If we submit our work to literary or commercial magazines, to agents, to acquisitions editors, to some online venues, sooner or later (probably both) we will get rejections. Even self-published authors face rejection in the form of readers who don’t buy or read their work and reviewers who do read it and don’t like it. I’ve certainly had my share “no thank yous.” So let’s get three things out of the way right now…
- Rejection sucks. It’s painful. It’s depressing.
- It’s also part of the writing life.
- We can learn from rejection.
I recently completed a non-scientific, fairly random, but nonetheless revealing “study” to see what magazine editors, agents, book publishers, and blogs that host guests had to offer about why they reject submissions. I looked at a lot of websites. I read a lot of posts. I asked on social media and heard from a lot of generous people who love good writing.
The question I asked them was this: “What makes you reject a submission?”
At first glance, the answers seemed a bit chaotic, but as I dug in I discovered that the same themes appeared over and over. Here they are in no particular order.
1. Failure to Proofread
Lack of proofreading was a major complaint. Most people emphasized that they can live with an occasional typo, but when the submission is full of errors—spelling booboos, missing or misplaced words, and so on—the message is that the writer either doesn’t care or doesn’t know any better. As Suzanne Strempek Shea, a writer who has edited anthologies and journals, says, “Sloppiness makes me toss a piece aside. It can be the best idea and have some gorgeous sections, but if the basics of grammar, syntax, spelling, all that good stuff, are off, see ya later.”
The proofreading issue isn’t just a matter of anal-retentive attention to minutiae, either. Lisa Romeo, nonfiction editor for Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, puts it this way: “If the writer can’t or won’t edit and proofread, can I trust that enough attention was given to details in the piece?” Karen Bovenmeyer, a slush reader for The Stonecoast Review, stresses that the people reading incoming work aren’t any happier about all this rejection business than we writers are. She says, “As a slush reader, I want to find something great, and I’m hoping it’s your story. You have my benefit of the doubt right away—but English usage errors cue me that you’re unprofessional and haven’t worked hard to send us your best.”
2. The Careless Cover Letter
I’ll never forget the time I received a query from a member of an online writing community I frequent. She wanted to write a guest post for my blog. The email began, “Dear Sir.” Does “Sheila” sound like a guy to you? I have to assume she was spamming bloggers and didn’t want to take the minimal trouble of individualizing the salutations. Happily, we have that handy little trash can right there on the screen. Oddly, names are a common issue—an astonishing number of people mentioned how often they are address as ma’am or sir, or their names are misspelled, or their gender is changed. (Really, I think that should be a personal choice, don’t you?)
Other cover-letter issues that people cited were writers giving too much information, irrelevant information, and too little information. Several stressed that a cover letter is not a pitch or query letter, and that its only real function is to give them your contact information and, in some case, additional information requested as in their submission guidelines.
3. Ignoring the Guidelines
The magazine for which I read has very straightforward submission guidelines. Use standard formatting (12-point standard font, double-spacing for prose, one-inch margins) and put your name and contact information on a separate page at the end. Simple. Yet I can’t tell you how many manuscripts arrive with the author’s name and, sometimes, credentials on the first page. My inclination is to stop right there and say NO. I follow that impulse immediately if the misplaced info is in 24-point bold-face (to quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up).
Guidelines are nearly always there for specific reasons. Most guidelines are easy to follow. Doing so may not get you an acceptance, but ignoring the guidelines looks a lot like flipping off the people who asked you to use them. As one journal editor said, “Literary magazine editors work long hours and are severely underpaid. [HAHAHA. Most are volunteers who take time out of their own writing schedule to read your submissions.] Standard formatting makes their life easier by ensuring that everything at least looks the same. You don’t want to turn an editor off before they even start reading because you used Comic Sans [font].” Seriously, you don’t.
Suzanne Strempek Shea sums it up neatly: “Sticking to the guidelines is a sign of professionalism, a solid first impression. The ‘rules’ usually aren’t very difficult. I’d say follow them.”
4. The Submission is Wrong for the Recipient
This seems like common sense—send submissions to agents and publishers who might find them interesting. But if you peruse the literature on how to submit work, this subject comes up so often that I have to think a lot of writers aren’t paying attention.
