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The Editor's Rejection:
What 'No' Means and What it Does Not Necessarily Mean


I greatly enjoy producing this web site ( the WriteGallery Creative Writing Web Site). It is an avocation which takes up a lot of my free time, but, I don't mind. I love it. I especially love the chance to showcase such fine creative writing from such talented amateur writers (mostly amateurs). When we send those emails that say "Hey! We're using your (story/poem/essay)," I feel good! Unfortunately, for every one of those emails sent, I have to send anywhere from ten to fifteen, or more, that say:

Dear Author/Poet:

I want to thank you for your submission of "The Writing We're Not Using" for the such-and-such update. We can only use so much of the material submitted. I do look forward to future submissions from you.

Best Wishes,

I hate to send them even though I have to. I am a writer, too, and I know what it's like to get such messages, whether by email or snail-mail. I get them a lot. I haven't had anything published for a year now, but, I certainly have gotten some letters that say, "Thanks, but, no thanks," in the past year. And, just like any other writer, I find this about that: it sucks!

           What I must do, as a writer, is let it end with "it sucks that this story (or poem) won't be published, yet," and not allow it to get to "this sucks, the story sucks, I suck as a writer." I have done that, too. That sucks in its own right. Still, there is that demon in my head who wants to say "They didn't like your work!" and I have never been able to shut him up. So, for my own survival, I have to let him say his piece and go with it emotionally. Thus, my first reaction is: Ahh, screw 'em! -- (the editorial staff) -- what do those fools know? Though I am an editor, myself, I have to condemn that other editor, for at least a day or two. It's pure emotional rescue. It quells the demon's voice so I can move on. That's when I get to "it sucks that it won't be published, yet." And, I'm not so stupid as to not know that, as an editor, I frequently get condemned by authors and poets who have had that subtle "no" from me. I get email responses where "kiss off" would be polite in comparison to what is said in response to my "no."

           The thing about the WriteGallery is it isn't a site where the author's or poet's work will be posted simply because it was submitted. There are two factors at work. First, is it writing that is ready? Second, is there room? This site is for finished work that we find of literary merit. Also, to keep the site manageable, we limit the amount of work to go up in each update. That means much good work is turned away because there isn't room. And to carry that work over to the next update makes little sense. That would mean that eventually, with holdover after holdover, we'd get to a point where we'd accept work, but, it might not be posted for a year. Or, we'd have to place a moratorium on submissions. I like neither prospect. So, if we run out of room, that good work will surely find a home at another literary web site or in a literary journal. We need to move on, and so should the author. Easy to say from the editorial side, but, it is said with the empathy of being a writer, myself. And, I know that when that "no" comes to me, I must move on with the particular piece and with my writing in general. As author/artist Joyce Lavene puts it:

So often, I see friends bury their work in the closet or under the bed because of a rejection. To an artist, "no" always carries a rejection of the soul. We have dressed our children in their finest and sent them out on the stage to shine in the spotlight. They are beautiful. They are talented. And no one has ever seen their like before. How can they fail?

           As artists, we have to get over ourselves. We have to see ourselves as encyclopedia salesmen. There are some people out there who will want to buy and some who won't. "No" doesn't mean we aren't talented. It doesn't mean no one will ever notice us. It should mean another tick off the To Do list that brings us closer to the people who will laugh and cry and thank God for our work when they see it!

           When I was in college I had a literature class where the instructor started the first session by asking who the greatest writer in the history of the English language was. It probably shouldn't surprise you the class consensus was William Shakespeare. We were then challenged to prove it. No one could offer any concrete proof. Evidence, yes, was abundant. No tangible proof could be offered. It's likely more words of praise can be counted for Mr. Shakespeare than any other; it's surely a fact more academics and intellectuals consider him the greatest; but, no one can prove they are right. Ulysses was recently named the best novel of the Twentieth Century -- yet, I know a half-dozen, smart, creative and critically intuitive people who disagree with that assessment. They can neither be proven correct nor incorrect. Art, all art, is subjective (I think The Beatles' White Album is the greatest rock album of all time, not their Revolver album -- re: the results of a recent VH1 Top 100 survey).

