All writers experience rejection; this is not an opinion, it’s a fact. Even the most successful authors were buried in rejection letters at the beginning of their careers: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, JK Rowling, all of these iconic writers slogged through dozens, if not hundreds, of rejections to get to where they are now.
So why do we, as beginners, judge ourselves so harshly for rejections?
The Psychology of Rejection
Well, I have a theory about that; these days writing is not viewed so much as a hobby or a career, but as a way of life. The strong writing community that can be found on social media platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter is made up of individuals who define themselves as much by their authorial aspirations as by their gender or cultural background. This means that, for many of us, a rejection of our writing is also a social rejections, and according to Psychology Today, social rejection is a far more painful experience than, for example, physical injury.
When we experience social rejection it hitches a ride on the same pathways that transport feeling of pain, it undermines our self-confidence, and inspires anger and aggression.
It all boils down to our need to belong; humans are social animals that like to congregate in compatible tribes. Writers are no different. Of course, most writers, whether they be hobbyists or professionals, will tell you that rejection is part of the journey, that it doesn’t make you less of a writer, and, in short, that you’ll get there eventually…
Comforting? Sure. Helpful? Well, not really.
How We Can Deal With Rejection Well
The key thing, for writers, is to learn how to side-step the shame spiral and harness that anger in order to fuel positive change and growth in our writing skills.
This year, I undertook a challenge to get 100 rejection letters (so far I have 15; it seems even getting a rejection letter is tough as many companies simply do not reply now, but that’s a different story), and each one has caused a sting. But as time has gone on it’s gotten easier. here’s what I’ve learned about handling rejection so far.
- Take A Deep Breath; before you go off the deep end, remember that its not you that’s being rejected, it’s this one, specific piece of writing. Take a deep breath and be honest with yourself; was it the best you could make it? If no, then improve it and try again. If it was, then accept that either you’re not ready to write something like this, or that it perhaps wasn’t a great idea. Not every idea is a good one.
- Read The Letter/Email Properly; read the rejection letter more than once, consider what it says. A simple, short “not interested” indicates that your piece was either not what the magazine/publisher was looking for, or that it needs a lot of work. If you receive a personalised rejection letter staple that shit to your wall; when an editor takes the time to point out a few flaws or give you advice it means you were very, very close.
- Ask For Feedback; gather your courage and ask why your writing was rejected. Be aware, however, that some magazines and companies will not respond; they are busy, they are inundated with requests, so they’ll only respond regarding pieces that they saw as having potential. So if they don’t get back to you, don’t despair, just shelf that idea and move onto the next.
- Act On Feedback; I’ll never forget the day I got a rejection letter telling me that my style was good, but the piece was ‘light on story’. It confused the living daylights out of 20 year old me, and I gave up for a while because I couldn’t think of how a story could lack… well, story. Now I know that they meant the plot felt weak; it was well-written but had no driving force. If I had asked for clarification and acted on that feedback, I may well have got that piece published. Remember; editors have no time to be vindictive – if they give you advice it’s because you did enough to catch their eye and they want to help you. Always follow up on feedback!
- Be Humble; setting your expectations too high will only lead to disappointment, and being too certain of your own genius will do you no favours. Love your work, yes, hope for success, yes, but stay humble. There’s no writer in the world too good to get a rejection letter, so keep your feet on the ground and you’ll handle it with grace.
- See The Benefits; yep, believe it or not rejection has benefits. Namely thickening your skin. The worst thing would be to receive one of those truly rare but nasty rejection letters from an editor with a chip on their shoulder (sadly it does happen) when you have very little experience of rejection. That can ruin anyone’s will to write.
- Connect With The Writing Community; connecting with other writers can help you to weather the storms of querying and editing, but they can also provide a much needed fresh set of eyes and kind, constructive criticism from a place of warmth and solidarity. Getting your knocks from someone you know wants you to succeed soothes the soul, believe me.
- Research Your Market; if you are consistently being rejected without any concrete plot or style points being raised, research your market. You might simply be providing material that the magazines, agents, or editors can’t sell. If that’s the case you may need to try self-publishing to get your work out there.
- Remember That Rejection Sometimes Means Nothing; some rejections really do boil down to a matter of personal taste or a lack of time on behalf of the editor. This is especially the case in ‘rejections by proxy’ where you simply get no reply; if you hear nothing, your writing has probably been swallowed by the slush pile and there is nothing you can do about that.
- Don’t Bargain; a rejection is non-negotiable. Don’t argue, bargain, or whine; take your lumps and think about why they were given. If you try to change an editors mind you’ll only lose face and ruin a potentially good future relationship.
Above and beyond this, however, just keep writing and reading; you will improve, but you have to work at the craft!
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