To Survive as a Writer You Need to Master Rejection

Rejection is not what you think it is

A writer’s life is paved with thorns. The sooner you realize this simple truth, the better. Imagine an arena full of tigers and battle-hardened warriors. Some are seasoned fighters, trained in the art of persuasion, narrative structure, character development, and prose. Others are cunning tricksters, able to seduce readers with clickbait and catchy headings.

Now imagine you are a gladiator but you’re armed with nothing but a pen (in this case the pen is definitely mightier than the sword) and your only hope of survival is your ability to keep writing. Now all you have to do is imagine the blood-soaked Colosseum is the size of Canada and you should have some idea of what you’re up against. In the writer’s case, it’s survival not of the fittest, but the most resilient.

But how does a writer cultivate resilience?

  1. A writer should learn to accept rejection as a form of free education, learn the secrets and adjust accordingly.
  2. A writer should view rejection as an opportunity to improve their craft and never take it personally.

Like all writers, when I began I found myself caught between the pure enjoyment of writing fiction and the unforgiving publishing industry. And it wasn’t like I was submitting full manuscripts at this stage, I was submitting short stories to hundreds of publications. And yet, in 2 years only one story was accepted for publication — the rest were rejected.

In October 2018, my short story One in a Thousand received third place in a short story competition for a tiny online publication called On The Premises. I received $100 and my story was published on their site. After that, I thought I was on a role. I wrote several more short stories and submitted them to both competitions and publications via Submittable, and also direct to the magazines. Some of these publications asked me to subscribe, setting me back a chunk of change, but I did so — partly because I enjoyed reading their content, but mostly because it was the carrot that I assumed would lead to a publishing jackpot.

Stories continue to be rejected, and that’s normal

Often an editor will provide feedback about a story: plot, character development, the storyline. But for the most part, I usually receive a standard response, such as:

“Thank you for sharing your work with us. It was a pleasure to read your Fiction, but unfortunately, this submission is not right for us at this time.”

Sometimes the rejections are sparser:

“We appreciate the chance to read it but regret to say that after much consideration, we must decline.”

Sometimes they include some encouraging words:

“Please know that our editors found a lot to admire in your work, and we hope you will consider submitting to us again.”

In many ways, these kinds of courteous rejections can be more frustrating than the apathetic ones, because they remind me that I am so close, yet no dice. But why? Herein lies the mystery of rejections. When a story is not right for a publication we must consider several important factors.

The wrong genre for the right magazine

Without much-needed research you’re liable to submit a science fiction or horror story to the wrong magazine, so do your research. Know the magazine’s content by downloading a free issue (or buy one) and read some stories. Editors will advise you to do this so you can get a feel for their content. Also, be sure that you admire the magazine and their stories, otherwise, you’ll be wasting valuable time and money on random publications that you’re only interested in because you’re desperate. Keep in mind, genres are often broken down into sub-genres, such as dystopian western, or sci-fi fantasy, zombie horror, gothic horror, etc.

Most publications will also be very specific about what they’re looking for, such as Aurealis:

“Aurealis is looking for science fiction, fantasy or horror short stories between 2000 and 8000 words. All types of science fiction, fantasy, and horror that are of a “speculative” nature will be considered, but we do not want stories that are derivative in nature, particularly those based on TV series. We do not publish horror without a supernatural element.”

If your tone or style doesn’t match their M.O. then your story will most likely be rejected outright, simply because the magazine needs to adhere to their brand of fiction. Remember that magazines are in the business of selling issues and must maintain consistency of content to appease and attract readers of that specific genre.

Know your toolkit and write like a pro

A landscape gardener can’t carve a hunk of dirt into a glorious public park without the right tools. The same goes for a writer. Most publications have guidelines and expect writers to follow them. This means, read their guidelines before submitting a story. I don’t know an editor alive who tolerates typos, poor grammar or other glaring errors. Take Aurealis’ fiction guidelines:

“Stories containing an unacceptable number of spelling mistakes and typos, and those that do not conform to our guidelines in other ways, will be rejected automatically. This may seem harsh, but we are being honest about it. Please take the time to polish your work in every way before you send it to us.”

If you care about your work you should write at least four or five drafts of your story — eliminating grammatical errors, poor structure, repetition, or dull sentences in the process. If grammar is not your strong suit (although I believe every writer should know the tools of the trade) then I suggest you read “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, and it wouldn’t hurt to read “The Writing Book” by Kate Grenville for fiction.

