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Them Ol' Rejection Letter Blues
By Jennifer Edelson
November, 2005, 06:20


Rejection letters should be all about this one simple word.

Either that, or a long scenic detour dedicated to explaining, in itty bitty detail, why your piece on Civil Commitments And The Justice System made it from the in-box to the "forget about it" heap.

Editors and agents do sometimes write personal notes explaining what did, or didn’t dazzle them (and to all editors and agents reading right now, we’re grateful). But your typical, “Dear writer, we’re sorry but you’re work isn’t right for our magazine” form letter is impossible to interpret.

For the most part, deciphering a rejection letter feels a lot like taking a multiple-choice quiz. Only you never get the answers back, and spend at least a week playing out every “why I bombed” scenario across the backside of your eyelids.

A) Dear writer, we had 56,219 submissions about the same exact thing.

B) Dear writer, you writing is an aberration and should be burned immediately.

C) Dear writer, I hate you because you write better than me.

D) Dear writer, you sent your article on pre-renaissance realism to an entomology magazine.

E) None of the above (you’re just out of luck baby).

A couple years ago, I tried my hand at freelance writing and received something close to a hundred rejection slips in the span of a year (one sold article, one “you suck something fierce” and three positive “here’s what you might do next time” letters).

Most of the time, I had little clue what to do differently. By the end though, I did have enough paper to build a tower in case I needed to throw myself off something quick. Sort of like an unexpected consolation prize. Only not quite as consoling as say, learning from the experience.

These days, even businesses teach their employees to respectfully trash prospective candidates. Coined “the fine art of rejection,” that the term exists says a lot about how seriously the rest of the world takes it.

At the very least, there should be some sort of rejection class for us poor souls on the receiving end. Like where you learn to turn your letters into voodoo origami, or chant some new age mantra while you shred and scatter them into a moving body of water.

We’ve all heard stories about the famous writer who was denied like six gazillion times before being published –- but it doesn’t help the ego much when we hear it on Oprah, during the author’s break from his full time, money making, touring the country eating good food on the publishers dime writing gig.

So how do you deal when your mailbox bends under the weight of loser?  I’ll share a few top tips from “experts” in the industry (i.e. people who are published regularly, and are thus at liberty to think without losing much carbon dioxide over it). And I’m only sharing because I think they’re funny.

1. Rejection Is Part Of The Game (and so is getting smacked in the face with a baseball –- oh so comforting.)

2. Take A Breather And Don’t Drive Yourself Crazy (but you will anyway, and by the way, if you breath too hard you’ll hyperventilate.)

3. Toast Yourself For Getting Far Enough To Experience Rejection (right, so now I’m gonna be drunk all the time?).

4. Don’t Over Analyze (the idea being if you do, your next query won’t be as well-written. . .  and um, whatever. You just can’t escape human nature.)

5. Don’t Let It Affect Your Self-Esteem (because you wouldn’t have failed in the first place if you didn’t try, and trying is a good thing. Yep, even my six-year old knows this. Clearly easier to say than do.)

6. Re-Focus On Things That Motivate (like, think about your favorite book or movie, which wouldn’t have existed if some writer hadn’t persevered before you. Then pop a few Prozac when you realize you wouldn’t have been rejected if you wrote as well).

7. Think Of Rejection Like a Battle Scar -– Only Those With The Guts Get Em’ (except I like being pretty thank you).

Me? I have just one recommendation. I firmly believe the old adage, “misery loves company.” So while you probably don’t want to suffer through another author’s generic poor-me-I-was-rejected-a-thousand-times’ story there is a book that might help. Read Andre Bernard's Rotten Rejections (Pushcart Press, 1990). It’s a collection of rejection letters, some scathing, to authors like Nabokov, Joyce, Proust and Hemingway.

Yes, they once sucked too.

Trust me when I say that this is the rare occasion, where reading an editors comments to writers long perched on that proverbial pedestal, practically makes your own experiences seem manageable, if not laughable.


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Jennifer Edelson is a Minnesota attorney and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed

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