Let me show you one of my earliest rejection letters, from age 22. This rejection letter reshaped my entire thought process around rejection and in retrospect was foundational in my career.
Let me walk you through how it blew my young mind and made me rethink how I would view rejections forever. Most writers would do well to reframe rejection in the manner that I did after receiving this letter. Since this letter, rejection causes me no anxiety at all.
Let me walk through the salient features of this Weird Tales rejection letter. You can listen to the podcast below, or read the article further below.
First off, it was composed on a typewriter.
The typos aren’t worth correcting … it’s too difficult, on a typewriter, to correct them. Check out the strange, seemingly fake address in the top right … this rejection letter has personality.
It was the first rejection I ever received that felt like it was a “real” rejection in the sense that it appeared unreal. It conformed to all of my ridiculous, preconceived, stereotyped, Hollywood notions about what a writer’s rejection letters should be.
“Alas — not for us.”
Succinct and so neutral!
My 22-year-old self saw these words as a revelation. There are stories for them, and stories that are not for them. If they are rejecting my story, maybe it isn’t the story’s fault, or their fault, or my fault.
Maybe it just isn’t for them.
They offer no less than three concrete examples of how the story is flawed and could be improved.
They said something nice.
“We did like the throwaway details.” I don’t need my ego soothed now (maybe I did then) but it’s a nice touch.
They sent me their guidelines…
… because I didn’t follow them properly. Obviously, I look like an absolute amateur to them. They can smell how bad I am, and how new I am at this.
This point is important to press for a moment. From my submission, they knew immediately that I was not worth their time. But they gave me their time.
They gave me a lot of their time.
They read the entire story, wrote a detailed letter to reject it — on a typewriter — and then sent me a copy of their guidelines.
They even asked me to comment on whether or not their guidelines were clear and made sense to novice writers! Included in that last sentence is the assumption that maybe, just maybe, I had read their guidelines … but they had made some mistake in writing the guidelines and they were not plain enough for novices to comprehend.
Since this rejection, I went on to work as an editor at a number of places (most notably as the editor of dANDelion) and I will admit right now that I never put this much thought and time into a rejection, even when I had to reject the work of my friends!
All in all, they took me seriously.
When I received this letter, I was 22 — a “grown-up” despite still being in that period of adolescent brain development that neuroscientists say continues until around age 25.
It also wasn’t my first rejection. I had received a number of form rejections by this point, and even some kind, hand-scrawled comments. In fact, I’d even published a decent amount by this point.
I immediately saw everything they had done and I thought to myself, I’ve been looking at rejection all wrong. They are taking me seriously.
They are rejecting the work, but they are taking me seriously. A rejection is professional correspondence. They are treating me like a professional.
Rejection doesn’t mean I’m not a “real writer.” Quite the opposite. Only “real” writers get rejections. Even a form rejection — in fact, especially a form rejection — means that they are treating you like everyone else — and everyone else is a real writer too.
That reframing of rejection changed my entire writing life.
If you struggle with rejection, try to reframe it. Look forward to your next rejection.
My friend GMB Chomichuk makes it his goal to collect one rejection every week. That’s right — he’s seeking the rejection (if he “fails” and has his work accepted, then he just gets back to the hard work of being rejected).
It’s easy to forget that having your work accepted isn’t your job. Your job is writing. The editor’s job is to accept or reject your work. Stop trying to do someone else’s job, and most of all don’t stress out about a job that isn’t yours. Focus on your job.
A final thought from the stellar Ursula K. Le Guin:
Let me wrench this quote out of context to conclude — it’s a good quote to keep in mind amongst the nightmare of the social sphere, but it also has a nice, narrow applicability here:
Go on and do your work. Do it well. It is all you can do.