Back in ancient times (when I started writing seriously), every submission cost the writer quite a few bucks. We had to make photocopies on high-quality paper, pack them up in appropriate envelopes or boxes, enclose the ubiquitous self-addressed stamped envelope or box, and pay outgoing postage. It made sense economically to pick our targets carefully. These days, many submissions go out at the strike of a send key, either free or for a nominal fee (except in the case of contests with entry fees). But it still doesn’t make sense to broadcast submissions willy nilly, unless you really want to win the number-of-rejections race.
It does take some time to identify the right targets, but it isn’t difficult, and the process can be educational. Read the past few issues of magazines that interest you. See whether that cute agent at the conference actually represents your genre. Check that the book publisher whose logo you love accepts unagented submissions and publishes the type of book you’ve written (or, for nonfiction, plan to write). The people on the receiving end will be happier, and you will be happier.
5. Inappropriate Content
Inappropriate content covers a wide range of issues. My sources mentioned, among other things, long stretches in which nothing happens, gratuitous violence or sex, plot lines or characters too similar to those in well-known stories, convoluted prose that’s hard to follow. Length—too long or too short for the genre or publication—was a common problem, as was material that met the length requirements but seemed contrived to fit, as if something was chopped off or added not because the story required it, but to match a word count.
Lack of purpose can also earn a rejection. Lisa Romeo says she will reject “A nonfiction piece that makes me ask, ‘So what?’ Or worse, ‘Who cares?’ Those reactions usually mean the writer has not located the real story.” In other words, it isn’t finished. This applies as well to fiction and, sometimes, poetry as well. “The tag line for Poetic License press is ‘authentic, accessible and engaging’” says editor Arlyn Miller, “and those are the initial criteria I use. I don’t want our readers to have to work harder than the poets whose work is included in the Press’s anthologies.”
6. Unconventional Format the Serves No Purpose
Don’t send a romance printed in a script font on pink paper. Don’t use 8-point font to save space. And so on. Stick to standard formatting in most cases. (Exceptions might be found in poetry, or novelty books, but those markets are different in others ways as well.) Following standard formatting is akin to following guidelines. It helps the reader get straight to the writing without being distracted or confused by extraneous factors.
7. Bad Opening, Unsatisfying Ending
Many books on the craft of writing discuss openings and endings in loving detail, so I will leave it to you to explore the details. A few common peeves are worth noting, though.
Several of the editors I heard from mentioned the mountains of stories they receive that open with the character dreaming or disoriented. They hate those. Another common problem is the “information dump,” in which the author tries to tell us the protagonist’s life story right at the start. As author and anthology and journal editor Karen Pullen says, “One of my peeves is unnecessary back story, many long pages of it. Gah. Delete.”
Endings, too, can be problematic. Too often, say several of my sources, the ending seems rushed or otherwise poorly crafted. Karen Bovenmeyer says, “Make sure your endings are just as beautifully rendered as your beginnings.” Author Meriah Crawford, who has also edited journal and anthology submissions, agrees. “A fair number of stories just stop rather than ending in a satisfying way. (And note that satisfying doesn’t mean happy!) If I can’t see an easy way to fix it, I’m just going to bounce it, no matter how good the rest is.” There should, in other words, be a discernible point to the poem, the essay, the story. Our characters should learn something in the course of the work, and our readers should learn something not only the characters or other elements of the piece, but about themselves as well. (I believe that as writers we should learn from writing, too, but that’s a topic for another time.)
We can’t guarantee we’ll never get a rejection by avoiding these pitfalls. Many rejections have nothing to do with the quality of the work or how it’s presented. As one editor put it, “we are sometimes in the unfortunate position of having to reject work we admire.” So don’t take every rejection to heart (even if you feel like the old song, “You Done Tore Out My Heart And Stomped That Sucker Flat”). The one thing everyone I heard from mentioned in one way or another was a sense of hope. Every one of them wants to find the next most exciting writer, the next best piece of writing. That’s very good news for writers.
Sheila Webster Boneham writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Drop Dead on Recall (Midnight Ink, 2012) is a finalist for best fiction in the Dog Writers Association of American Writing Contest (winners to be announced in February); six of her nonfiction books have won DWAA and Cat Writers Association “best book” awards in their categories. She has published seventeen nonfiction books, two novels, and a variety of short fiction and nonfiction and has taught writing in the U.S. and abroad. She holds a PhD from Indiana University and MFA from the University of Southern Maine/Stonecoast Program. Learn more at her website or Facebook.
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