Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Jenna Glatzer
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Whenever I've worked as an editor, I've invited query letters and unsolicited submissions. For various reasons, most of them weren't appropriate for the publications for which they were intended. Although I never used what you'd technically call form rejection letters, most of them were close.Ê
When I had nothing positive to say, my letters basically read, "Thanks, but this isn't for us." It's when the submissions had merit that I ran into trouble.
Then I had the tough decision to make: Do I tell this writer why I'm rejecting the submission, or not?
You may wonder why that's a tough decision. Of course there's the time issue; editors who get inundated with submissions don't have the time to respond personally to each writer who submits. But when we do have a free moment and would like to be honest with the writer, some of us bite our tongues anyway. The reason? Not all writers know what it means to be a professional. And not all of them can take criticism.
Whenever I sent constructive criticism with a rejection, I knew there was about a 75% chance I'd hear nothing back (which was fine), a 5% chance I'd get a quick "thanks for your consideration anyway" (which was nice), and a 20% chance I'd get an argument (which was not fine).
Here's today's example.
A writer sent me a 58-page writing-related e-book that she hoped I'd sell on Absolute Write. I wrote back to explain why I couldn't carry the book: It was too short (in my experience, people feel ripped off if they pay for a "book" and get something less than 100 pages), it needed copyediting, some of the links were broken, at least one of her statistics was very outdated, and her style was inconsistent-- some links were "live," others were not.
Instead of paying attention to what I wrote and taking it in the spirit that it was intended, she wrote back to tell me that I was "unfair" to her book, and that I was basing my rejection on "minor points." She gave me a whole list of reasons and excuses for why it was okay that her book hadn't been proofread, and why I must have been wrong about the broken links (I wasn't).
She concluded by telling me that her book was better than anything she's read when she started promoting her (vanity-published) book.
I wrote back to tell her that I didn't consider any of those points minor, and that while she might be willing to overlook her book's flaws, I wasn't.
I should have known better. Of course, I got a second ego-smattered note complaining some more about how I must not have really paid attention to what she wrote.
She, my friends, is exactly why you get form rejection letters. As an editor, not only do I not have the time or energy to get into arguments with every writer whose work I turn down, but I also just plain don't want to. I was under no obligation to explain to that writer why I didn't choose to carry her book, but I made the mistake of thinking it might help her to know the flaws that I found.
Unfortunately, thanks to her, and others like her, editors grow weary of explaining themselves, and those who'll stick their neck out and offer real criticism come few and far between.
I appreciate editors like Elaine Greene at House Beautiful. Although she's rejected two of my stories, she took the chance and told me exactly why the stories weren't right for her magazine. She even went on to suggest which magazines might publish the pieces, and she used my SASE to send me an example of something she'd recently published that was along the lines of one of my stories. Now that was sticking her neck out. I admire her example.
She ran the risk that I'd write back and tell her why she was wrong, why my piece was too good for her (yes, some writers really do say things like that), threaten her (yes, some writers really do things like that), etc. I've had writers ask me for full "critiques" of pieces I've already said I can't publish, send me quotes from their old English teachers to prove that they're really the greatest writers in the world, and put me down directly because I dared to find a flaw in their flawless prose. I have no question that an editor at House Beautiful has gotten even more flak than I have, so the fact that she took her chances that I wouldn't be one of the "bad seeds" meant a lot to me.
I hate form rejection letters. I hate getting them, and I hate giving them. I'd much rather offer my honest appraisals, because I like to think that sometimes, a writer takes what I say and actually does something with it-- revises an article to make it stronger, hires a proofreader, learns how to write a stronger opening sentence, etc. But editors get burned time and again, and then we get jaded.
We learn that those 20% of authors who will write back to argue just sap our energy. They leave us with "bad vibes." They make us never want to offer another piece of possibly-helpful criticism again.
The only proper response to a personal rejection letter is, "Thank you for your time and consideration." I don't care whether you think the editor is from Mars and has read some completely different manuscript than the one you wrote; it does you absolutely no good to write back and complain. It's not going to get you published, it's not going to make the editor think you're suddenly a better writer than the one whose work she rejected, and it's certainly not going to help you in the future. Editors talk to each other, and they remember the "unprofessionals." (I keep a small list of the ones whose work I never, ever want to see anywhere near my desk again.)
You can write a bad article, or a bad query, or a bad manuscript, and chances are, I won't remember your name six months from now (which is good, because you have a clean slate when you write something new). But if you waste my time by arguing with my free advice or commentary, you can bet I'll remember, and wherever I go as an editor, I'll make sure not to hire you.
It does such a disservice to the 80% of writers who could actually benefit from an editor's words to resort to form letters. The strongest editors may continue to offer comments despite the unprofessional writers, but many just throw in the towel.
So, take heart -- it's not your fault that those letters seem so impersonal. Really, it isn't -- not unless you're one of "those" writers. ;)
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Jenna Glatzer is the author of several books, including a number of books on writing, and a contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Visit her website at http://www.jennaglatzer.com/.