Rejection Letters for Your Short Stories, Poems, and Other Bits of Brilliance: A Guide

If you’ve spent any time trying to place creative work for publication, you’ve probably experienced what seems like more than your fair share of rejection.  Your stuff is good, after all.  The thing is, thousands of people have good stuff.

It’s the piece you got into your MFA program with?  Great.  That just meant it has promise.  It workshopped well?  That’s another step, I guess.  Your professor, a well-respected, accomplished writer, really, really believes in it in its current form?  Then keep submitting.

Until the acceptance letter comes, you’ll get lots and lots of gentle letdowns and maybe a few unintentionally terse rejections.  Get them out of the way.  Don’t take them personally.  Editors, like writers, are highly subjective and idiosyncratic.  They have to be.  If you’ve written a something you know is ready, something that has been revised and re-written and imploded and rebuilt and exists now in the best of all possible worlds, you’re ready to submit, and you’re ready to be rejected.  But remember, it’s not you being rejected.  It’s not even your talent.  It’s the proposition that the piece you have submitted, even with its clear merits, is the right fit for a given publication.

I’ve listed below three typical rejection-letter formats.  If you’re new to the process (or new to rejection), you might find it helpful.  Behold, the highly abridged and not-so-secret hierarchy of literary rejection letters:

1: The standard form letter like the one seen here*.  Not very gratifying, but don’t take it personally.  You’re busy, they’re busy, and that’s just how it goes.  That said, I don’t submit to markets that don’t allow simultaneous submissions. In my opinion, publishers have no right to tell you not to submit elsewhere, especially with the proliferation of people writing publishable material.
2: The form letter with your name and the title of your piece.  Pretty standard practice.  I think most writers get more rejections with this level of personalization than without.
3: The personalized rejection letter with a personal note telling you how much they liked your story, even though it’s not for them, and encouraging you to send them more. In the super-competitive and completely subjective literary world, this can feel almost as good as an acceptance when you’re moving along this spectrum.  When you’re at this point with a specific piece or a specific market, you know that the editors really looked hard at your piece, thought about it, and saw enough promise (or whatever they look for) to personally encourage you as a writer.  No one owes you that, so when you get it, it’s a good thing.  Follow up with a thank you.

*This particular form letter, which I received some years ago, is perfect in a very important way:  it starts with the word “unfortunately.”  While not the most encouraging way to start correspondence (this is a rejection letter after all), there’s considerable courtesy in this approach.  Most importantly, is lets you know right away that the rest of the email is not about your Pushcart nomination.  It’s my conviction that after the salutation, the very first word of the very first sentence of every rejection letter should always be unfortunately.  This saves writers from having to scan the rest of the text for the word, the emotional equivalent of tearing the bandage off quickly.  But you still need to read the rest of the email, because their may be specific comments or requests for more work.

Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep workshopping.  Keep reading.  Keep rebuilding.

Keep going.

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