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How to Write a Rejection Letter. Or Not?

You can read the post at Diabolical Plots here.

I'm not sure I agree completely. There's some good stuff there, to be sure. It is a rejection letter, and it's not going to make the writer feel good. But there's an awful lot of "Nevers," too.  For example: I've read stories before that were written very well, either had been published someone else or could have been, but didn't work for me. If that happens, I definitely want to see more by that writer, and I want that writer to know it. Finally, aside from "Being Honest" (@ #7) this list makes it seem like the editor should be so worried about the fragile writer's feelings, that  if the editor says, "Not bad, but I think it should be a novella" or "The gender dynamics of hurting the wife to get to the superhero put me off..." or, "The plot felt a bit predictable once they arrived on the island" or, "It reminded of Damon Knight (in a good way), but it doesn't quite work for me" or any kind of feedback about what did or didn't work in the story, the writer might shatter. (This seems to be in direct conflict with #7: Be Honest, which seems like it supercedes everything that comes before it.) 

All I can say is that at the end of the day, if getting a rejection letter is going to cripple you emotionally, you probably shouldn't send me your story.

The truth is, I don't like writing rejections because as a writer, I know they suck. But whenever I get a rejection and the editor's taken the time to tell me why she decided to pass on a story of mine - what specifically didn't work, where the editor stopped reading, etc., it might give me some extra insight, whether it be to my own story, or to the publication itself.

A rejection can put you into a funk, sure. Especially if you practice rejectomancy (all hail duotrope) the way I do. But a rejection as something that injures you? Again, maybe you're not ready to send your stories out.

That's what I'm thinking now. But maybe I'm wrong. So let me put it to you - if you're receiving a rejection from me, what do you want me to tell you? Do you just want a form essentially saying "We've read your story and decided it's not what we're looking for." Do you want me to tell you why I decided against the story? What do you want (if you're not going to get an acceptance)?


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May. 21st, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
I haven't received a rejection from you yet (although I'm looking forward to the day!) :)

In general, though... frankly, I prefer the form. Just a simple "Not for us." By the time I send a story out, it's already been beta read and revised, revised, revised. More editorial input isn't likely to help. In fact, it leads to depressing thirteenth-hour second-guessing. When the story is final, it's pretty much final (outside of some tweaking I might do to perhaps make it more appropriate for a particular market).

I consider it a form of cold-calling. When I cold-call, all I'm looking for is a smile and a polite thanks-but-no-thanks. "We're not looking for your product right now, but maybe when we get busy."

Which brings me to one other thing. Editorial feedback in a rejection can be very useful--extremely useful--if it gives me a direction for the next submission. "We prefer the fantasy element to be more front and center" might be a good example.

So... not so much for 'this story,' but for the next story. Something that narrows down the editor's preference so I'll know next time not to send him my elves in space story.
May. 21st, 2010 01:28 pm (UTC)
Something that narrows down the editor's preference so I'll know next time not to send him my elves in space story.

Yes! This! This is spot on!
(no subject) - eljaydaly - May. 21st, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 21st, 2010 01:27 pm (UTC)
(Take into account that I don't have many rejections to my experience because I've not really submitted much!!)

Honesty. I'd prefer a blunt pass than false praise and hearty wishes the story "finds a home." But if the editor in question is giving a few lines of feedback, my ideal rejection letter would look something like this:

Dear Bogwitch~
While I appreciated your comical twist on Rumplestilskin, there was too much graphic pornography in this piece for our publication. The quality of writing is quite good, but the style simply won't work as a read-aloud podcast. If you can manage to write something that doesn't make us all blush in the reading, feel free to submit again.
Sincerely~Podcastle head-honcho
You might want to seek some sort of counseling.


The point being, give a couple of positives, a couple of negatives if possible. Ultimately, be honest about why you passed. Is the writing just not quite there yet? Say so. If there is no positive, be honest and tell the writer where it went wrong. A couple of constructive criticisms from someone in the position to give valuable advice is HUGE to a writer. And always appreciated.

Some things like, "good luck elsewhere," or "I'm sure this piece will find a home someplace else" could well be true, but it seems they've become cliches of themselves. Editors garnered scary reputations over the years. I suspect such well-intentioned closing wishes has been an attempt to gentle those reputations. Once a writer has seen it a half dozen times though, it loses all "nice" and becomes patronizing. IMO
May. 21st, 2010 04:04 pm (UTC)
See, I feel like there's a false dichotomy between "Being honest" and "Best of luck." Because why wouldn't I want a writer to suceed, if not at PC, then somewhere else? I'm not sure whether the "nice" ending actually becomes patronizing, or it's just that after 100 rejections (or so) the writer's eyes have glazed over (or glanced away).

