If you’re a writer without a rejection letter, you’re doing something wrong

Let’s face it: It’s hard to forget Jack Nicholson when he’s coming at you with an axe. Or even a pick-up line, right ladies? So I won’t pretend that this week’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing isn’t a repeat from a while back. But I did bring a note from my fire captain, which reads:

Please excuse Ned from this week’s NWOW. He was up most of the night fighting a house fire. He looks like hell and smells like smoke. Usually he just looks like hell.
— Capt. Warren.

That said, my apologies for the repeat. However, I chose this piece because, as often as a writer (and even Jack Nicholson) deals with rejection, I think the message bears repeating. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled NWOW next week, during which I’ll apologize again — but not because it’s a repeat…



It’s time for this week’s edition of my Nickel’s Worth on Writing, which Editor’s Weakly recently called “…something that has become an integral part of our screening process whenever we hire a proof reader.”

High prays in deed.

But enough accolades!

Let’s get to this week’s NWOW, which I’d like to open by sharing a few passages from the many rejection letters I’ve received over the years:

“You are a gifted wordsmith. Try somewhere else.”
(Were they saying I was overqualified?)

“We don’t publish new authors.”
(If all publishing houses felt that way, there wouldn’t be any new material since The Book of Genesis)

“We were close to accepting your submission but decided to pass. Good luck.”
(That made me feel so much better. Like that time I got that HILARIOUS winning lottery ticket that was fake.)

“Very good. Keep trying.”
(With what? Better stationary?)

“As Mr. Hefner’s attorney, I’ve been asked to order you to stop writing the girls. You’re only 14 and it’s creepy.”
(Oops! Wrong kind of rejection letter.)

I could go on and on with rejection letters, but it won’t change the fact that, even at age 14, I had a certain level of maturity which I think the Bunnies could recognize and…

I did it again, didn’t I? Sorry! Where was I?

Oh yeah: rejection.

I really do have a cabinet drawer at work full of rejection letters from newspaper editors and publishing houses. Many are for my column when I was first starting out. Others are in response to a murder mystery I wrote back in the late 1990s.

Here is my collection of rejection letter, which my "thumbs down" is pointing to.
Here is my collection of rejection letter, which my “thumbs down” is pointing to.
And one is from Miss October 1978.

In spite of the negative connotation a rejection letter conjures up in the mind of most authors — fine, every author — don’t overlook the more important aspects of what it represents.

To begin with, it means you’ve completed a written work. Given a choice between writing a 500-word essay or being tased in the buttocks, the average person would rather drop their pants than pick up a pen. The fact that you aren’t rubbing a bruised rear means you are a writer (Depending on your genre, of course). No number of rejection letters changes that. Regardless of whether its a 400-page novel or an 800-word opinion piece, you have honed and polished your words to the point you are ready to send it out to the world, either in the form of sample chapters, a query, or by pushing the “publish” button on your blog or website. And make no mistake: The “comments” section on your social media site is just another form of “acceptance” or “rejection” notices.

It’s also important to remember that actually receiving a rejection letter, by email or otherwise, means an editor or publisher thought enough of your work to take the time to respond. Even if it’s a letter saying “No thanks, we’ve already committed to publishing a book on Hobbit erotica, but keep shopping this around,” it says something about your writing ability. And maybe the need for professional help — and I don’t mean from an agent. Bottom line: Most editors and publishers are like us, overworked and understaffed. Sending a letter or email takes time and effort. It’s more than just a rejection; it’s also a compliment.

Occasionally, you may even receive some suggestions or advice in your rejection letter, such as “Blowing up the world and having everyone die at the end seemed excessive. I’d suggest finding a more satisfying end to your children’s book.” Keep in mind that I’m not saying you have to agree with any suggestions you’re given. Hey, it’s your novel, short story or magazine article, and you will always reserve the right to have the final word on how it appears in print. I’m just pointing out that if an editor or publisher was engaged enough in your submission to offer some insight, it’s quite a compliment. On that same note, if you keep receiving the same suggestion from different publishers, be willing to at least consider the idea of having “Sally” and “Stubs the Legless Gopher” steal a rocket and depart from Earth before it is reduced to space dust.

