Finding the good in rejection (especially as a writer)

Keep your tank full; you don't want to run out of gas here.
Keep your tank full; you don’t want to run out of gas here.

When I fell for Sarah Getlost in the fourth grade, I was taking no chances. My father explained to me that women couldn’t resist a man in uniform. He told me this while wearing a white T-shirt, Bermuda shorts and drinking a beer, so I had to take his word for it. My plan was to wait for our little league candy sale and go to her house dressed in my new baseball uniform.

In theory, it was a good plan.

In reality, Sarah Getlost answered the door wearing her new cheerleader outfit, effectively neutralizing me. So, to impress her, I gave her my candy, a new baseball and all of my money. Although I wasn’t immediately rejected, it came swiftly once my mother found out and forced me to return to Sarah’s house to ask for all my stuff back. I don’t remember exactly what I said, only that it was awkward and involved a lot of gulping to keep the bitter taste of rejection from coming back up.

Although I think all that chalk I swallowed in the second grade helped a little.

Rejection is a part of life, particularly for writers. We set ourselves up for potential rejection every time we send out a query, have an article published online or in print, or post something to our blog or social media page. Thanks to the digital age, we have more ways than ever to receive rejection! 

Something else writers have in common is that each of us has to get started the same way: By putting ourselves out there. That means learning how to deal with — and learn from — the “Sara Getlost” moments in our literary world.

I 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.

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 17-word haiku, 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. Rejection letters are as much an indicator of that journey as seeing your work in print. They represent sacrifice, perseverance and the belief you have in yourself as a writer. The fact that you even have those rejections means you have already achieved more than most by having the work to submit in the first place.

So remember that the next time you get a visit from Sara Getlost.

And if you see her, tell her Ned still wants his baseball back…


(This morning, I got great news that Emmy-award winning “Sienfeld” director Tom Cherones will “be happy” to write a testimonial for the jacket of my new book coming out next month. To celebrate, I thought I’d finally post an ACTUAL EXCERPT from Pearls of Writing Wisdom: From 16 shucking years as a columnist, due out Sept. 24 from Port Hole Publishing in both print and eBook. It will also be available at Amazon Books, Barnes and Noble, and probably from the trunk of my car for years to come…)


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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...

40 thoughts on “Finding the good in rejection (especially as a writer)”

  1. I’ve recently decided on a new goal, of collecting a big fat file full of rejection letters. Maybe even a box? Maybe, and this could take me a while, I can just go crazy and wallpaper a whole room with them. Only I hate wallpaper, so I’d have to tear it right back down… but the point is, I’m determined to submit where there is actual risk of rejection, and embrace the hurt.

    There’s a downside to inspiring me, though: if I die of an infected papercut from a rejection letter, I will haunt you nonstop (when I’m not busy rigging lotto drawings to say “BOOBS.”)

  2. Another excellent post. I have a large envelope stuffed with rejection slips from back in the day when I regularly submitted to mainstream publishers. My favorite is a simple routing slip, one of those little slips of paper that have two entry lines, “send” and “to.” This one was filled in with “Send: Nothing else, To: Us.” After having toiled for many decades to become an overnight success, I have reached the point in life where, should it occur now, the proceeds would all go for geriatric supplies. For me, this is not entirely a negative realization as it removes a lot of the need to be financially rewarded and returns the focus to the creative process, writing for the sake of writing. Thanks again for sharing your insights.

    1. I have to admit, that rejection was pretty funny. And you’re right about reaching a point where you begin to realize your writing legacy is the writing itself, not the success. My father always instilled in me the notion of focusing on doing something well and letting the rest take care of itself. In the end, no matter what degree of “success” you achieve, you can always look back on your body of work and be proud. To me, that’s the true definition of “success.”

      1. Ned, I need to ditto shopgirlanonymous….Such a good read. Perfect timing for me. (However, I am a reader, not a writer. I’m in the audience for writers! So grateful for the H2O that I call good writing.) ‘Water in the desert’ for me! Yeah, rejection sucks, doesn’t it? I hear you! 😉 But, we learn from it. Sometimes I don’t know what good can come of it, and then somewhere down the road, I get an ‘aha’ moment, and think, “Oh, that’s what that was all about!”

        1. Thanks so much, Robin. And you’re very right about how the “aha” experience from rejection comes later sometimes. In fact, there’s still a couple I’m waiting on, but I know they’ll be great!

