Writers Listen Up: Rejection Isn’t Normal

A solid system for determining whether you should stay the course or call it quits

Ellen McRae
Apr 12 · 10 min read
Image created in Canva

When beginning your writing career, everyone will tell you that rejection is normal.

When starting any business, mentors and leaders will prepare you for inevitable failure. Like death and taxes, your failure is written in the stars.

When I submitted my first novel for publication, I expected rejection. And, little surprise, that’s what happened. Sometimes I speculate why I bothered to submit it in the first place.

I persisted with the novel. I didn’t receive any feedback from the editor. So I blindly edited, cut out characters, and completely overhauled the storyline. I submitted it once again only for the same rejection.

Any guesses on how many times I repeated this process? I submitted seventeen different versions of the same draft, all rejected in the same manner. No feedback from the editor, no words of encouragement, not even a hint I was on the right track. I thought after all these tries I should have something to work on. But alas, I was still at the painful, agonising starting gate.

I turned to my writing colleagues on Facebook and asked them for their thoughts on my rejection.

Am I close? Should I keep going? Is this normal?

All expressed a mutual sentiment. ‘Yes, keep going. You got this.’

But I didn’t have ‘it’. I wasn’t even close.

I decided to quit chasing that dream. Seventeen rejections were my limit.

Your rejections are telling you to inject perseverance and consistency into your writing. Or they’re telling you to shift slightly in direction. But sometimes they are telling you aren’t cut out for it. And, much like what happened to me, it’s time to quit.

There’s a fine line between when to quit and keep going. But if your rejections are anything to go by, it’s time to start reading the signs.

How much time do you really have?

A writing career is far from a get rich quick scheme. Because, in truth, there is very little speed in the writing process. Most editors or publishers demand considerable time investment before submitting. This comes in the form of full articles and manuscripts upon submission. Each time you create, you need to edit, proofread and format for the desired publishing avenue.

This all takes time. What this means is that before you even pitch your work, you’re in considerable time debt.

You may measure your debt in hours, weeks, months and even years. Every moment you add to the debt, you hope it will be repaid to you in the form of publishing. But as the gap between the time debt and publishing opportunity expands, we assume publishing is imminent.

Yet, the more time you invest into your writing doesn’t mean you improve the likelihood of publishing. Your time debt does not guarantee that you are closer to publishing.

Time is a valuable commodity. We only have so much of it. If we liken time to money, which for some people is higher in value, we only have so much of a budget to spend. Set realistic and sustainable time goals for your writing pursuits.

When you hit that time limit, quit.

How many years of pursuing this avenue, without getting results, should you invest? Most people will answer this question with another. ‘How long is a piece of string?’

Well, in my experience, I wouldn’t answer this way. I wouldn’t let you believe there is a right answer. Or lead you into the idea that it’s viable to spend your entire life pursuing this idea. That’s unrealistic. But how long can you sustain repeating the same mistakes before insanity takes over?

In my experience, it’s never as long as you think.

Are you stuck on the result and not the number of attempts?

If editors publish someone’s first attempt, what does it say about people who get published on the one-hundredth attempt? Or two-hundredth? What is an acceptable rejection rate for your writing before you know this isn’t for you?

We have a societal problem with rejection. We’ve learned too many times that adherence to patience and the process yields results. And thanks to some of the most famous success stories, we’re conditioned to think repeated attempts will get us published. Here are some examples:

  • J. K. Rowling had the Harry Potter series rejected by twelve different publishing houses prior to the initial, and small, first print. Her rejection rate for this manuscript was 92%.
  • Walt Disney tried to sell the concept of Disneyland to three hundred different investors and financiers before landing his golden ticket. His rejection rate for this idea was 99.6%.
  • Sylvester Stallone pitched the Rocky script a reported fifteen hundred times prior to its development into a feature film. His rejection rate for his script was 99.9%.

If these stories are anything to follow, we’re lead to believe that we shouldn’t quit until we reach our goal. The number of attempts is irrelevant. It’s all about the result.

But this is reality. The number of attempts we make is relevant, more so than we give it credit for. The number of attempts we make to get published is an indicator of what we’ve produced. Whilst there isn’t a ‘normal’ rejection level, there is an industry standard when it comes to publishing writing. It is:

Good, profitable writing will be published within the first few attempts.

Whilst there are factors to consider, such as timing, the specific editor and your pitch, quality writing always trumps any moving factors.

There will always be exceptions to the rule. The Rocky script is one of them. But we can’t all be the exception. If you’re getting rejected more than you’re getting published if you have a 99% rejection rate, are you really cut out to be a writer?

Set the number of rejections you’re willing to endure as a writer. Be realistic about what is sustainable for your motivation, creativity, and commitment. Each rejection depletes all three core ingredients writers need, so be realistic about your resiliency. We all have a line about how many pitches we’re willing to endure, much like our time debt. Find your line and don’t cross it.

When you celebrate your writing attempts, you’re reinforcing the rejection pattern. You’re cementing the idea that you’re not meant to be published. And that it’s less about what you’re creating and more about how you went about doing it.

Align your mindset to your writing craft and not to the writing game. Publishers and editors don’t care, nor do they want to know, how many rejections you have had beforehand. Your rejections don’t make your writing any more appealing, nor does it improve the quality.

Are your skills up to standard?

What Rocky, Disney and Harry Potter teach us is lessons in perseverance. If you stick at it, if you don’t give up, if you make a full and unwavering commitment, you will get there.

