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

imageI have a file full of rejection notes and letters from 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.

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.

Remember that file of rejection letters I mentioned earlier?

My "thumbs down," pointing to the file of rejection letters in my drawer. In firefighting, we call them "fuel load."
My “thumbs down,” pointing to the file of rejection letters in my drawer. In firefighting, we call them “fuel load.”

Here are a few passages from the many rejection letters I’ve received over the last 16 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.

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.



imageThis has been an excerpt from Ned’s upcoming book, “Pearls of Writing Widson: From 16 Shucking Years as a Columnist,” coming out this September in both print and eBook from Port Hole Publishing. Ned 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...

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

  1. Hmmm. I’ve just published my fifth novel, and I’ve never received a rejection letter. I wonder if being self-published has anything to do with that? Maybe I’d be a better writer if I turned myself down now and then? Pondering, here . . .

      1. There’s no limit to the number of ways I can beat myself up. I’m sure I could come up with some scathingly dismissive rejection letters that would make ME hang my head in shame, pull all my books offline, and go get a job doing something more useful, like drop-stitch tatting doilies for the home decorating impaired.

  2. I like the idea of using rejections as teaching moments. In my case, they might be a teaching moment about dehumidifiers, because my old files are smelling pretty musty in the basement.

  3. I like to tell myself that a rejection from a particularly coveted (by me) publisher is as good as a love letter, because it’s all I’m going to get from them. And I won’t get even that if I don’t submit.

    But oh, it hurts to admit that something is Done. That this, what I am submitting, is the very best I can do with this material, right now. (I have deeper issues, don’t mind me)

    1. I think what you said first off was really important and a great analogy. It’s like taking a chance on love by realizing you will only find it by being vulnerable and revealing who you truly are. Submitting your best writing is the same. Sure, it could lead to rejection, but you’ll never find “true love” by holding back.

      As I mentioned to someone earlier, the worst rejection of all is the one you give yourself by not submitting your work at all.

  4. I suppose it’s analogous to submitting a resume on a job search. Nobody bothers to send rejection letters there. No wonder writers can feel special being rejected – they weren’t simply ignored.

  5. For some reason (my twisted brain comes to mind as one possible reason), as soon as I saw the title of this post in my email feed, a “great” new pick-up lline flashed into my head: “Young lady, are you an agent for a book publisher, by chance? Because I sense a rejection coming on.”
    You’d probably do well at mysteries, but, you know–country singers should NEVER rap, and since you’re so good at humor or essay, or humorous essay, writing, maybe you weren’t meant to be really great at mysteries. But keep trying. I’ve found that the inner voice which says: “Don’t try, because you may suck at writing, and definitely don’t try if you think you’re any good, because that’s arrogant, and arrogance sucks,”–well, that inner voice keeps me from doing anything. Except drinking. I think that is a line to a song somewhere: “Good whiskey never lets you lose your place.”
    (Or the short comment, which says: “This blog post was well done and almost makes me feel like trying. Have a great weekend, Ned.”)

  6. It’s Miss October’s loss if you ask me. This was hilarious and I totally agree, being told to sod off is way more satisfying than not hearing from a publisher at all. I look forward to your book, provided it doesn’t end with the Earth blowing up at the end;)

  7. I’ll take a rejection letter any day over the pit of eternal despair that is the unanswered / unacknowledged query letter. I’d rather have closure over that nagging thought cycle of did I remember to hit that submit button, maybe I should try again, but what if I did and they just haven’t read it then – I’ll torpedo my chances if they think I spam, hmmm, am I sure I hit the submit button?…

  8. Even after decades of writing, rejection letters still pop up (altho more apt to be emails, but still rejection). Case in point, I recently had an article that I wrote and rewrote for a web publication rejected…both times.

    Nicely, the editor still believed I was a good writer, just not for this assignment. And when I carefully brought up the subject of a kill-fee, he said I should invoice him for the full amount because of all the hard work I had done.

    That is EASILY the best rejection I have ever had in my life…and one I never expect to have repeated (but for which I will eternally hope, now).

    1. That’s a testimony you your talent as much as it is to the fact that there are some editors out there who value what writers do. Thanks for sharing that, Randall.

      1. Having worked both sides–as a freelance writer and an editor–I know the value of a good relationship between the two camps.

        As an editor, if I had a story that needed a specific approach or warranted a certain style, I knew exactly which member of my stable of writers to approach. This is a Nancy story. This one’s a David story.

        My writers knew they could trust me, and that I had complete faith in them. I try to have the same relationship with my editors now.

        It’s about respect, not just for each other but for the work itself.

        And hell, if it were just about the money, I’d be in a different line completely…you know, like puppetry or something.

  9. I think you can take another shot with Miss October 1978 – because it’s now you who is The Sexiest (public blogger) and she’s now probably some old lady who is getting ready to collect Social Security.

  10. Thanks for your words of wisdom. I have never submitted any of my work to anything official after all these years and I’m finally getting the nerve up to do so. Oh and I love your way of sharing your life with us man. You rock

    1. Hey, thanks so much, Anthony. I’m really glad to hear you’re going to get your work out there and start submitting. As I told someone else, the worst rejection letter is the one you give yourself by never submitting your work. Rock on, man!

  11. Well then, I guess I’m doing something wrong. Unless that time I submitted a travel story to the Philadelphia Inquirer and got no response qualifies as rejection. I like your idea of keeping them and using them as an example to your kids. You have given me a new item for my bucket list. ….obtaining a rejection letter.

    1. We all have to have goals, Tara 😉 But more than anything, the point I was trying to make was to not allow fear of rejection keep you from submitting. Clearly, you are fearless 😉

    1. Hey, thanks for sharing, Don. And yeah, “rejection” can be a be a great inspiration. In fact, I was inspired a lot by girls in high school… 😉

  12. Thanks for sharing your shameless rejections Ned. Lol, rejection is a matter of opinion. I did love the variety, everything from easy let downs to see ya! Lmao, seriously, I think King has had many more than you. And sad because those publishers missed out BIG TIME on you! 🙂

    1. I heard Stephen King had “Carrie” rejected by more than 100 publishers before he finally found one. I wonder how many acquisition editors got fired over that one? Haha!

      1. Lol yes, I hope they all got a good whooping. And I read a story about a book that King submitted to publisher under a pseudo name (I forget now), which got declined! He wanted to test the rejection theory. He then phoned his publisher and basically said ‘caught ya’ . Just goes to show that good work does get rejected. 🙂

  13. Ok… I guess I’m not a real writer 😦
    I don’t have any rejection letters. I should have rejection letters because I SHOULD be sending stuff out to get it rejected, but I am a big chicken! I love reading your stuff and your book is awesome! More power to you and the others who have the courage to be rejected. I guess I’m not strong enough….yet. :-/

    1. As I’ve said before, being a writer doesn’t take getting published or a certain number of readers. If you struggle over finding the right words and spend time putting those thoughts down because it matters to you, you are a writer. Period. The question is, how willing are you to share it with others? And like any art form, rejection goes with the territory. It doesn’t make you any less of a writer 😉

            1. Well, knock it off… 😉
              Seriously, it happens to all of us. Being discouraged just means you care… And another sign that you’re a writer at heart.

  14. Haha, awesome post. 🙂 My very first rejection letter made me so happy. I felt part of the club! Rejections really do symbolize something positive – that you MADE something, took a risk, and put yourself out there.

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