Rejection Letters: Separating the Good from the Ugly

Sending rejection letters is one of the most difficult parts of editing a literary magazine. As co-fiction editor of Willow Springs Magazine, along with Andrew Moreno, I’ll agonize over sending a rejection. I know that you, as a writer, have lovingly crafted every word, every image in your story, and I know that a rejection letter can sometimes hurt and feel incredibly personal. At Willow Springs, we stick to the basics. “Thank you for submitting “[Title]” to Willow Springs for consideration. We have decided against publishing your submission, but we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere,” reads our standard rejection letter. It is short and sweet, without platitudes or frills. We subtly note that the onus is on us, as editors, for rejecting the piece—it’s not the quality of your writing (we have so many amazing pieces to consider)—and we encourage you to keep sending the submission to other journals. While I hope that our rejection letter doesn’t break hearts or hurt feelings, I still hate sending them out.

Although we at Willow Springs keep our rejection letters short and simple, there are other journals that attempt to soften the blow. Literary Orphans tells submitters to “never take rejection personally, at this level it becomes very subjective.” After Happy Hour Review notes that, “As writers, we’ve received many rejections ourselves; we know it’s never easy,” in their rejection letter. Cease, Cows writes “we’re writers, too, and we hate rejection.” It’s a lot easier to take a rejection when the journal notes that they don’t like the process any more than the writer does.

Most writers are happy to receive these reminders; these empathetic rejection letters show writers that editors understand a writer’s mind. These are good rejections to receive—a writer is often encouraged with the news that the piece sent to a journal is not sub-par, that there are other factors at play in choosing pieces to publish. These are the types of rejection letters journals should strive to write, but often, letters can miss the mark entirely. So, fellow journal editors, what makes a good literary rejection? What separates a good rejection letter from a bad one?

First, the bad. If an editor encourages a writer who was just rejected to subscribe to their journal in a rejection letter—that’s a major misstep on the part of the editor. It’s insensitive; it says, “We don’t want your writing, but we’ll definitely take your money.” Also, rejection letters that begin “Dear Writer,” and do not address a person by name are letters that persuade writers to turn their backs on a journal. Or, worse, a “Your status has changed on Submittable,” note tells the writer never to bother with the journal again. If the editor hadn’t taken the time to send a simple rejection, why should the writer spend her time sending to the journal again?

One of the worst things an editor can do is send a rejection that patronizes the writer. A journal (that will remain unnamed) writes “we encourage all of our contributors to utilize peer workshops and local writing groups to expand on their work. You may wish to submit again after working with one of these groups, and we look forward to seeing what you have to offer in the future,” in its rejection letters. The level of condescension in the rejection letter is entirely uncalled for; this letter stings like a wasp. Luckily, these rejection letters are few and far between.

Writers prefer rejection letters that are clear, crisp, and encouraging at the same time. Letters that state clearly whether a journal would like more work from the writer are often those that help, rather than hurt, a writer when he or she decides whether or not to send to a journal again. Katie Manning, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review makes it a priority to thank writers for their submissions. “My journal couldn’t function if writers didn’t trust us enough to send work in the first place. It’s an honor that anyone sends us writing at all,” she says about sending rejection letters. A good literary journal is good because they are excited to share the writing they have found with the world. A good rejection letter strives to respect a writer as an individual and a human being.

A simple litmus test: “Is this letter respectful?” separates the good rejection letters from the bad ones. When a writer is treated like a contributor, even in a rejection letter, a journal is helping the literary community at large.

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Katherine Bell is a second-year MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers where she serves as a fiction editor for Willow Springs Magazine. Her fiction can be found in The Blue Lyra Review, Welter Literary Journal, and The Fem.

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