Yet, it doesn’t always teach us about skills. I shudder to think how bad the Rocky script must have read for it to be rejected so many times.

Sometimes, we don’t have the skills of a professional writer. We lack the combination of traits and necessities to convey our thoughts with the written word. Some people have ideas but lack the ability to articulate themself. Some can execute perfect grammar and spelling, yet can’t reconcile an ending to a story that leaves the reader wanting more.

You have it or you don’t.

Rejections are telling you something about your skills. They’re telling you what you’ve produced isn’t good enough for the places you’re pitching it.

This is when you need to seek impartial, ruthless feedback about your writing abilities from a credible source. I would look to professional mentoring services or educational institutes for guidance. With financial investment, you’re more likely to receive meaningful and actionable feedback.

This compared to social feedback from Facebook or the like. Whilst social feedback helps, it rarely addresses the truth you need to hear. A family member is also a poor choice. They will likely reserve judgment in fear of offending you.

Are you losing out financially?

Let’s pretend you own a soup business. You create different flavours of canned soup.

You launch your first soup flavour, it hits the supermarket shelves, and it doesn’t sell. You return to the drawing board and start again. Now the second can of soup is for sale and it doesn’t sell. If you still have the money to develop a third can of soup, you try again. This can doesn’t sell either.

You now have three varietals of soup you couldn’t sell. You have no money left. And you have an inventory of soup you can’t get rid of or recoup your costs on.

Every business owner knows this is the time to quit. You can’t continue without the money, and your lack of sales is proving this is a bad idea. Or a poorly executed one.

So why do writers continue on their pursuits when they can’t sell their soup? In reality, if you can’t sell your writing, you don’t have a business or a career.

The moment you realise your writing career is a business, and your articles are your product, you will alter your approach to your rejections. And for the better.

It will allow you to make better decisions about your career moving forward. You will be able to take your emotions out of the decision making, detach yourself from your product, and better evaluate what you produce.

Business owners are very target orientated and set themselves tangible, measurable goals regularly. It allows them to gauge if what they’re creating is scalable and profitable. It also allows them to decide what is worth continuing with and what isn’t.

You shouldn’t write what you can’t sell, correct? Yet, writers continue to do so. Learn to evaluate the metrics of your writing. This could be your rejections, sales, or earnings from different platforms. All are indicators of your success, and ignoring them for your creative pursuit isn’t profitable in the long run.

I would love to ask Disney about who he pitched Disneyland to, the type of financiers and who they were. Was he asking the richest man on the street? Or was he asking the second richest man who had a family of three kids?

Your rejections may suggest you’re pitching to the wrong people. Who you pitch your writing to affects the outcome significantly. Be researched about who is publishing the content you’re writing. You may have the right idea but you’re trying to sell it to the wrong audience.

Are you stuck on the rejection merry-go-round?

I didn’t tell you the novel I was pitching to was Mills and Boons, the romantic paperbacks found on the dollar shelf at your favourite store. For a book sold so cheap, Harlequin has stringent expectations for their writers. They also have a process for letting writers know when they were on the right track or not.

It’s all about the feedback. If you receive certain feedback, such as suggested edits, Harlequin is interested in your story. You’re getting close. I never received anything like it, only the generic cut and paste response of flat rejection.

Over time, over many submissions, your feedback from the publisher or editor should change. This is normal for when you’re getting closer to what they want. If they can see the potential, they will let you know. But if the feedback never comes, you’re always far away from publishing.

Each publisher or editor has their way of telling you how close to ‘success’ you are. Learn what they are, and fast. The joy of the internet is that there are hundreds if not thousands of people before you willing to share their rejection stories. Ask them for what feedback they received, and what the publisher said closer to acceptance.

Once you know the cues, understand what direction you’re heading in. If your rejection cues are positive, keep with the path you’re on. If they are leaning towards negative, or not changing at all, it’s time to reassess what you’re writing.

Say it with me: Rejection isn’t normal

Most writers will tell you rejection is normal in the writing world. Some will go so far as having you believe there is a set number of rejections every person should endure before publication. Rejection comes with learning the trade.

Well, that’s what all the established writers want you to believe. More than likely to compensate for all the rejections they experienced.

There is no writer’s rite of passage.

Rejection isn’t compulsory. It doesn’t make you a better writer. And whilst there are some benefits from rejection, they aren’t a guarantee of the writing process.

Rejection, fundamentally, isn’t normal in the writing world.

When you’re a good writer who produces readable, sellable and enjoyable content, you will get published. The wrath of rejections isn’t something we come to expect. In fact, we should expect to be successful if we back our work.

And if we aren’t getting success, if we’re experiencing the rejections, the writing life probably isn’t for us.

But should you give up? Well, that’s completely up to you.

I’m Ellen McRae, writer by trade and passionate storyteller by nature. I write about figuring about love and relationships by analysing my experiences. Some of the stories are altered to protect the people in my life. But my feelings are never compromised.

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Ellen McRae

Written by

Relationships. Drama. Gossip. Innuendo. Bad Dates. Failures. Learning about life/business/love the hard way// https://ellenjellymcrae.com/

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +794K followers.

Ellen McRae

Written by

Relationships. Drama. Gossip. Innuendo. Bad Dates. Failures. Learning about life/business/love the hard way// https://ellenjellymcrae.com/

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +794K followers.

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