(And you don't need counseling. At least, not anymore, now that you have your sky chair back :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - May. 21st, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 21st, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
Even though I was the one who posted the article for Chris, I don't agree with everything in it. I found it well-stated and entertaining enough to be worth posting, but I just really don't agree with some of it.

Like you, I thought that #7 seemed to be in direct conflict with some of the others.

To your question: if I'm receiving a rejection from you, or anybody, ideally I would like a civil but honest personal rejection giving feedback about why the story was rejected. For instance, I just got a Dreams of Decadence rejection yesterday, but they have a nice form letter with checkboxes that they check to indicate a reason for rejection. The boxes that were checked on mine were "Plot was thin or nonexistent" and "Please try us again with something else". In addition, one sentence was penned in at the bottom "Loved the concept, but it moved way too slow". And, well, the editor was right. It is a slow story. I probably won't change the story just based on that opinion. But I have toyed with the idea of writing a connected story with the same character with the same power, but in a different part of his life. Her feedback encourages me to do that, and is useful.

For another example, I got a recent rejection from Redstone saying that they liked the story but it "doesn't fall into the realm of what we're looking to purchase at this point." I'd sent the story before I interviewed the editor M.E. Ray. In that interview he said he was looking for SF that actually tried to predict what the future would be like. At the moment of the interview I knew I sent the wrong piece--a story about configurable parallel universes used to produce novel manuscripts. My story wasn't plausible in any way, nor intended to be a prediction of the future, so it really did not fit what they were looking for.
May. 21st, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
Yeah, for me, #7 is the trump card. (Although don't be an ass is just as high up there.)
May. 21st, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
When I read that article, my first thought was, "This person has never actually written a rejection letter."

Having both sent and received rejections, frankly I don't care much how they're worded as long as they're not rude or abusive. I do like to get a small bit of feedback, not necessarily because I'm going to make changes, but because A)even if they're not intended to, they tell me something about the editor's taste and requirements and B)it's nice to feel like my story made enough of an impression that the editor felt moved to say something beyond the form, even if she didn't buy it.

And things like "send more" are conventional ways to send certain messages. A follow-up email? Really? Like, as an editor I keep a database of authors whose subs I kind of liked and spend an hour sending them separate mailings? Honestly? It's about a million times easier for everyone to just say in that rejection email the exact truth--you would, in fact, like to see more subs from this person, because this one didn't work for you but you think maybe another one might. Why should the editor make double work for herself, or clutter up the writer's inbox?

I can't imagine getting annoyed enough by a polite "send more" or "this is well written but" in a rejection that I would feel moved to instruct the world on how to write a rejection. Especially when you consider, form letters are just that--forms. Like cover letters, they're composed of more or less pre-fab components, utterly conventional and basically meaningless in themselves. Why waste any time worrying about it, as long as the rejection doesn't say something like "stop writing, you suck" or something. I mean, seriously.
May. 21st, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
I do like to get a small bit of feedback, not necessarily because I'm going to make changes, but because A)even if they're not intended to, they tell me something about the editor's taste and requirements and B)it's nice to feel like my story made enough of an impression that the editor felt moved to say something beyond the form, even if she didn't buy it.

This is it for me, or at least, what I hope to glean from the receiving end. Because unless something there's a light-bulb moment, the story (as LJ said above) has probably been beta, critted, rewritten, etc., to death. It might not be right for that specific market, but you might give you some insight as to another story that is.
May. 21st, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
As far as personal rejections, I don't tend to bitch about those too much, simply because getting a personal rejection is so rare. Civility is a huge plus, story feedback is the holy grail, but at the very least it's nice to know that someone actually read the STORY instead of just rejecting based on the lack of Name Fame. When I get a personal rejection from Necrotic Tissue, I know that the editor read it, and that makes a difference. As opposed to getting the same useless form rejection from Analog. I'm not saying that Dr. Schmidt doesn't read my stories, but from the form rejections I get there's no way for me to tell one way or the other.

There's only one form rejection that really annoyed me. It was, in its entirety "Sorry, no." If you're going to be completely unhelpful, then you may as well just use the form letter, this one came off as too curt.

For form rejections I get much more annoyed about small things. If you're using the same form letter for 99% of your rejections like most markets do, then for the love of all that is holy take some time and make it a good one. My particular pet peeves:

1. An email form letter which does not even mention the story title. I've gotten some that say "Regarding your recent submission." As if they've totally forgotten what the title was and can't be bothered to remember.

