates they think you are doing something well — i.e. terrific narrative voice, fantastic characters, clever premise — believe them.

Another kind of good rejection

Sometimes writers will get rejections with very specific feedback about what is wrong, and if you get several of these that say the same thing, you know you have a problem.

That’s still a good rejection because you have information you can use to make your work better.

Here are some lines from editor rejections of an agented manuscript. Note that they are all pretty much saying the same thing about the voice and the writing:

This writer had some very useful information to work with. She needed to step back and re-group and rewrite that novel — and that is exactly what happened. The agent and writer came to me to help guide the rewrite, and we knew exactly what problem to solve because there were more than 10 editors saying the same thing.

The Dream Rejection

Author Accelerator writer Lorrie Tom recently got what she called the dream rejection. She entered the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition with a short essay, and received a form letter rejection.

No fun.

But then something else happened which turned that bad rejection into the dream rejection. Lorrie wrote about what happened next:

But, then, on March 23, 2018, I received this email from Debe Dockins — the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition Coordinator:
Good afternoon, Lorraine —
Thanks, again, for entering the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. I wanted to let you know that your essay made it to the final round of competition and received lots of comments:
· Love the description. I felt like I was there. Great word play, as well.
I thought this essay was excellent. I love the overlay with the philharmonic performance. And the little details, tripping over purses, the mustache, lying on the doormat. You made me feel for you, and laugh out loud at the same time. Great job!
Final Judge Bonnie Jo Campbell: Cute title! Great energy and hilarity in this ambitious piece. Good work paralleling concert and bodily experience. Oh, how our bodies can get the best of us when we ignore them. The essay left me wondering about daughter — what did she think after this? Great job — keep on writing your experiences!
Very well done! I hope you enter the contest again in 2020 (that seems so far off!). Keep writing!
It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else … Erma Bombeck.
Debe Dockins | Community Outreach and Development Coordinator

How did Lorrie feel upon receiving this amazing letter?

My writer’s heart exploded. Debe took time (that I’m sure she didn’t have) to gift me with gracious feedback.
I immediately forwarded the email to my writing coach, Jennie Nash (who also has NO time!). She told me, “This is the dream rejection. I mean seriously!!!!! Actual feedback!!! Now you can see that we are not kidding — you are so super talented and your book is amazing and it’s going to be awesome!!! I LOVE THIS!!!”
What an amazing gift of generosity from two very busy ladies. Honestly, I felt like I’d won. Let me tell you why.

She explains why on her blog, HERE.

The dream rejection is, strangely enough, totally encouraging. It means you have been SEEN. It means you are on the right track. It means you can keep going with confidence.

The dream rejection is, in other words, really good news. If you get one, believe it! Agents and editors and writing contest judges don’t have time to send out random praise they don’t truly believe.

But when do you quit?

For writers getting encouraging rejections that are not all citing the same problem, I often recommend you aim for 50 submissions before you regroup and consider that something else may be going on. If you have the stomach for more, then send out more.

My client Sam Polk, recent winner of SharkTank, landed an agent after 80 rejections.

If you are getting letters that cite the same problem, you probably want to stop and regroup and address the problem before continuing to pitch.

This happened to my client, Amy Blumenthal, whose novel, The Cast, is coming out in August 2018. During her first round of pitching, she had 5 agents tell her the exact same thing so she stopped pitching, revised the novel (sounds easy — it wasn’t), and in her next round of pitching, got 4 manuscript requests and landed an agent.

For more on when to quit on a project, see this interview I did with my client psychologist Tracey Cleantis, an expert on letting go.

The Savvy Thing Lorrie Did After Her Dream Rejection

Lorrie is a savvy writer who has learned what building an audience is all about. She wrote to tell me about her dream rejection and here I am writing about it.

She wrote to the Erma Bombeck coordinator to thank her, and you can see the lovely things that happened as a result of that, below.

Lorrie’s authentic reaction to her dream rejection is allowing her to build a network of writer friends and colleagues, so that when her funny book comes out, she will have fans and readers. Here’s what she wrote about that in an email to me:

And one other thing. This is such a Dan Blank Be the Gateway moment because I reached out to Debe Dockins with a thank you and a link and she’s sharing it. And cried it touched her so much. She’s also reaching out to Bonnie Jo Campbell (as I did too). And you’re gonna blog it. And I’d been thinking about Revision Sprint for about a week but today closed that deal. So an entrepreneurial moment for you too. Win win for everyone and it’s authentic and not contrived or obviously trying to get Likes and shares.

Rejection is Just Part of the Journey

The next time you get a rejection, try to take the emotion out of it. Look at it dispassionately for what it may be telling you. Is it a bad rejection, a good rejection, a dream rejection? Is it pointing to something you can do better? Or to the fact that you are already doing a lot well? Use the rejection to fuel your journey, not as a sign that it’s time to bring the journey to an end.