How To Deal With Rejection As A Writer (From Someone Who Just Got Rejected)
I had been waiting months for this email and the first word I saw on the preview was, “unfortunately.”
Ask any writer and they’ll tell you that words have power and that some — “unfortunately” and “we regret to inform you” being prime examples — only need a second to carve out your heart and drop it at your feet.
Eventually, I mustered the courage to open this particular email and, although the positive wording didn’t sting as much as I predicted, rejection was still rejection. I’d put my precious baby manuscript of (digital) paper and ink out into the world for the first time and it came back with several life lessons I hadn’t been prepared for.
Having very recently learnt these lessons myself, here are six things to keep in mind next time you see that email waiting for you.
1. Fight The Urge To Spiral
The worst part of that first rejection was not the email itself but how my mind turned that one small despair into a much more destructive emotional spiral. The things I was hoping to accomplish this year; tentative writing goals I had in place; programs I hadn’t even applied for yet; dreams and ambitions… it all began to unravel because of that email.
After all, how could I accomplish anything when I’d failed this first hurdle?
This irrationality is easy to dismiss in retrospective but more difficult to do in the moment. I saw the path my thoughts were taking, knew it was ridiculous, and yet still couldn’t stop it from happening.
People rarely realise how much fighting there is in writing, and not just in the action scenes. We fight ourselves to overcome self-doubt. We fight apathy to find motivation. As writers, we battle against ourselves more often than we should and, in this instance, I had to consciously and deliberately fight the urge not to wallow in negativity.
I started by reminding myself that my future goals aren’t tied to past rejections. My mind was making connections where there were none and I could just as easily unmake them. I had that power, just as I had the power to choose how I reacted. If I wanted, I could let the negativity spiral wear me down and stop me doing what I loved. Or I could not.
2. Realise That Rejection Is Normal
To create something — anything at all — is to open it up to rejection from family, friends, publishers, readers or random internet trolls. To think our writing will never be rejected by anyone is to set impossible and unattainable standards. In fact, the very use of the word “perfection” invites people to find the flaw, no matter how hard you try to pander to all people, all interests and all tastes.
In saying that, there’s no denying that we like to elevate our so-called perfect success stories onto the highest pedestals.
The ones that got it right the first time. The best sellers. The overnight millionaires. The ones with choirs of angels and social media fans singing their praises.
These cases are the exceptions, not the norm. The pedestal we put people is small for a reason: it’s not designed to be big enough for everyone. 99.9% of writers will face rejection at some point, but the thing to remember is that rejection and acceptance are both products of the same action: having tried.
If you never write a story, it can never be rejected. If you never share a story, it can never be rejected.
But, what is the point of a story if there is no one to read it?
3. Take A Break. Or Don’t
Some people, after a rejection, can’t stomach the sight of their work, and that’s fair. Bury it in an obscure folder on your computer if you have to. Print it out and throw it on the (not so proverbial) bonfire. Sometimes the best thing we can do for our work is to get space from it. Allow yourself the time to process. Clarify. Get Perspective. Rebalance. Move on.
On the other hand, others like me take rejection as a challenge. Once my spiral was under control, it was all I could do to wait until I could get home and take a machete to my manuscript.
Not good enough, huh? Let me prove you wrong.
4. Talk to Someone
Along with taking a break from your writing (or not), the other thing that can help process rejection is talking with others. It doesn’t matter if this person is part of your writing circle or not. Everyone has experience with rejection, be it professional, romantic, academic, creative or personal and simply expressing your feelings to an understanding ear can be the catalyst to acknowledging what’s really going on in your head.
However, sharing our rejections with people we care about, or that care about us, can also be incredibly difficult. In those instances, being a writer has its advantages. If you can’t speak about how you feel then write it down: the emotions, sensations and fears. Focus on something and pull it apart until you feel like there’s nothing more to be said on the topic and remember to practice self-compassion along the way. Whether you publish it or delete it is up to you.
5. Accentuate The Positives
Have you ever known someone to come back from an amazing holiday and they start the conversation with a story about how they got scammed, how terrible the weather was or how they lost their passport?
This is negative bias at work, where the human brain processes positive and negative stimuli asymmetrically, with a tendency to over-emphasise the negative.
We remember insults better than praise. We put more power into the handful of 1 Star Reviews than the hundreds of 5 Stars Reviews. Negative experiences linger longer in our memories than positives ones.
Writers are not immune to this, especially not budding ones, and it’s important that, when faced with rejection, we celebrate our achievements. If you’re one of the lucky ones that receive feedback on your submission, then cherish this rare gift and focus on any constructive comments that can improve your work.
If, however, you’re like me and are left with a polite email, you’ll need to get a little more creative. I decided not to celebrate the rejection itself but the act of submitting my work for the first time, along with writing my first synopsis and log lines. Those are big steps and big steps mean one thing in my books: Japanese food. Lots of it. And, should I ever find myself staring down at another rejection email (likely), at least I know that I’ll have a delicious dinner to look forward to!
6. Remember that Rejection Is Not Failure.
Rejection may be enviable for most of us, but failure is not. A rejection is not a failure. Even failure isn’t a failure. It simply means that you — and your work — have room to grow and things to learn and, really, isn’t that a fantastic thing?
If you’re writing is boring, you can learn to vary your grammar. If your characters fall flat, you can learn more about them. If your genre isn’t selling, you can learn to write something new. You can push those boundaries.
A rejected story does not mean that you fail as a writer. It doesn’t mean that I have failed. I am a writer because I love to write, not because I have two dozen publications behind my name. As much as my brain tried to tell me that rejection meant that I have failed, it was wrong.
So, go ahead: try. Get rejected. Fail, if you need to. Change your path. Learn from it. Come back better.
Just never stop writing.
All images © 2014–2020 to MK Photography. https://www.flickr.com/gp/isis375/3nqg25