I must start with this story:
I sent an essay to a journal and they rejected it. This is year’s ago. Their brief note suggested they enjoyed the piece but ultimately decided to pass. It was a nice note; no one died in it. About a year later I did a reading at a conference and read that very piece, completely unchanged. After the reading, the very same editor came up and asked if the piece was available, that he loved it and would like to publish it. Not only did he do so, but the work went on to be my first essay noted by Best American Essays. The same journal with two different editors went on to publish four more works of mine, with two more going on to further recognition at BAE.
My point: publishing and rejection can be completely random. It can depend upon the particular style of the journal, or a particular editor, or even the theme of one particular edition, but it can often be equally dependent upon the caffeine intake of whoever read the work, the time of day, the weather, how much it reminds the reader of an old lover, or even whether or not the Pirates won that day. Sometimes essays and poems are rejected simply because the journal already had enough pieces for that time, and other times they’re rejected with great scrutiny and long epistles explaining all the changes that could be made for whichever other journal might publish it, though that new journal may just as easily prefer the essay in its original form.
Over the course of the last week or so I was rejected three times, accepted twice, had two personal invitations by publications to send them some work, started a new book of five long-form essays called “Five,” and sent off a manuscript to an editor for consideration. So tonight after an amazing sunset over the river and cool October breezes pushing September almost completely from my consciousness, I sat back like Charlie Brown perusing his pictures of France and wondered what I have learned.
Writing has taught me, finally, to trust myself and let go of my concerns and anxiety over what others think, how others perceive my decisions. In the writing world, editors can be helpful or random, can understand what they want but not what you do, or appreciate what you do but still not want it. Some like snark, some like drama, some like biting humor and some aren’t happy unless the piece sounds like it was written by some foulmouthed hack. It is essential to study the journal, to understand its history and style, its preference for length and how free one can be with language. In fact, for an editor to suggest in the rejection letter that the writer should first study the journal before submitting is so pretentious I can only assume the editors who make such suggestions believe they are addressing freshman comp students who have never submitted before.
I once sent a piece to a place and it was rejected. A few days later, forgetting I submitted it there because my mind sometimes slips, resubmitted the same piece without changes to the same journal and they accepted it with great thanks. Random.
I don’t pay attention to the comments and suggestions from readers at journals about how to change the work. I don’t know them; I do not know their style or ability; and I may be fine with the piece as it is but need to find another journal instead. In the end, I simply need to trust myself or I will forever be second guessing myself.
My favorite rejections are the simple ones. I received one which read, “Dear Bob, Pass. The Editors.” Perfect. They don’t want it; got it. I understand. That one is crystal clear. I also once received what appeared to be a detailed rejection from a journal which mentioned my piece by name several times in the letter, and which truly made me feel they took their time and honestly wished to communicate with me. Then I mentioned it to a friend of mine who is a writer in Ohio, and she revealed she received the identical rejection from the same journal, only the name and title changed in the paragraphs. How do they expect us to take their thoughts seriously?
Last year I received a rejection from the journal which published five essays of mine, but which turned down this particular piece with the suggestion I study their prose style before considering submitting to them and that they expect their writers to read their journal before expecting to be published in it. First of all, the rejection of the essay didn’t bother me; after reevaluating the work I agree it needed much more polishing, and I have since done so and sent it out elsewhere and it has been published. The trouble I had with the thoughtless rejection was that editor’s inability to simply say no. I wanted to write back and say, “I took your suggestion and read old issues to get to know your prose style and, oh, hey, look! FIVE of my works are in there! Moron!” Instead I deleted it. I delete lots of rejections. I have one friend who adheres to the trend to tape the rejections to the wall and shoot for 100 rejections in a month or maybe in a year, I forget. I prefer to keep the negative crap out of my line of sight. Besides, the implication the writer did not study the prose style of the journal is condescending. One writer/friend commented I might not recognize the editor is new and the prose style is no longer the same therefore the comment was valid, but that makes no sense. Then why in God’s name did they send me to old issues to study their style?
But it is the nature of rejection; I’m used to it, both socially and professionally. When the percentage of acceptances goes up, it is mostly because those essays have been rejected enough for me to rework them and then they all do well. It is a numbers game.
I know a writer who for a while every time a journal accepted one of his works, the journal subsequently folded.
Another example: I have a close friend whose manuscript was at a publisher getting ready for publication when a new editor there decided it needed a LOT of changes; “very invasive editing suggestions,” my friend told me. Instead of making the changes he pulled the manuscript and sent it somewhere else which accepted it and published it as is. The work went on to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Editors and readers are like teachers: just because they’re qualified to get the job doesn’t mean they don’t suck at it.
I swear I once got a rejection from a journal I never sent anything to. It was like a “Snoopy” cartoon. I mean, I must have sent them something and simply forgot, but I could never find what I sent them, didn’t have an email in my sent file or a file in my Submittable account, and have nothing on my list of “works submitted” which I keep. Perhaps they just anticipated receiving crap from me and wanted to cut me off at the pass.
A writer’s history with a journal is irrelevant to acceptance. The new piece must stand on its own and it must be the criteria for the new reading period. But that doesn’t mean the writer started from scratch when the piece was sent. It helps to mention previous successes in a cover letter, especially if some of those successes are the result of publication in that very journal. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t do this. But like a famous comedian taking the stage, the audience will give you a break and listen more intently for a few minutes, but if you don’t quickly start making them laugh, you’re outta there. A track record with a journal may get you read faster, but that’s about it. You still can’t suck. But neither should the journal treat any writer like he or she is a moron. Just read the damn thing and Pass or Accept.
I have no idea what my win/loss record is at this point. Better than the Mets I’m guessing, but really, I stopped keeping track. I think it’s pretty good. Mostly that’s because I do a fine job of rejecting my own work several times through scrutiny before I decide it is ready to head out on its own. I don’t believe writers should listen to the advice of anyone who criticizes the work unless the writer knows and trusts that person. I have a few I trust, very few. Of course, finding someone to criticize the work is as easy as finding a parent to praise it. In the end it is a waste of time trying to “improve” through blind criticism. You must know and understand and trust the person who makes suggestions. And this isn’t because these other people don’t have something beneficial to contribute; they very well may.
The list of famous rejections is out there; check it out. You’ve got to be one hell of an accomplished writer to make the list of famous rejections, and I don’t play at that level. Still, in my own little world I show up enough to understand the process pretty well, and I understand this most: my audience is me, I’m the first and most important editor, and only when I’m pleased does the work move along. I’m the primary reader, no one else. If someone finds something in what I do worthy of passing along to her or his readers, that’s tremendous, but if I’m not happy with the prose style, I probably won’t send it out; and if I am, I probably won’t change it for someone else I don’t even know. I write this shit for me, not you. I just hope you like it anyway.
One more thing: There’s only one thing worse than rejection and that’s completely ignoring the work or the writer. This is true in the submission world and the reading and book signing world. If you see us sitting at a table of our books, don’t walk past because you don’t plan on buying a book. Come say hi—we’re an intensely lonely bunch of people. And besides, someone else might come over if you’re standing there and that person won’t feel pressured since I’ll be talking to you.
Writers write because somewhere deep inside is a deeply-seeded need to scream, “Holy Shit! Did you SEE that??!!” but we don’t want to get arrested.