Monday, June 25, 2018

In Praise of Form Rejection Letters

Every writer hates form rejection letters, it seems. You pour your heart and soul into a story, research the markets, send your story out into the world with high hopes, wait days or weeks or months to hear back, only to receive some variation on the following:

Dear Author,

Thank you for sending us your work. It was given careful consideration by our staff. Unfortunately, it does not suit the needs of the magazine at this time.


The Editors

Ouch, right!

In the old days this would come in the form of a fifth-generation photocopy, usually on a half-sheet of the cheapest copy paper money could buy. These days you're likely to get a nicely formatted email. Sometimes they even have a macro set up to auto-fill your name and the story's title! So fancy!

Contrast this with the much-coveted PERSONAL REJECTION LETTER. In this letter, an editor takes the time out of his or her day to write a note specifically addressing things both good and bad about your story. Everyone wants to get these. They are the best. We are told that they mean we, as writers, are getting close to the mark. That we almost sold a story! 

(Note: There is a category of personal rejection letter that no one wants to receive: This is the personal rejection where the editors tell you maybe your time would be best spent submitting elsewhere. (Read: don't send us your junk anymore.) These are exceedingly rare and are not the topic at hand.)

In the hierarchy of rejection letters, personals are head and shoulders above forms. I've seen authors get as excited about a personal rejection from a high-tier market as they do about an acceptance from a less prestigious magazine or website. (Confession: I may have done this.) I've also seen authors get foot-stompingly mad at receiving form rejections. This usually occurs when the form is sent after a great deal of waiting or after an editor asked for changes. But regardless, the message is clear: form rejections suck. That is the received wisdom, passed down from writer to writer, through the generations.

But how's this for a hot take: Form rejections are great and there should be a lot more of them.

I'll tell you why:

Personal rejections are the enemy of quick response times. The time an editor spends thinking about and writing a personal rejection is time that same editor could have spent reading the next story in the slush pile. Would you rather wait longer for a personal rejection or rip the band-aid off and get a form in a week or two? The result, after all, is the same: you didn't sell your story to that market.

Most writers prefer faster response times. We complain when a market takes too long. We refuse to submit to certain magazines if they're average response isn't fast enough for our liking. Well, folks, I have news for you: Form rejections = faster responses.

I know that people are now thinking, B.S. it takes maybe three minutes to type out a personal rejection.

Well, yes and no.

First off, three minutes to write a personal rejection is considerably more time than the three seconds it takes to click the button to auto-respond with a form rejection. And unless personal rejections are as rare as hen's teeth, those three minutes per rejection start adding up. If an editor sends ten personal rejections at three minutes each, that's a half hour that could be spent reading new submissions. The response time just got that much faster if he or she just presses the auto-reject button or copy/pastes a form into the body of an email.

Secondly, I'm calling B.S. on you Mr. Pretend-Author-I-Made-Up-For-The-Purposes-Of-This-Blog-Post. Because there is no way that a meaningful personal rejection can be composed in three minutes. Okay, sure. Maybe some of them could be, but most are going to take longer. And most of those three-minute-personals are going to be about as helpful as a form rejection. While it's nice to say you got a personal rejection (and it can certainly be a boost in morale), realistically most of them don't do much else beside give you the warm and fuzzies.

Now, some personal rejections can, in fact, help you revise the story into something more publishable. However, in order to give advice of that caliber and with that great detail, an editor is going to have to do some thinking--and thinking takes time. Time that editor could spend on reading more stories.

And all of this supposes that receiving a personal rejection is a wholly salutary event in the life of the author who receives one. Well, for most that is the case. I certainly enjoy getting them, and as we've established, most writers I know feel the same way. That said, there is a downside to getting a personal rejection. Namely, they can open the door to debate, if only in the author's mind. "If it's so good, why didn't you accept it?" the author thinks after hearing the editor praise his or her latest short story in a personal rejection letter.