2. "Keep writing!" God, I hate this line. It never fails to sound condescending. Like talking to your kid after his team loses a baseball game: "Keep your chin up, sport! You did your best and that's all that counts. But I know what will cheer you up! Consolation cake!" Sure, some writers may give up after a rejection, but those people are not likely to change their course for these two words, and for for those who don't give up that easily, this gets really annoying.

3. A form letter that says "We enjoyed it". I like to hear that in a personal rejection, but in a form letter it's CLEARLY insincere because it's a friggin form letter.

4. Needlessly obtuse sentence structure. These people are supposed to be editors, right? So I'd like to think that they can put words in some coherent ordering. Adding more words doesn't help unless the words add meaning. Things like: "We regret to have to inform you that we are declining acceptance at this time."
-The regret is clearly insincere, because it's a form letter.
-They don't regret rejecting you. They don't regret informing you of your rejection. But they DO regret the fact that they feel obligated to inform you of your rejection.
-"Declining acceptance"? Who the hell wrote that? That rings of "I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request" except this is apparently NOT trying to be funny.
May. 21st, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
3. A form letter that says "We enjoyed it". I like to hear that in a personal rejection, but in a form letter it's CLEARLY insincere because it's a friggin form letter.

Okay, THAT makes a lot more sense to me as a complaint. "We enjoyed your story, but" would be dishonest to put in a form. In a personal rejection, it's different, because why would I take the time to write that if I didn't like it?

I agree that having a concise, non-abusive form is a good thing to have.
May. 21st, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
I once built a robot, and by strange chance that robot is fueled on rejection slips. Every morning it begs and it pleads, "Please, sir, keep me alive!"
May. 21st, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
I love it! I'd have no trouble keeping that bot going. :)
(no subject) - krylyr - May. 21st, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 21st, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
I am way too verbose today. Methinks I should write a Part Two of the article with my own points to offer a counterpoint.

But while I'm ranting, a couple things that bug me when I see them in submissions guidelines:
1. An explicit prohibition of submitting "trunk" stories. I think that you should send in your best work, regardless, but from an editor's point of view, they cannot determine what is a trunk story and what is not. One writer's "trunk" quality might be better than another writer's brand new stories. So, why state this at all?

2. Guidelines that say "Only submit stories if your writing is of professional quality." Obviously, any magazine is going to strive to get the best stories it can get its hands on. No magazine asks for "unprofessional quality" in their guidelines, so this ought to be implicit. This seems to just be an attempt to make one's magazine seem better than those other magazines that don't explicitly say this, but it just comes off as pretentious. And it's also likely to be counterproductive, because a writer who has a really neat idea, strong characters, and a decent plot but who is not widely published may second guess themselves after reading this and say "Well, I guess my work isn't for them" and then this market may have missed out on a really kickass story.
May. 21st, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
OK, one more (I should not be allowed to write more words in comments then the original post!)

This week I got a form rejection for a short story submission from a market after waiting for nine months. That really bugged me. If you're going to take the same amount of time to reject a short story as it takes for a woman's body to make a baby from scratch, then I really don't think it's unreasonable to expect it to be personalized.
May. 21st, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC)
Personally, I'd want to know why it was rejected. If I don't know what a problem is (if there is one other than I just didn't like it), how can I address it?

I haven't racked up a signficant amount of rejections yet, (I also haven't submitted a lot yet) but I appreciated the editor taking the time to tell me what the problem was. I sent them a thank you letter for their time and feedback.

But, that's just me.
May. 21st, 2010 05:16 pm (UTC)
By the way, I've asked a couple editors whether a "thank you" reply for a personal rejection is desired, and they both said "no". Not that it's going to put a black mark on one's record, but they had 100s of other submissions to deal with on a monthly basis and, though they appreciated the sentiment, they'd rather have one less email to read.

I don't know if that's a universal sentiment or not, I'd be interested what Dave prefers, but I usually refrain from sending a thank you, even though I really do appreciate it.
(no subject) - krylyr - May. 21st, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 21st, 2010 05:19 pm (UTC)
The rejection letter I prefer to receive is the one that ends with "sorry, we were just fuckin' with ya... of course we'd love to accept your story!"

More seriously, I think Terri's response pretty much covers mine, so I'll be lazy and just point to that :)
May. 21st, 2010 05:32 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I like that one, too. Or...at least, I think I would!
May. 21st, 2010 07:02 pm (UTC)
My process is fairly different from eljaydaly's; while my stories are at a high polish when I send them out, I definitely do not take on board all crit that I receive. I work from the "where it's wrong is right, what's wrong probably isn't" model of crit. That means even at submitttable-polish levels, it's still useful to me to get editorial feedback.