Lastly, don’t discard your rejection letters. Keep them somewhere safe as a reminder of your commitment as a writer — and eventually as testimony to what it took to get to where you are. As a father, I’ve shown all my kids my rejection file at some point. When they didn’t make the team; when they were turned down for the dance; when they didn’t get the grade they expected; after I’ve had too much to drink and go on a crying jag about why my mystery novel still hasn’t been published…

You get the idea. We’ve all heard the saying about how you can’t get to where you’re going unless you know where you came from. Or maybe I just made that up. Regardless, rejection letters are as much an indicator of that journey as seeing your work in print. It means you have sacrificed, persevered and believed in yourself. Possibly even threatened to run over an editor or two.

You know, on second thought, I might get rid of those letters. Just in case.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

69 thoughts on “If you’re a writer without a rejection letter, you’re doing something wrong”

                1. Feedback about your feet or writing? Unless you’re writing about your feet, which I’m sure would keep my on my toes.

                  Okay, in all seriousness, Ann — if your feet are anything like your writing, I’m sure they’re well- manicured, always smooth and tread with certainty 😉

    1. “Significance” is a relative term — don’t sell yourself short. Even Justin Bieber was considered “significant” at one time, I’m just saying…

  1. You’re indeed a funny dude and I’m glad you haven’t gotten all crispy by fire. Please be careful with that (and you must also be a brave dude – thank you).
    Rejections are like jilted lovers’ notes one keeps tucked away. They make us sad its over, glad for the journey and ready to bite the next person who says something mean.
    And in the words of Winston Churchill – “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
    Right on Ned, write on…
    AnnMarie 🙂
    I plan one day when suffering with boredom, to fill lovely seat cushions with my rejections.

    1. Thanks, AnnMarie!
      By the way, I love the idea of seat cushions filled with rejection slips. I’d think they might also make good toilet seat covers 😉

      Truly, thanks for reading and sharing what I’m sure is an idea you better not let Martha Stewart get her hands on!

  2. Great reminder in funny packaging. “The fact that you aren’t rubbing a bruised rear means you’re a writer,” is a great line. (Depending on the size of your rear, of course.) 🙂

  3. I’m doing something-wait this cannot be right, I’m wrong. Right? Tell me I’m wrong, but…don’t get too close, the smoke brings back mem’ries.

    I have rejections, several of them. And by several, I mean a-LOT but wow…I’m in style, a writer with rejections, how utterly…okay not to sound ungrateful but I think I want yo be a writer with rejections and a victory or two, I’m not greedy or anything.

    Sorry Ned, kind of wordy today but its my long winded way of saving “Great article” and…take a shower already 😉

  4. I wish I had saved my rejection letters. I don’t like clutter so I tossed them. Now as I’m querying my second novel, I’ll try not to do that. After all, how much space does a rejection email take up? (Not counting the huge hole it leaves in our heart… 😉 )

    1. There’s definitely a sting that goes with rejection letters, Carrie, but I try to see them as an indicator of my growth as a writer — the better the rejection, the closer I’m getting to the bullseye. I guess I’m always a glass-half-empty kind of guy. Probably because I drank the other half 😉

  5. Love your wordplay, “High prays indeed!” I think I am going to cite a fave line out of each post you write from here on in, although it’s definitely difficult to choose. This a great philosophy, but I propose we Reject the Rejection letters. Write the publisher/agent back and say, “Thank you for sending that my way, but it’s just not working for me. It’s cliched and trite. Thank you!”

    1. Lol! I think critiquing rejection letters is a fantastic idea! If an editor/publisher takes the time to write one, why not return the favor. Maybe even come up with some kind of scoring system

      Grammar: 5 (Try more adjectives)
      Originality: 2 (Heard this before, but told better)
      Pace: 1 (No build up toward the rejection)
      Story arc: 2 (You started out with the climax and it fell apart after that)

      You’re a crack-up 😉

  6. I find being tased in the buttocks to be preferable to most things. Also, as a child, I found horribly disappointing when I reached the conclusion of a book and everyone didn’t at the end, especially when it was a Curious George book.

  7. I’m really glad that I was too lazy and didn’t have enough life experience to write anything interesting when I was young (not to mention devoting my life to partying during those years), because I couldn’t have handled rejection back then. Now, if I ever do write, I do it for me first, and hopefully some other people will like it too. If I got a rejection letter, I’d just say, “Screw them, I still like it.” (And I’d mope and drive back to my boring day job, and come home after work and start a bonfire and throw the keyboard into it.)
    Very funny, by the way, and thought-provoking too.

    1. I think that’s absolutely the right attitude. Throwing the keyboard into a bonfire I mean.

      If I ever make it to South Dakota, I’ll look you up and bring my keyboard and rejection letter. I’ll just look for the bonfire.

