Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Rejection is Your Teacher

By Scott Warner
Copyright 2007 by Scott Warner, All Rights Reserved

Some time ago I realized I didn't learn to write by writing. I learned to write by getting published. And as wonderful as it is to just send off a piece and receive a check, that isn't how it happens. At least, not at first. Rejection is not only a normal part of a writer's life, it's healthy. Rejection can also be your best teacher.

Rejection hurts, and no one likes it. After my first short story ever submitted was published in a top market, I received dozens of rejections. My reaction was always the same: I went straight to sleep, shoes and all. For a time I stopped writing.

But like any of life's failures, rejection is an opportunity. How you choose to respond can make or break you as a writer.

While disappointment may be your first reaction to opening a rejection, it's important to realize that you have a choice. How you react is up to you. You may choose to ignore it ("It doesn't matter"), shrug it off ("Oh, well"), rationalize it ("The editor doesn't like me"), exaggerate it ("It's handwritten, so it's practically an acceptance"), analyze it to death ("The editor used future tense, so he wants to publish it"), overreact ("I've got to completely rewrite"), or learn from it ("Let's see what I can improve"). Depending on what else is happening in your life at the time, you may choose one or another favorite saw.

But what you want and what you need are not always the same. And you can choose to learn from a rejection even if your initial reaction is different.

Surely there are many reasons for an editor to reject a good piece of writing -- it doesn't fit, the editorial calendar is full, personal preference -- but you should keep in mind that the editor wants you to succeed. He or she doesn't want to receive poor writing that's a waste of time to read. It may -- just may -- be possible that editors also hate writing rejection slips, because they've been there and done that. They know what you're going through.

The implication here is that writing is a professional partnership between you and an editor. It is rarely a teacher-student relationship. An editor has every expectation that you have something to say and know how to say it. Indeed, he or she is relying on you to write. And just like any of us, an editor may get excited about an idea, even if the writer misses the mark.

Thinking of writing, on spec or not, as a professional partnership not only elevates it above a shot in the dark; it makes the lowly rejection slip a necessary learning tool. A rejection, then, is no mere slap-down but a professional opinion rendered in the appropriate time and manner. An editor wants good writing and expects to write rejections as much as you expect to receive them.

A partnership also implies a range of compatibility. Let's face it -- in our working lives some people are easier to understand and get along with than others -- and editors and writers are no different. When it "clicks," it's magic. When it doesn't, it isn't. Not every submission or rejection is the same. Even so, professional relationships entail respect and decorum. The end result -- you as a writer creating quality writing -- is desired by both parties.

But if these relationships are different, however subtle or obvious, how can you possibly learn from rejections? Why not simply move on to the next editor?

That's one approach, and you can try it to see what happens. But one definition of insanity is to do the same thing many times and expect different results. Think of rejections as tools to help you create different results. Put simply, if you expect an editor to treat your writing seriously, return the favor and be thankful you have a new opportunity to learn.

It's safe to say that if your attitude is one of "What can I learn to improve?" you're in a good place to take these basic steps:

  • Give yourself time to react. Your first, emotional response will likely be a natural, painful pang in your gut. This may be followed by regret, even anger. Let it run its course. Afterward, examine the rejection with your intellect.

  • Realize that while all writing is rejected for a reason, you may not know what that reason is. Don't beat yourself up about it, but always accept it at face value. It is what it is.

  • Accept an editor's reasoning as honest, if any reason for rejection is given. If, for example, "Too expository" is checked off on a preprinted slip, examine your writing with this in mind.

  • If no reason is given and your piece is simply ignored, returned, or rejected with a bland reply, do your homework: read and understand your target to make sure your submission fits; read the editorial guidelines carefully; reread your work to make certain there are no grammatical and spelling errors.

  • Let it go. A rejection is, it must be said, one event. It may be one of dozens, hundreds, or thousands. There's no sense in beating yourself up about it or thinking it is more than it is. Accept it, learn from it, and move on.

Not only are writers all different, but editors are, too. If you submit to a variety of publications, you are more likely to find the best place for you to learn.

A hallmark of professionalism is the attitude that learning is a road and not just a destination. The dynamic process of writing is no different, and rejection is part of its learning curve. Fraught with heartache and setbacks, it can have its share of triumphs and kicks. It's wonderful when a rejection can point you abruptly toward success. Look for it, and you'll be a better writer.