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How to deal with rejection

Advanced tips for writers

How to deal with rejection

If your work is out in the world and has been declined by a publisher, then you’ll have felt the pain of rejection. This post is about how to deal with it. I’m writing about dealing with rejection as a writer because someone emailed me over the weekend asking this question – and it was such a good one I thought I would include it on here. I realise not everyone who writes wants to be published, but from here on in I’m going to assume, as you’re reading this, that you do want to get your work published. I’m mentioning that upfront because fear of rejection could be holding you back from sending your work out at all. This is for you if you want to get the work out there even if you haven’t taken that step yet.

First off, I’ve gathered together some resources on handling rejection, which you can find here. These include resources for writers as well as general advice about resilience. What follows is my take on it. These techniques won’t all work for everyone, but if any of these seem interesting to you, give them a go.

See writing as a job

Even if you don’t do it every day, when you’re doing your writing, treat it like your professional occupation. As it’s a job, you’ll want to:

  • Schedule time to do it and turn up on time
  • Plan and organise your writing life
  • Keep records
  • Accept that there will be typical tasks or issues that ‘come with the job’

For example, a plumber would make appointments with people and turn up (hopefully!), would plan and organise their time, keep records, and accept that for every brand new kitchen he or she fits, there will probably be 10 blocked toilets.

Teachers turn up on time to teach their classes, plan their lessons and organise time to do other parts of the job like marking or speaking to parents. They keep records of student progress, and they accept that sometimes lessons don’t go to plan, however much they prepare.

Writing, as a job, involves sending work out and integral to that process is – you guessed it – getting some nos. It comes with the job. Just as you can’t be a plumber without dealing with a few blocked toilets or a teacher without having some difficult lessons sometimes, you can’t be a published writer without some nos.

Check that your writing is ‘above the bar’ – and send it to the right place

There are some publications which need the writing to sparkle so much that it outshines 1000s of other submissions in order to get published. On the other hand, there are many opportunities out there where you don’t have to be Kazuo Ishiguro to get published. Rather, you need to be above a certain bar, quality-wise, in order to be in with a chance of success. The work has to be clearly written with the reader in mind and carefully proof-read. It usually needs to have an overarching theme or narrative. Having said that, where you send the work is more important that quality. You could send the most beautifully written literary fiction to Gardeners’ World Magazine and they wouldn’t publish it, because they publish articles about gardening and not literary fiction. Granta Magazine want your sparkly prose, but probably wouldn’t take an article on how to plant herbaceous borders.

Think about the statistics

Statistically speaking, a percentage of your submissions will come back with a no. This podcast on rejections goes into the maths of rejection, which is fascinating. It references ‘The Science of Submission’, a 2016 article by writer Keysha Whitaker in American magazine The Writer, which examined acceptance and rejection rates. Whitaker discovered an average acceptance rate of 5% and a range of 2 – 22.5%. Given that even those at the lower end of this range were getting 2% of their submissions accepted, we can assume that the writing had passed the ‘quality bar’ that I mention above, if only to make the maths easier.

What can you take away from this? It follows that to get some yeses, you have to send out enough submissions, some of which will be declined. Purely based on the statistics examined by Whitaker, if you come in at the average, you would have to send out 20 pieces to get 1 published.

Get analytical when you get a yes

When you get a yes, look at why. How did you find out about the opportunity? What tone did you take in your email? What did you do differently? How well did you follow the submission guidelines? How well did you research the market first? What’s different about the writing this time?

Turn a no into a positive thing

This isn’t always the case, but a no can be a sign that whoever or wherever you sent the work to isn’t the right person or the right opportunity for you. Once you’ve allowed yourself to feel annoyed for a while, thinking ‘that obviously wasn’t the right thing for me’ intentionally can help you to feel better about the process. Nos help you to hone your submissions and to get a better idea of where to send the work to. If you’re interested in exploring this idea further, you might like this post from Very Well Mind on negativity bias.

Always have something out

This is good advice if you have been writing for a while and have a few pieces of work (or pitches, depending on your genre) that you can send out. Create a document so you can keep track of your submissions and spend time every so often updating it, and sending to new opportunities. This makes the process much more business-like than sending one thing and waiting for a response. It therefore makes the nos part of the process and eventually you don’t feel them quite as personally. You can get used to it.

Draw up a shortlist

This hack goes hand in hand with the previous one, but you can use this however many pieces of writing (or pitches) you’ve finished. Draw up a shortlist of opportunities to submit or pitch to. Keep updating this list so that you have somewhere else to send your work if it comes back. I suggest having at least 10 opportunities on file at a time. Make use of writing magazines and online databases to find out about opportunities. Here’s my ‘list of lists’ of competitions and other opportunities.

Reflect and review

Do you know why the work was rejected? The editor or agent may have given you a reason. It may not be the real reason, though it isn’t necessarily an excuse! I got a rejection the other day saying they were looking for 6 stories and they got over 1000 submissions. These statistics made me feel much better. It wasn’t about me but about the sheer numbers they received.

Editors and agents don’t usually give feedback. If they do, then consider it carefully and decide whether you agree. Another example: a few years ago, I had a story rejected because the editor didn’t think the ending was strong enough. I rewrote the ending and resubmitted it, she loved it, and it was published – so in some cases rejection can be the start of a conversation.

Get some perspective and get some moral support

One way to get some perspective is to join a local writing group and get feedback on your own work while giving feedback to other people. Then you can try to make the work as good as it can possibly be before sending it out again. Doing this can help get you the moral support that you need. If it’s a long project, you may also wish to use a manuscript reading services. There are some submission opportunities that do offer feedback (these are usually, but not always, paid opportunities) so that’s also an option.

Read about your favourite writers

Go in deep and research the lives of your favourite writers. Read about several and have a think about the patterns. I’ve written more about that idea in this post. You’ll notice that there will be moments of success and there will be moments of difficulty and that in order to get published, almost every successful writer had to keep submitting regularly and repeatedly. In fact, the people with the most nos will also be the people who are the most successful – because they’re the one who didn’t give up.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Louise xx

P.S. If you’ve enjoyed this post, you can take a look at the books and courses I have available (some paid, some free) by following this link.

4 Comments

  1. Veronica Bright says:

    Brilliant and well researched advice. Very encouraging. Thanks Lou.

    1. Louise Tondeur says:

      Glad it was useful. 🙂

  2. Annie Haight says:

    Really helpful and sensible, Lou. Thanks!

    1. Louise Tondeur says:

      So pleased you liked it.

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