          Thanks for the kind words, and for reading 😉

  3. Ned you make rejection look to inviting, LOL. Congrats on your endorsement. I look forward to your book. Um, will there be bacon in it? Haha! 🙂

  4. I reject your rejection post. Rejection letters should be outlawed, we should all ride off into the sunset on unicorns, 😀 In fact rejection letters for jobs particularly annoy me.


    1. It is one and the same. As a matter of fact, he just stopped by the house and picked up the manuscript to read over the weekend. He’s super down to Earth. I told him if he didn’t want his name associated with me, I’d understand.

      He said, “We’ll see…” Haha!

  5. Haha, loved this post. Both hilarious and encouraging – good mix. 🙂 What changed my attitude towards rejection letters was realizing that a rejection does NOT mean my story isn’t “good.” It just means it’s up against a ton of other stories that are ALSO good. But we can’t all fit into one magazine or one agent’s client list, so some people will win that round, and the rest will win another. It can be wearisome and disappointing, absolutely, but it’s not a reflection on us personally. Or if it is, well, that just means there’s room for growth, and should be viewed as an opportunity, not a defeat.

  6. Great post Ned.. Even though I have never had the courage to send anything to anyone for publishing, I have a lot of respect for those of you who have committed to having your work put out there. I admire your commitment as a writer!! I am looking forward to your new book! Can I get this one autographed too?? 😉

    1. Thanks, Courtney. Courage manifests itself in many ways. Living next door to the U.S. right now, for example…!

      And without question, a signed copy can be arranged 😉

  7. My favorite rejection letter was from an editor in NY who took the time to handwrite me a letter saying that they liked my voice. Not enough to publish what I’d sent, but it was a great compliment and the effort she took was kind.

    Congrats on the book and the Cherones intro. That’s awesome.

    1. You should definitely feel good about that. It’s like a major league coach telling you you’ve got a great swing but need to perfect it a little more. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of mechanics and timing.

      And thanks, Calahan. In some ways, I’m enjoying this book even more than my first because it’s a chance to give something back by helping other writers.

      And Lord knows we need help…

  8. The best part of this is that her name is “Getlost” – there’s your rejection right there! Get lost! Geddit?

    But seriously, this was a good read. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  9. When it comes to writing I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded – especially in my daughter’s eyes – but I’m still here, Ned.
    And that’s all that matters.

  10. A baseball player and a cheerleader – the visual is just too cute.

    I loved this post! I am very good at getting rejected. I sent the query for my book into 40 agents and have (thus far) been rejected by 27. In each instance, the agent had something very helpful or informative to write. Honestly, I thought rejection would hurt more than it has. Instead it’s been a springboard for better understanding as well as a vehicle to improve my writing.
    I can’t wait until your book hits the shelves!! It’ll be epic! I’ll be able to say, “I knew him when”

    1. Twenty-seven agents taking the time to write a response is pretty impressive, Michelle. Definitely something to feel good about, and a clear indication that your writing is something people connect with. I heard Stephen King actually wall-papered his room once with all his rejection letters. I’d probably need to get a bigger house… 😉

      And thanks for the enthusiasm about the book. I’m pretty jazzed, too. Although I think the response to “I knew him when…” will probably be along the lines of “When what? Did he die?”

  11. Ive never submitted any of my writings to a agent, magazine or website, but I look at my views and comments as the final call on that day’s submission. I think I handle rejection pretty well, it just motivates me to do better. And that goes beyond writing, I use rejection as my daily fuel.

    Great Post. I feel like society needs more rejection in it. This “everyone gets a trophy” era is nauseating.

    1. Keeping perspective on “rejection” is key, and it sounds like you channel it in the right direction, Vinny. And I have to agree with that the “everybody wins” approach is really counter productive.

      1. Thank you, Im trying to not overthink my blog. I had one three years ago, and I was obsessing over it too much; so I erased it. With this current one, Ive decided to be more patient with it.

        Im still learning to not take rejection personal; blame my family for that

        Yes, I really believe that its ruining society; hence triggering and safe spaces, etc.

        Thanks for the response and affirmation. Ms mama mick terry said Id like your writings.

        1. Keeping a balance is important, Vinny. That, and remembering that with or without the Internet you’d still be writing. A blog is only another venue.

          And Michelle is one of my favorite peeps!

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