What I’m looking for in your rejection.
Submitting to literary journals and reviews, writers are afforded a sort of perverse expertise in rejection. Whereas the journal editor has thousands of submissions to choose between, most of which must be rejections and only a small percentage acceptances, the submitter has thousands of journals to choose to be rejected from, and must typically narrow it down to a handful or a few dozen in any given period. With such fierce competition it’s understandable that editors would need some guidance on how to set their rejection letters apart and what rejectees are looking for when they open that automated email.
And in case you think I am being very facetious, note that an awful lot of literary journals are in the peculiar position of having authors as a large chunk of their potential and existing audience; rejecting them can have consequences. This quandary is occasionally commented upon in the lit mag world, most recently for me in a Twitter exchange with an editor for Barely South Review.
"Anyone hold grudges against litmags that reject them?" asked Eric M. R. Webb (@ericmrwebb), himself a poet. Now, it so happens I’ve been rejected by Barely South Review, and their (form) rejection comes across as humane and inoffensive. Here is the body of it as received by me:
Thank you for your interest in Barely South Review. We are elated by the overwhelming response from potential contributors and have received many strong works for review. Thank you for this opportunity to review your recent work; however, we regret that we must pass on it at this time. We hope you will try us again in future submission periods, and that you will continue to visit the journal.
Thank you again, and best of luck in your writing endeavors.
I am thanked three times, for my attention, submission, and (essentially) patience—and I’m rejected with minimal fluff and no weaseling around. I am told that it’s a competitive market without the condescension of it being an explanation or excuse. And I’m invited to read the journal and submit again without the invitation to submit again sounding vaguely like particular encouragement.
That last point is more important than you may suppose. We often hear about it from the editor’s perspective, but both the author and the editor have limited time and energy: vaguely promising or conciliatory language (e.g., “just wasn’t right this time around”) in a basic rejection wastes the editor’s time by first wasting the author’s. There is a marked difference in the messages “this rejection doesn’t mean future submissions won’t be accepted” and “this submission almost made it; send more”. Sadly, a fair percentage of rejection letters straddle the line between those statements, leaving the rejectee as interpreter. Editors, please: improve your own signal-to-noise ratio by improving your rejection letter’s. It’s a frustrating sort of chagrin when you the writer figure out that apparent requests for more work are standard cant for some publications, especially when every How To Submit article in existence urges you to take requests for more work seriously. (This is the whole reason for the Rejection Wiki.)
It’s closing in on a year now that I’ve been submitting poetry. I’ve received goofy rejections, curt rejections, loquacious rejections, apologetic rejections, false-hope rejections that sneak the verdict in on the last sentence, short lectures on publishing disguised as rejections, personal rejections, and even a silent rejection (Plume Poetry Journal simply declined my submission in Submishmash without the courtesy of an email). I’ve been depressed, elated, unfazed, utterly discouraged, frustrated, confused, and amused by them. Based on them, I’ve revised and retired pieces, changed my view of what a place was looking for, and, yes, changed my view of journals themselves.
It’s unavoidable that rejections affect the relationship one has or may have with a journal. And part of that response is out of the journal’s hands; this is the eighth this week and they’re questioning their ability, or their hopes are as high as they are naive, or they are having the worst day and this rejection is the deflated maraschino cherry plopped on top of it all. What then? The most a journal can do is treat rejectees like adults with adult feelings; be clear with them, and just a touch courteous. Get to the decision in the first two sentences. Don’t list the reasons it’s not the end of the world. Do remind them you’re a place for reading as well as submitting, but don’t assume they’re not already readers. Invite them to follow you on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr to keep on top of future submission periods and new content. But don’t just be an ad.
If you get it right you’ll gain good will, a reader, and perhaps a semi-regular submitter who knows what you want and how you want it. If you don’t get it just right this time around, well, there’s always a chance they’ll fish you out of their Duotrope or Submishmash archives next time around. I hear there still are victories from the slush pile.