Have you ever tried to let someone down easy when they invite you to do something you aren't interested in. You make up an excuse, and then they counter. You give another reason you won't be able to attend, and they try to overcome that objection. Better to just say, "No." A form rejection is a polite but flat refusal. There isn't any wiggle room. There isn't space for the author to think, If only . . .

Now true, responding to any rejection letter, even personal rejection letters, is very bad form (DO NOT DO THIS!), but too often writers do this in their minds if not in an email to the editor. They think, addressing the editor from the safe confines of their imaginations, "You said you liked this, but that the ending was weak; what if I changed the ending to this?" 

Now, unless you are actually going to change the ending based on the personal rejection letter you got, this is a complete waste of time. You are lying in bed, staring at the ceiling thinking about what you should have said to Susie when she said she had to wash her hair on Friday night rather than go with you to the drive-in movie. (I assume this is how teenage dating works in 2018.) If you can take a personal rejection in stride, awesome. Let it make you feel good about yourself, file it away in a drawer (or an email folder), and move on with your life. But too many times I've seen people obsess over the exact wording of a personal rejection, poring over it like a Talmudic scholar, searching for hidden meaning in every turn of phrase. (This is but one part of that arcane art known in writerly circles as rejectomancy, a subject I'll tackle in a future post. Short version: we all do it and we should all stop.) A personal rejection is still a rejection and should be treated as such. That is, it should be filed away and the story should be sent back out to another market ASAP.

But say you are actually going to take the few lines of criticism from your personal rejection and rework your story. Good for you, being willing to incorporate criticism! But before you do, let's think about that . . .

Advice is great, but it's just one editor's opinion--and that editor has already rejected the story. If you revise based on a personal rejection, you're tailoring your story to a market that has already passed on it. 

Now, certainly getting advice, even if it is just one or two lines, from a professional editor who reads thousands and thousands of submissions can be a great insight into how your stories are being received. But unless the advice rings oh-so-true to what you want the story to be, you would be wise to think hard before making changes. Because what works for one editor won't necessarily work for another, and the thing you change might have been the thing that would sell the story to the next place you send it.

I realize this may be coming across as anti-personal rejection instead of pro-form rejection. It's not to say that personal rejections are bad and that the practice should be abolished. Indeed, personal rejections can be a great ego boost, as I have said. And often the advice editors give might result in changes that make the story more salable. It's always nice to get a peek behind the curtain, as it were. And I've certainly benefited from nice personal rejections from various editors.

But if we, as writers, attach too much importance to personal rejection letters, then we certainly heap an unfair amount of derision on the form rejection. So, let's talk about why form rejections are actually great.

I already mentioned the thing about response times. The more form rejections sent out, the faster a market's response time will be.

But the biggest reason I'm a fan of form rejections is something I hinted at earlier. Rejection is going to be a constant in the life of a writer. You have got to get used to it and you have got to learn to take it in stride. You should spend as close to zero seconds mulling over a rejection as possible.

When writing and revising a story, you should do the best job you can. Send that story out to readers you trust to give you feedback, and then revise it until it's as close to perfect as you can get it. Then send it out. And when it comes back, send it back out as soon as possible, until you've sold it or run out of places to send it to.

Wondering why a story is being rejected is largely a waste of time. As artistic a process as writing and revising a story is, submitting should be cold and calculating. Just keep those stories in circulation like a story-circulating robot. Form rejections facilitate this. Form rejections help writers learn to move on from rejection quickly. They are impersonal and cold--though not, in my estimation, at all impolite--and this is a good thing. There are no lines to be read between in a form rejection. There is no space to pause to wonder if the editor is right and you should work on the character's motivations.

And for God's sake, please stop wondering what form rejections mean! They mean what they say: "No thanks." That is all.  Writers waste too much time worrying about these sorts of  things.

So, the next time you get a personal rejection, put it aside and submit the story elsewhere. When you get a form rejection, do the same.

Write. Submit. Repeat. That's the formula.