           It is often simply a matter of personal taste when an editor says "no." It can be that simple. As Joyce Lavene suggests, this is a very good reason to move on. Go find an editor who is on the same page as your writing. This is the number one reason to be familiar with the magazine, journal, or web site you are submitting to. If you notice a strong lean toward a style very foreign to yours, another choice to submit to may be in order. Read the editor's page, too. Often she or he will tell you their publication is about to go in a particular direction; as poet Kevin Mooneyham writes:

The "no" we're talking about here is the rejection letter "no," which I've found is usually an implied "no."
    "Mr. Mooneyham, thank you for your submission but your poetry does not meet the needs of our publication. We wish you the best of luck in finding another market for your work."

           No "no" in that, but Mr. Mooneyham gets the idea. Now what kind of "no" is the editor implying? Is it, "No, your poetry stinks," or is it really, "No, your poetry doesn't fit the needs of our publication?" My belief is that it is more often the latter. Writers tend to lose sight of the notion that the editor is engaged in a creative act, taking material from disparate sources and trying to create a unified publication for the reader. An editor has a theme in mind for his or her publication. The editor will choose those works which best mesh with the intended theme. This means that the editor will actually say "no" to works of merit because space is limited and other works better fit the tone of the publication.

           Some work, of course, deserves the, This stinks "no." Part of achieving maturity as a writer is being able to be the first person to say "no" when you've written really bad work. A lot of work just falls on the wrong publication. When this happens the writer should say, "No? Don't want my writing? Well, off to the next editor." I know this is clichéd advice. I also know it's true.

           Kirie Pedersen, author/editor, further says:

I've been a freelancer and had dozens of "no's," particularly if I didn't research the zine first. I've been an editor, and offered "no's," though usually with suggestions. The "no" either meant too much work would go into ever making that writer's work useable, or that it wasn't right for whatever I was editing.

           Both these writers touched on the "feedback" factor. As a writer, I often do wish I had some better feedback on the "why no" aspect. I do have a big ego, however, I still benefit from comments on why someone thinks a piece of my writing does not work. I also trust my own judgement, so, sometimes when I get comments I respectfully disagree. I recently had an editor suggest I cut the middle of a poem because she thought it got in the way. What I knew was she didn't get it; there are several poets of acclaim who like my version. I told that editor the poem was finished and I wasn't willing to entertain her suggestion. She didn't publish it, and, that was her mistake. Of course, it all boils down to a matter of opinion. I have done the same as an editor. Sometimes the writer likes my idea, sometimes not. We both go on, as we both need to.

           Usually I don't offer feedback unless I am seriously considering the work and think there is a way for it to be stronger. For those I can't use, I rarely find the time to give comments with the care deserved. I don't want to write some short note, like "use more original rhymes," or what-have-you. I also have found that for all those who want comments, there are others who are quite offended and will respond, in no uncertain terms, that if I don't want their work, to just say that and spare them my "ego-ridden, editorial nonsense." *That's a direct quote from one such response.

           The end game is this: "No" always means the work is not being published, yet. Now it's time to move on. That means one of two things: 1) I send it out again, as soon as possible -- as in NOW; 2) I read it again looking for flaws. If I am unsure about flaws, I get feedback from my little group of in-person critics.

           Prof. Bill Baker, one of my first creative writing teachers, suggested the author, once having dropped the envelope in the mail box to editor number one, go directly home, address the envelope to the next chosen publication, put the next copy of the work in the envelope (with appropriate cover letter, of course), seal it, stamp it, and wait for the letter from the first editor. If that letter says, "no," drop envelope number two in the mail and repeat all steps above for editor number three, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There are, obviously, equivalent actions for electronic submissions.

           This all is based on the assumption the writer writes well. A writer who writes well, is more about a writer who re- writes well, who, as Kevin Mooneyham says, "is...able to be the first person to say 'no' when [having] written really bad work." I do believe it is appropriate to reassess writing which has been rejected, especially if rejected more than a few times. But, it's appropriate only so long as the writer is careful to find actual problems, and not just make them up out of frustration. Trust your instincts. If you believe in the piece of writing as it is, then, you just have to find the editor who agrees with you and needs something exactly like that piece. "No," is just one of the walls to climb as a writer.

           I'll let author/graphic artist D.L. Zimmerman get the last word in:

In the realm of rejection of artistic work it's pretty clear to me: If the work is from the heart, "no" doesn't matter. If it something you are experimenting with, "no" helps to see the flaw. If it's something in the middle, then it's just any day in the life of the artist.

this essay first appeared on the "From K.L.'s Desk" page on Sunday, June 24, 2001.

For the index of K.L.'s creative writing and essays at this site, click here.

© 2001 K.L.Storer, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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