If You Can’t Say Something Nice… Say Something Generic
I’ve got quite a collection of rejections in my email today (and one sale! whoo hoo!). I’m stealing some time to process them all – you know, update my submisions records, rat on you to Duotrope, that sort of thing. Happily, there’s a higher-than-usual number of nice ones – some personal notes with regrets and reasons, some well-crafted and still-encouraging form letters. But then there a few that make me shake my head, and some that make me want to find your address and come egg your house.
I won’t do that, of course – if I egged every editor who peeved me it would rake up my grocery bill, and I’m not getting paid enough for these poems and stories to justify that.
I would, though, like to ask you to please carefully consider the turn of phrase you use when writing rejection letters.
You’d think this would be obvious, since these letters are part of the triforce of impressions you make to the public – next to 1) the magazine itself and 2) your website/guidelines, rejections say a lot about who YOU are and to what extent you give a shit about the writers who make your magazine possible. But a lot of you seem not to realize how unfavorable an impression your letters are making to would-be contributors – and that should concern you.
For example, “your submission does not meet our criteria” is one I just received. Seems bland enough, at first glance, but think about that word, “criteria”. It means “conditions which must be met”, basically, or “the standard to which we are holding you up”.
We’re writers, see. Words have nuance. Words matter.
So while you may have meant “this is not what we’re looking for at this time”, it comes across to the rejected as either “you didn’t follow the guidelines” (which I did, indeed) or “you’re just not good enough for us.”
And that may very well be true, but for goodness’ sake, why would you SAY that? It’s elitist and rude. Don’t be elitist and rude.
Also? Also. Editors, suggesting that submitters read the magazine to “get a feel for our style and preferences” or to pay attention to the guidelines is perfectly reasonable IN THE GUIDELINES. Forewarning is fair. But saying it in the body of a rejection is just bad form. Please stop doing this.
Yes. Lots (LOTS) of submitters get it wrong. They send things that are inappropriate. They ignore the rules and attach their name when they’re not supposed to or send the wrong type of file or put all the poems in one doc instead of one for each, or vice versa, I KNOW. (I reject dozens of poems unread for breaking guidelines over at Devilfish – READ THE GUIDELINES!!)
BUT. When someone has studied the magazine and done their homework and made thoughtful selections, this kind of blanket finger-wagging is really just an insult. It alienates the writers who are behaving. It’s like scolding the entire class because someone in the back was passing notes and talking. It means you’re lumping the poet whose work you just didn’t prefer this time in with all the rule-breakers because you’re cranky.
Don’t be cranky in a rejection email. It’s just not professional.
I’m also not a fan of “I’m going to pass.” Maybe this one is just on me, but doesn’t it sound like something you’d say if an ugly person came on to you at a bar?
I’m not an ugly person in a bar. I’m a sensitive writer. I’ve written you a respectful query letter, entrusted you with my creative property, and opened myself up to your judgement. Is “pass” the best you can do?
I mean, really. “Thank you for your submission, but it’s not what we’re looking for at this time.” Is that so hard?
Sensitive writer here. Wonderful post. How about the ones who simply never acknowledge your existence. You tossed your blood sweat and tears into a black hole. How long can you wait without hearing before you submit elsewhere?
The adage is, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” but in rejections I think never hearing back is actually worse. Sadly, it happens often, and even some of the most renowned magazines and journals are guilty of it.
On the other hand, some venues have famously long wait times – sometimes years! – so how long you *should* wait before writing the submission off depends. Start with the guidelines: they will usually give you a rough idea of what to expect (“we aim to respond in three to six months”), although I’ve found these are often wishful thinking. Submission platforms like Duotrope can give you an idea of response statistics in real time, so if you see that the average person is hearing after ten months to a year, you might have to wait a bit longer.
If the stated response time has come and gone, you are of course free to write a query. Many places (the good ones) will actually give you instructions on how and when to do this. Dear Editors, as per your guidelines, I’m writing to ask about my piece “S*** Editors Say”, which I submitted for you to shred, along with my hopes and dreams, on June 18th of last year….”
Often they will respond with a brief explanation of what’s up (“Our offices burnt down and my dog ran away so I’m giving up being an editor and taking up country singing, so sorry” or, worse, “what submission? We have no idea what you’re talking about” – I’ve actually had one venue lose my submissions THREE FREAKING TIMES>).
If they don’t respond to a “what’s up” query, and sometimes they don’t, THEN you have to decide if waiting on these people is worth your time.
Note also that literary agents, in particular, are prone to non-responses. This seems to be the industry standard. I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t care how busy you are, sending a response (even a form one) is just basic courtesy.
Like doctors who charge you when you’re five minutes late, but leave you waiting on them for forty minutes to an hour. There’s an implied value judgement happening here, and it makes me want to egg a lot of houses.
I save “please read the magazine (or “see the website”) for an idea of what we publish” for those submitters who made no effort whatsoever to check out the guidelines or a few sample poems or even the _description_ of the journal, for Cthulhu’s sake!
If an editor wants to take the time to call you out *individually*, that’s another thing entirely. 🙂
The points raised by Ms. Connor concerning editorial behavior have also puzzled me. Submitters constitute a high-value audience segment. Submitters are more likely than others to read several publications, more likely to subscribe to a quality journal that uses a subscription model, more likely to contribute to follow-up crowdsourcing endeavors (the second round most pubs need to continue past the first year), more likely to engage in unsolicited promotion of the journal–if they feel they the editor has treated them with respect. Further, the writer an editor rejects for issue X might turn in the piece worthy of acceptance for issue Y–but that editor will never see that piece if the writer places the journal at the bottom of their market list because of a disrespectful prior rejection.
Yes, this, exactly.