Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Rejection. It's a part of life, and it's a part of writing.
Every writer's got one or two piles of letters and emails that go something like this:
Dear Writer, Thanks, but we cannot accept your writing at this time. We wish you luck finding a home for your work elsewhere. Sincerely, Literary Magazine
My heart breaks a little bit every time I receive a rejection email. At first it hurts for the poem. Then, because my poems have so much of ME in them, it feels like I'M the one getting rejected.
Every writer knows the self-doubt that accompanies the writing process. We think, who am I to write? Who am I to call myself a writer? Who am I to think I have something to share? And every rejection notice seems to make that nagging voice a little bit stronger, a little bit bolder.
The truth is, for every one poem or story accepted, it's not unusual for ten or more poems to be rejected beforehand. And some poems might circulate from magazine inbox to magazine inbox before they find a home. And that's okay.
How to Recover from Writing Rejection
Know that it's okay to wallow:
What writer doesn't love Gilmore Girls? As a dabbler in writing scripts, I envy the dialogue in this show! And every so often there is a piece of wisdom for non-journalists. When Rory and Dean breakup, Loreli tells Rory that she needs to wallow. This advice applies to all heartbreaks and rejections—even the literary ones!
Accepting rejection is a process, and it's okay to be sad or mourn or go through the motions of grief! You might be in a state of denial that your best work could have been rejected! Maybe you feel angry that once again your writing was passed over for someone else's. And then the sadness hits. But at the end of it all, what is important is that you find a way to gracefully accept the verdict and move on.
When my writing gets rejected, I'll light a candle for my poem or story and tell it that I still believe in it. Sounds kooky, but it helps me feel better and get back to business sooner.
So come up with your own rituals that help you manage your emotions and keep writing and sharing.
Know that it's not necessarily because your writing was bad:
Remember that literary magazines are overwhelmed with submissions and can usually only take from 1-5% of the work submitted.
For example, when I read poetry submissions for Freefall, there are so many more poems that I wish I could publish than there is space for. Why can't we take more? Well, for magazines that are committed to paying their contributors, one of the considerations for how many poems we can accept is how many writers we can pay for the particular issue.
Or, sometimes your writing is wonderful, but the general tone the magazine issue is taking on favors a piece that has a different feel. Or maybe the winning piece has imagery that just goes better with the other accepted work. Sometimes we want to give a new, upcoming writer a chance. Sometimes we want to showcase the strength of an established writer. Sometimes we want to experiment! The long short of it is that your poem or story must check ALL the boxes, but until we see all the submissions, not even the magazine really knows what all the boxes are.
Sometimes with poetry it could even be that the other poems you submitted alongside veiled the wonderful qualities of the poem you thought was for sure getting in. Oftentimes, literary magazines like to publish a few poems from the same writer, but if your poems have nothing unifying them, they can feel fractured and it can be harder to see how they will end up fitting into the magazine issue as a whole.
Whittling down the list of work to get published is no easy task. The works that go through must not only be a marvelous, but must stand out amongst the many other marvelous pieces that literary magazines have the pleasure of reading! And on top of that, they must fit the overall tone of the literary magazine and the tone of the individual issue.
There are steps you can take to increase the odds: submit work that fits the tone and purview of the magazine you are going for, submit work together that compliment each other and enhance each other, and submit only your best work—no errors!
Take the opportunity to improve your work:
If a poem, story, or essay has been rejected from multiple places, consider whether the work really gets at the heart of what you want to convey.
If you received any feedback from the literary magazine, take it into consideration.
Take the time to edit your own work and figure out whether there is a subtle or glaring problem that you didn't notice before that detracts from the positive qualities of your work. Also, don't be afraid to send your work to a friend and get a second opinion.
Re-write, edit, polish, and send off again. Keep in mind that writing is a process—sometimes a long one.
Lean on your writing community:
I often don't share my losses, heartbreaks, or rejections with my peers, only the successes, which is something I am trying to change!
Bond with your fellow writers over the ups and downs of writing and take the time to strengthen your writing community, because then you will always have people to help support you when you face rejection, and people to celebrate with when you succeed! And helping others endure rejection and cheering them on when they succeed is extremely rewarding.
Don't discount the friendship, solace, joy, support and comfort you can find in your literary community!
A wonderful poet, Alice Major, in her book Welcome to the Anthropocene writes these striking lines in her poem "Necker Cube Illusion:"
(does what the poet's doing even matter? yes and/or no)
Even after all the rejections I have had, I still circle yes every time. And as long as you do too, I think you should keep trying to get your work out there.
Recognize, dear writer, that it takes courage to share your writing, and courage to keep writing and persist through rejection.
I think every writer that chooses not to give in to self-doubt, fear, or shame truly has the heart of a lion.
Major, Alice. "Necker Cube Illusion." Welcome to the Anthropocene, The University of Alberta Press, 2018, p. 108.