As long as the rejection isn't going out of its way to be insulting, I don't really care. And I say this as a writer who came very close to just giving up before selling his first story. Getting bent out of shape at some market's rejection slips seems to me akin to getting angry that people wear yellow shirts.

Also, I should clarify on the 'not insulting' part.

"The part where he uses the drill to trepan the marmoset was incredibly stupid, marmoset skulls do not have the density to withstand the concrete bit he was using in the previous scene, it would just splatter the thing like a grape." A-Okay!

"The first half was pretty good, but it took a turn for self-important preciousness when the zombie babies took over the daycare." Perfectly acceptable.

"You are a terrible writer and we had to fumigate the office to clean the stink of your fiction out." Not good

"This story reminded me of a big bloody turd that sent me to the hospital." Uncool.

(edited to fix my damn html tags)

Edited at 2010-05-21 07:04 pm (UTC)
May. 21st, 2010 11:02 pm (UTC)
Yes, there are different kinds of helpful, or at least different kinds of insightful, aren't there?

And different kinds of jerky personal responses, too :)
May. 21st, 2010 08:48 pm (UTC)
A more concise version of the blog post you linked to: "The only acceptable rejection letter is, 'We will not be using your story; it is now free to be submitted elsewhere.'" If you follow all its precepts, this is all that's left to you.

The post has very little on how to actually write a rejection letter. It should have been titled "How NOT to Write a Rejection Slip." Or more accurately, "What I don't like to see in a rejection slip when editors reject my stories." He's made the common error of assuming that Everyone Is Just Like Him.

Some writers don't like rejections that encourage or make it clear how close the story was to being sold. The ones I know are all fine writers and fine people. They'd rather get a form rejection. It's sort of like how, for some, losing the Super Bowl feels worse than having the worst record in the league.

To find out that they thought about your story seriously but ultimately decided against it can be heartbreaking. But rejection itself is already pretty heartbreaking to being with.

Other writers (including me) want very much to know how close the story was to being sold. My take is that editors get more than enough slush as it is. They're only going to encourage writers whose work they want to see more of. Moreover, their comments give me a hint of their sensibility and what they're looking for. This is valuable stuff. I don't (and can't) demand it, but it's always nice to get it.

Rejections hurt. But they were going to hurt anyway. It's like not the editor can write the rejection in some way which prevents the writer from hurting. That the editor has taken time to write anything at all is a good thing. That the editor writes something encouraging is awesome. I'd take that over a form rejection any day. (Of course, I'd take a sale over either.)

Magazines get enough slush as it is. An editor has no reason to write false praise. A writer can parse the praise he receives into something insulting if he really works at it. He can also slice his eyes into intricate ribbons with rusty razor blades too. He *can* do it, but why?

So much better to be encouraged by the encouraging words. Yes, it's frustrating to know that you're close but not quite there. For me anyway, that's far less frustrating than to have absolutely no idea where you stand at all.

I wonder if the blogger has ever edited anything before. Sometimes, editors turn down stories for reasons that have nothing to do with the story itself. And it's possible to read and enjoy a story that nevertheless is not right for a given venue. That's how editors can write good and encouraging things about a story that they're not going to buy.
(i.e., "If they liked it so much, they didn't they buy it?" Well, dear writer, it's not all about you.)

I've had received at least a few rejections where editors have told me they enjoyed the story. I remain curiously uninjured by the experience.

May. 21st, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
The post has very little on how to actually write a rejection letter. It should have been titled "How NOT to Write a Rejection Slip."

In truth, this was my first thought, as well.

One thing I'm noticing is that there's probably no one answer - different writers would like different kind of rejections. Some like forms, some like personals. So I've learned something :)

Thanks for your input, sir.
May. 24th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)
Great post!

I like an honest, even frank, rejection myself, but slush readers/editors would do well to remember that there's always room at the table for Mr. Manners :)
May. 28th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC)
Definitely. I think manners are just as important as honesty.
(Deleted comment)
May. 28th, 2010 08:26 pm (UTC)
Yes, and there are definitely tiered form rejections, too.

Thanks fors topping by!
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - krylyr - May. 28th, 2010 08:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 28th, 2010 07:09 pm (UTC)
It's tough rejecting stories from thousands of friends and strangers every year. I'm not always capable of explaining "why" in every rejection -- a few experiences have even led me to think this might be a bad idea in general.

I don't ask for more if I don't hope to see it. I say something nice or try to be helpful if I can articulate it coherently and have time to do so. Sometimes even personal rejections come across as forms, especially when I'm just trying for efficiency.
May. 28th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)
Good points. I appreciate you stopping by, Camille.
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(no subject) - ex_camillea - Jun. 2nd, 2010 12:29 am (UTC) - Expand
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