  8. I need to acquire more rejection letters….at least it means I’m trying!! I did just have a very honest critique of my novel in progress and it was pretty positive with many great suggestions as well. It was the spark I needed to get my ass in gear and get writing again!!

  9. “The fact that you aren’t rubbing a bruised rear means you are a writer (Depending on your genre, of course).”

    Wait, you mean you can integrate the two? This may take multi tasking to a whole new level I hadn’t even considered 🙂

  10. I love this! I’m not exactly new to writing, but new to taking it seriously, yes.
    I’ve sent quite a few articles for publication and all but twice, I received rejection letters. One time they told me they’ll publish it, but because of the ‘changing political scenario and influx of more relevant pieces’ they later decided otherwise. The other time they didn’t even bother to reply -_-
    Now that I’ve come across this service of yours to the writerkind, I’m gonna go to the very bottom of my mailbox and hunt down all the rejection letters I’ve ever received. Let me make a file of them, too 😉

  11. One day I will come across this rejection of which you speak (once I complete, edit and very tentatively test the publishing waters with my WIP) and then I will be so glad to browse through your posts and read this again. Thank you in advance! 🙂

  12. Rumor has it that Jack London kept a stack of his rejection letters next to his writing desk. He said the stack was five feet tall, or 1 1/2 Hobbits high. I store my rejection letters in my heart since they come in the form of email. Maybe I should begin printing them out.

    I don’t know why but while reading the beginning of your post about smelling like smoke, I began to think about bacon. Have you ever considered pinning little strips of bacon to your fireman’s jacket before heading to a fire? Think of the fundraising possibilities, and if not, think of the BLTs you guys could have after the fire.

  13. Like Ann, I was enraptured at the sound of Hobbit Erotica. Perhaps an e-book, Ned? I’d fork over a buck ninety-nine for it.

    Great post, Neddy. Rejection blows and I have a particularly difficult time with it, which often prevents me from trying at all. Perhaps I need to read more posts like this. You know, for therapy.

  14. I once did a reading circle in which an agent chimed in and gave feedback or actually asked to read more. (This should only be attempted by the masochists who want their rejection in verbal form with thirty witnesses to verify the embarrassment.) I’ll never forget the agent listening to one guy read and then saying, “So have you considered using a ghost writer for your story?” I’m pretty sure that guy started a support group afterwards!

    1. I think the Hobbit Erotica part of this post has garnered more responses than anything. I have a lot of twisted readers, apparently. Not that I have a problem with that… 😉

    1. All snarkiness aside, you’re a champion to those close to you and many others whom you’ve never met face-to-face… present company included 😉

      Hang in there, my friend, and it’s truly great to see your little blue circle showing up again.

      1. It hasn’t been easy; my spirit is as fractured as my knee. I never realized how much my identity was connected to my ability to support my family, my mobility and my life as a bellman. I’ve been writing but I stare at the finished pages and doubt sets in.

        All kidding aside, I don’t see a reason to get up in the morning anymore, Ned. Boy, I’m a ray of light and hope, aren’t I?

        1. Sometimes, when we’re fractured, it’s the best opportunity to rebuild ourselves. You aren’t defined by what’s broken but by the things you deem important enough to be healed. The core of who you are remains, Eric.




          Amazing lover…

          All are extensions of the core virtues you carry as a man. (Except for the lover part — that’s just an ego boost from a friend). As for the rest, accept it. Believe in it. And draw strength from them. Your wife loves you for them, and so do your children. Not to mention the rest of us.

    1. Yes, Pieter, that’s usually the case. Although there are exceptions. If you really want to experience the joy of rejection without actually doing anything first, I’d be happy to put you in touch with my ex-wife… 😉

  15. You’re forgiven for recycling some of your earlier work, as this was one of your more memorable NWOW anyway…and as I type NWOW for the first time I finally realize it basically reads: ‘Ned, WOW!’…I can’t imagine a publisher ever saying no to that;)

  16. I have no rejection letters, but that’s only because, as my tag line reads, “I’m a writer who is her own worst enemy.” By being my own worst enemy, I haven’t had the courage to submit anything I’ve written yet to anyone who might reject it. Quite frankly, it’s not ready to submit, I haven’t even finished writing it yet. But as long as I don’t finish it or submit it – in my mind, it can still be great, right?

    1. I suppose that’s true, but I have a feeling it would be pretty great either way 😉 Fear of failure isn’t always a bad thing, unless it keeps you from succeeding.

No one is watching, I swear...

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