Image: Battling Butler (1926)
To write is to be rejected.
All writers must learn, not only to accept that dictum as an ironclad truth, but also to embrace it as an unavoidable part of a writing life. Most of us will be on the receiving end of umpteen rejections, often from different journals or presses for the same piece of writing. If it’s not easy getting a single rejection — and let’s face it, it isn’t — then collecting them is exponentially more painful.
As your rejections start stacking up, it’s easy to see why you might start to avoid your writing desk, or, when you do sit down, spend hours staring at the blinking cursor on a blank Word document. And yet, learning to work through the negative emotions that come with constant rejection can actually help you become a more productive and prolific writer.
I had to relearn that lesson the hard way — by being rejected. A lot. By many different editors. Via form letters. (Ouch.) My latest season of rejection took place this past summer, when — after focusing on crafting nonacademic essays — I decided to start writing more personal essays and poems. Creative nonfiction is a somewhat new genre for me and the rejections quickly started piling up. By summer’s end, I realized I had gone through each of the five stages of Writer’s Grief:
- Denial. At first, I refused to accept the initial defeats and kept hitting the “submit” button each time I received a rejection. After all, I mused, maybe the editors hadn’t closely read my submission.
- Anger. After a few more rejections for the same poem, I started to blame “the system.” That particular poem was great, but there are too few venues for poetry and too many talented writers. Since journals mostly publish work from already established authors, I rationalized, the fix was in.
- Bargaining. At this point, I realized that if I retooled some of the poems and reworked the essays, then I might be more successful. Maybe if I crafted a better cover letter, and groveled a little, then I’d at least get an editor’s attention.
- Depression. After 10 straight standardized rejections, I was convinced that I could no longer write. Once I had been a talented writer; now I was clearly a complete hack.
- Acceptance. I reminded myself that writing is hard, and that writing well takes patience and practice. At some point, I realized that repeated rejection is just part of the process of getting published.
A lot of writers simply quit on a piece after too many rejections. The idea of facing another round of “no, thank you’s” is terrifying.
In an essay on LitHub that quickly went viral among writers this summer — “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year”— Kim Liao mused that embracing rejection has a net positive effect. To seek out rejection is to seek out success. Her formula is simple. More rejections equals more successes. “Since I’ve started aiming for rejections, not acceptances,” Liao wrote, “I no longer dread submitting. I don’t flinch (much) when I receive inevitable form rejection emails.” Expecting rejection made the process of submitting easier.
Most writers responded positively to Liao’s suggestion to set a goal of 100 rejections a year — but some didn’t. In a post for The Kenyon Review, Laura Maylene Walter wrote about the 215 rejections she collected in 2015 and appreciated Liao’s argument. “It highlights the fact that rejection is the norm rather than something to be ashamed of,” Walter wrote. Yet she also heard some negative reactions to Liao’s essay: “Some questioned whether the process is broken, or even rigged so only writers with connections get published. Another writer pointed out the privilege inherent in being able to take the time to write and submit at all (especially in the way that allows one to accumulate rejections in the triple digits). Another thought this article might make writers who are unable to submit in such large numbers feel guilty.”
Few of us, as academic writers, have the luxury of either aiming for such a large number of rejections or taking our sweet time to publish. Our writing often takes much longer than a short piece of fiction and the journals in our fields are limited in number and scope. Publications count, as we all know, and matter dearly to our burgeoning careers.
But can we still take some of Liao’s advice and set personal rejection goals? What if we aimed to get rejected from 20 journals or presses each year? How would that affect our output and our anxiety about publishing or perishing? How might it change our personal relationship to writing?
It turns out that some academics already approach rejection in a manner similar to Liao’s.
Beatriz Reyes-Foster, an assistant professor of socio-cultural anthropology at University of Central Florida, told me that rejection doesn’t bother her that much anymore. “I just see it as an opportunity to improve the piece,” she explained, “especially because rejections generally come with comments. I take the ones that are useful and go from there. A forthcoming piece was submitted and rejected in three journals, but it wasn't until I was reworking it that I finally figured out the issue. The piece turned out to be the most theoretically daring piece I've ever written, and I would have never gotten there if the article had been accepted anywhere else.”
Rejections proved crucial to the quality of her article, and to her success in getting it published.
Another assistant professor on the tenure track, Eric Plemons at the University Arizona, told me he allows himself to briefly brood over any negative review comments — at most a day — before he gets right back to work revising and resubmitting. “I focus on the good things,” he said, “and do no more than one afternoon of revising for those critiques that I find helpful. And then I send it off somewhere else.”
Across all genres of writing, then, the healthiest advice about coping with the inevitability of rejection seems to be the same: Get back to writing. Keep pressing the submit button. Keep getting rejected until you don’t.
And the best balm for 20 or more rejections in a row? It turns out to be one acceptance.