As the culmination to their work in my class (and others within my program) I ask my students to submit their work for publication. For most, this is the first time they will send out their work and so it’s also the first time they will get a rejection letter. I realized that I hadn’t really been preparing them to face rejection and tried to think what advice might be useful, and what’s been useful to me, in thinking about what rejection letters do and don’t mean. I’m sharing the letter here in case other teachers want to share their stories of helping students with rejection or writers have thoughts on how they’ve dealt with rejection themselves:
As you submit your work for publication, likely for the first time, I wanted to give you a few words of advice about rejection. The vast majority of submissions are rejected. This isn’t a reflection of the writer’s talent or even necessarily the quality of the work, and certainly isn’t a comment on how good or lucky or fabulous a person you are, nor does it symbolize anything at all about your future. Take for example, JK Rowling: Harry Potter was rejected 12 times by publishers and one editor wrote a personal note only to say “you shouldn’t quit your day job.”
Most rejection letters are a form letter, like the one U2 received rejecting its first album with the oh so familiar line, “not suitable for us at present.” One of my heroes, Ursula Le Guin, the first woman to win a Hugo award for Sci-Fi writing for The Left Hand of Darkness, republished a rejection letter she received for this book on her blog with a note of encouragement for writers facing rejection. The letter is an example of when one might have actually preferred a form letter to devastatingly specific “feedback” from the editor that “the whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated…”
Some writers burn their rejection letters (or now probably print them out and burn them), others, like Kurt Vonnegut, frame them and hang them on the wall. Whatever you do with them, rejection is an inevitable part of the process. It never ceases to ruin your day, but don’t let it ruin your momentum. Writers get little enough encouragement, so encourage each-other to keep submitting. The growing pile of rejections is proof that you are working hard to “get your work out there.” These letters will seem to reflect exactly what you most fear about yourself–that you are unoriginal, undistinguished–but this is not the case. Finding an editor who gets your work is a little bit like finding love, it happens all at once and usually takes a very long time. Hence the silliness about “overnight sensations” who have worked for ten years to get their break.
Take notes from people you respect and who know and respect your work. Find readers you trust, who understand that real encouragement means helping the writer achieve his or her goals, even if that often means pointing out where we’re not yet achieving those goals. Don’t take these readers for granted, they are valuable and hard to find, and if you want to keep them as readers make yourself available to return the favor.
I write this the day after receiving my latest rejection letter. As a reward to myself, I’m sending two more pitches out this week and spending a little extra time on by book. And even though the ratio of what I send out to what I publish is laughable, when my words are published they are read by a lot more people than the ones who rejected me, and sometimes I even get a note from a reader (or a handmade letter from Australia, which was by far the coolest thing) and this proof that I’ve affected someone the way the things I read affect me is a lot more powerful than that flimsy “not suitable for us at present.”
Ursula LeGuin rejection letter (UrsulaLeGuin.com)
20 Brilliant Writers Whose Work Was Initially Rejected (BookForum)
10 Rejection Letters Sent to Famous People (MentalFloss)