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

Editors are people just like you, trying to meet deadlines

I have consulted with some editors, as well as working as a freelance editor myself for several magazines. The next time you feel like writing a rebuttal, expressing your persecution as a poor, hard-done writer who deserves to be published, take a moment to consider an editor’s job:

  1. An editor receives hundreds of submissions every week — stories, poems, and articles clutter their inbox regularly. All editors work differently, but each editor has the laborious job of sitting down and reading every submission, a word count that can tally up to 30,000–40,000 words (equivalent to a novella) in just a few days.
  2. Editors often won’t read your notes about the story or other details. They will take note of the title and submission date, then if you’ve followed their submission guidelines (double spacing, etc) they will read your story.
  3. Many editors keep a track of the submissions in spreadsheets (that include comments and notes) and work through a back catalog of submissions. This is why writers often won’t receive a response for months. I’ve had responses as late as nine months.
  4. Your submission will either impress or it won’t. Editors usually go with first impressions and will flag stories as yes, no, or a maybe. All editors have different tastes and expectations from writers, but from my experience, once an editor decides on the yes list, your story or poem will be shortlisted for any upcoming issues.

What is the make or break in a submission?

Let me begin by reminding you that having a short story published is difficult, poetry even more so. Editors are looking for that special something — a unique recipe that still manages to use the key ingredients. A writer should have a good balance of style, voice, and technique; descriptions are vivid and interesting, and the story is well crafted and resonates with the reader. The characters should be compelling and complex; fully realized human beings with clear motivations, strengths, desires, and flaws.

When I’m reading a short story I want to feel a sense of immediacy; that I’m thrust into the drama. I can also tell if the author has bothered to workshop the story, written multiple drafts, or very few. But my main concern is always the same … does the story capture my imagination, or does it feel generic, recycled and forced? A good story will have a natural flow and careful execution.

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”— Benjamin Franklin

For poetry, editors are looking for writers with a unique voice and a command of the language. When I read a poem, I look for a distinct voice, I want to have a visceral reaction from reading the work; the emotion to swell in my chest.

You need to decide how hungry you are because you need to be ravenous

Hungry writers, obsessed with the craft, are the ones who get published. It’s important to remember all writers who have come before you have all experienced rejection. ALL of them. One of my literary icons, Ray Bradbury, was one of the most tenacious writers of his time. He received thousands of rejections, but it never stopped him.

“I have several walls in several rooms of my house covered with the snowstorm of rejections, but they didn’t realize what a strong person I was; I persevered and wrote a thousand more dreadful short stories, which were rejected in turn.” — Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury persevered for the love of the craft. His passion for writing was greater than the seemingly insurmountable rejections he experienced when starting. In other words, writing was his calling. He also possessed a kind of blind optimism that serious writers need to develop. Bradbury’s persistence paid off and he began selling his stories in the 1940s and he eventually went on to become one of the greatest science fiction writers of his generation.

Allowing rejections to wound your self-esteem is the worst thing you can do

It’s often extremely difficult to not take rejection personally. As writers, we all have moments where we receive one-too-many rejections. On certain days a rejection email can be the match in a barrel of gunpowder. It can be disheartening, I know. But it’s not about you or your skills as a writer. The truth is, it’s an over-saturated market and it’s a numbers game. My own rejections are now in the hundreds … but that’s the nature of this industry. Accept it and move on.

Ray Bradbury knew (as most successful writers know) that a literary rejection was never a personal judgment. Your self-esteem should never hinge on whether or not a piece of writing is accepted or rejected. You should know if you’re a talented writer, and if you doubt your writing you may need to ask yourself: Is it the writing or is it me? Because you will need to have a healthy level of confidence in your work if you are to endure.

Hemingway said: “Before you quit, try.” To survive as a writer you will have to endure the dull and unrelenting daily slog. This doesn’t mean you’ll become impervious to rejection — because no one does. It means you need to calibrate your attitude towards writing. In other words, you need to treat it as a vocation. Just write.

In closing, writing shouldn’t feel like a trudge up some colossal mountain. Writing should be an expression of who you are and what you stand for; your belief systems, your passions. Writers who survive are the ones who persevere, learn from their mistakes, adjust accordingly, and improve. They do not allow rejections (large or small) to taint their love for the craft, because they know they have a voice that deserves to be heard. It is this very reason why independent publishing has become so popular among authors. For writers with a skin too thin (or who are tired of playing the waiting game) it might be exactly what you need. Take the Patreon slogan: “Create on your own terms,” and it’s easy to feel excited about self-publishing. Remember, Medium wouldn’t exist without the self-publishing platform.

Whatever you may decide, publishing traditionally or self-publishing, there will always be forms of rejection. But in the wise words of Ray Bradbury, “The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”


Originally published in The Writing Cooperative