When I first started submitting work for publication in earnest, a personal rejection (when an editor or reader gives specific feedback, such as what they liked about your work and/or why it was rejected) was rare and valuable; almost as good as an acceptance.
A personal rejection means that someone took special notice of your work; it wasn’t just an auto-reject by a slush pile robot or an embittered assistant reader getting drunk on whiskey sours somewhere and reading snippets from your beloved story/poem/essay out loud for sadistic kicks.
For an under-published writer, a personal rejection isn’t just encouraging (though it can be that, too). A personal rejection is medicine. Having trouble finding a home for your work? Here’s why: your poem needs tightening. Your story needs a resolution. Your changing POV is confusing, your narrative is stilted, your something or other needs some kind of attention – it was an almost for us, here’s how it could have been a yes. OR – or! There’s nothing wrong with your work at all; we just couldn’t use it this time – please try us again.
From what I can tell, personal rejections are becoming even more unusual these days. My rate of submission hasn’t changed, so either my writing IS SO GOOD it leaves editors speechless, OR, they have less time and inclination to make personal observations. It’s probably the latter, maybe having to do with the publishing glut and automated submission portals (though the speechless thing sounds good, too).
Whatever the reason for their rarity, if someone sends you a personal rejection, treat it like precious baby bird.
Then again, sometimes – sometimes! – personal rejections are dumb.
Recently I received a rejection for a flash fiction / vignette along with a thoughtful explanation for why it had been rejected – exactly the kind of thing I would have salivated over a few years ago. The editor even included a helpful full revision of the piece with suggested line edits and a total overhaul of the narrative style.
It’s important to keep in mind that this editor is probably a lovely person. Her life is as full and evolved and as busy as yours or mine. She probably deals with hundreds of submissions on a regular basis plus whatever editor-ly duties she has hanging over her head. The fact that she took the time not only to comment but to thoroughly comment on my work was an act of enormous generosity for which I should be grateful. What I should have done was file the rejection away and move on.
That’s not what I did.
Instead, I broke my rule of zen and immediately hit “reply” to explain – as politely as possible while still sounding smugly self-righteous – that while I respect the editorial prerogative to reject my work, there is a difference between editing and re-writing.
Which is true. This editor crossed a line. In her zeal to be helpful, she overlooked personal style and creative choice and revised my (much polished) story to how she would have written it herself, which is unhelpful, at best, and more than a little insulting.
But I should have let it go.
I broke the rule because I’m human (and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t had my coffee yet and/or was coping with a rash of rejections that week), which brings us back to the point that not every personal rejection is golden because editors are human, too. They have their own prejudices and preferences. They like what they like, and they’re looking for what they’re looking for. Sometimes they make decisions while under-caffeinated. Sometimes they mean well and do dumb things. Sometimes when they reject you, it may be for sound, objective reasons, or it may be because they just don’t get you, which is not to say some other editor/venue won’t.
Bottom line, personal rejections are like any other form of critique. Critique is valuable, it’s necessary – hell, it’s crucial – but only in general. If you’ve ever worked with a critique group or beta readers, you’ll know that for every 5 people you share your work with you’ll get 15 reactions, most of it contradictory, some of it downright dumb. Your job, as a writer, is to sort through it all, look for what’s consistent (if 13 people tell you your action sequence is dull, it’s probably dull) and balance that against your own judgment, your own vision. Sometimes, critique will point you in the right direction, and sometimes it will only muck you up.
Sometimes, you have to say “Dear Editor – thank you for your interest in my submission, but after careful consideration, I have decided that your rejection just isn’t right for me.”***
I would rather have a form rejection than a long, drawn-out “how dare you send this shit to me” personalized letter. (I still have burn marks from that one.) It was so hostile that I actually did respond to it, to ask the editor why he was so upset. It was just a story, so reject it! Let’s move on.
Yikes. That one deserved a scathing reply, methinks.