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March 23, 2005

Ten Things About Literary Rejection

Since I will be in the position of rejecting people's work later in the year, I wanted to post ten quick things about rejection that I think people should know, at least as it regards what I'll be doing.

1. If you haven't read Teresa Nielsen Hayden's seminal "Slushkiller" entry about the editorial side of rejection, stop reading this and go read that instead. Right now. You will be enlightened, and if you're not, you probably shouldn't be writing. "Slushkiller" should be given to every single aspiring writer before he or she is allowed to submit a damn thing.

2. The magazine issue I'm editing will feature 12 to 30 articles totaling 60,000 words (more or less). I expect that I will receive more than 30 submissions and/or 60,000 words worth of material for my consideration. Therefore, I expect I will be rejecting a fair amount of material.

3. Writers who do not believe that submission guidelines should apply to them are going to be rather unpleasantly surprised when I disagree. I regard adherence to submission guidelines as an IQ test and assume those who cannot or will not follow them are no more likely to be able to write a good story than a fish can play a tuba. This may be unfair to the writer (and the fish), but not following my submission guidelines is unfair to me (and to other writers who do follow submission guidelines). So that makes us even in the unfairness department. This will weed out a surprising number of submissions. Try not to be one of them.

4. I read each story until it no longer works for me. If that happens before the end of the story, I'm going to reject the piece. I don't usually know from piece to piece what's going to work for me. Like pornography or a good melon, I know entertaining work when I see it. But I guarantee you if you think there's a point at which your story lags, I will, too. Don't give me the opportunity to decide your piece doesn't work. If the story works all the way through that doesn't mean it's accepted, but it does mean it'll make it into the pool of stories I'd like to buy.

5. I will almost certainly not be able to buy every single story I'd like to buy. I have finite space and I also have to consider balance for the magazine -- I can't have three stories with the same plot device, even if all three pieces are heartbreakingly good. Therefore, some of the stories I will reject it will kill me to reject -- but I'll have to reject them anyway, and hope that they find another home where they will be loved.

6. You will not know why I rejected your work. I intend to send out form rejections that will politely but briefly note that I will not be able to use the submission. I do not plan to explain the rejection. I recognize that people want to know why their work is rejected, but as a practical matter it would be difficult to individualize each rejection. If you'd like to assume that I loved the piece but was simply unable to put it in the magazine, that's groovy by me, since in several cases that will be the truth.

7. I am rejecting the piece, not you. As noted above, rejection happens for many reasons, and much good work that deserves publication is rejected for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the writing. The rejection of your submission is not a referendum on you as a human being, or even on you as a writer. It is simply acknowledging that for whatever reason, this piece does not suit my needs at this time. If you take rejection personally as a writer, you will go mad, because every writer gets rejected. A lot.

8. If it helps you to think that the reason I rejected your work is because I'm a fookin' idjit, I accept and celebrate that decision. Still, try to treat me kindly the next time we see each other.

9. If you were my best friend and you submitted a story I couldn't use, I would reject it. If you were my mother and you submitted a story I couldn't use, I would reject it. If you were Jesus at the right hand of God and you submitted a story I couldn't use, I would reject it. If you were my mortal, hated enemy who submitted a story that knocked me on my ass and fit perfectly with what I was trying to do, I would buy that story in a heartbeat. And then I'd hope you get hit by a bus. Point: The readers of the magazine couldn't possibly care what my relationship is to the writers. They just want a good read. My job is to make that happen.

10. Whether I reject your story or accept it, I will treat it as I would have my own work treated by another editor. I will assume that every story will work for me until I am persuaded otherwise. I will recognize that the work you've sent represents your best efforts. And I will remember that you honor me when you send in your work for my consideration. Thank you. I will try to return the favor.

Posted by john at March 23, 2005 12:30 AM

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Patrick Nielsen Hayden | March 23, 2005 08:52 AM

Pornography and good melons know entertaining work when they see it? You must know some darn discerning melons.

Dean | March 23, 2005 09:07 AM

This is about as clear an explanation of the thinking behind the editorial process as I've seen. It will be an honour to be rejected by you. :)

John Scalzi | March 23, 2005 09:13 AM

"You must know some darn discerning melons."

Too... many... comebacks... head... exploding... with... options...

Mark Richardson | March 23, 2005 11:52 AM

I've noticed between Hayden and Scalzi there is alot of material written on blogs about being rejected, the act of rejection and what to do about being rejected :)

I'm mildly curious, is there anything to be said on what people like to see when they get submissions? Do some writing styles/prose etc work more often than others? Do cliches always get rejected? I guess I'm asking what are the things that editors look for in material that they accept?

I'm not a writer except for reports at work. I'm just curious about the writing profession and how it works.

RooK | March 23, 2005 11:53 AM

So, you mean to say that I won't even get a "Mwa ha ha ha ha!" in my form rejection? How strangely disappointing.

John Scalzi | March 23, 2005 11:59 AM

"Do cliches always get rejected?"

In my case, no, since the issue of the magazine I'm editing has as its theme science fiction cliches.

(Also, it's Nielsen Hayden, not Hayden -- two words but a single last name. It confuses a lot of folks.)

I think editors are aware of their own tastes and also the needs of whatever it is they are editing, and what they like to see is work that address one or both of these. From there, it's an issue of how to achieve balance. For example, I do know I like certain types of writing, but I also know that it won't do simply to have piece after piece of writing that all reads the same. So I need to balance my personal inclinations with the needs of the magazine. Hopefully what we end up with is a magazine of diverse voices that also has a bit of a point of view (courtesy of my editorial voice).

John N. | March 23, 2005 12:31 PM

It is off topic, (and for that, I apoligize) but know what? I think that the commenters here are some of the best on the 'net.

I found myself positively obsessing the other day when everyone was chiming in on the Schiavo case, and the day when Jim Valvis was getting his head beat on.....the same obsessiveness.

You've got a nice little community here. I enjoy the commenters here pretty much as much as the posts.

(Flattery ending now.....)

John Scalzi | March 23, 2005 12:37 PM

Thanks John. I happen to agree with you: The commenters here are an unusually engaging group, and I'm glad they come around.

Dawn B. | March 23, 2005 12:49 PM

Re: Editors saying what they want.

Rarely happens. Most editors, rightly, fall back on the following: If it is a well written piece that is engaging and fits within the purview of the magazine/anthology, they'll buy it.

Saying what you want other than that, means that if someone writes something they think meets those guidelines they get all bitchy when rejected still, for whatever reason. Ellen Datlow & GVG & Sheila Williams have said at length that they don't know what will make a story work before they read it. So just write your best, follow the guidelines, and send the right material (in this case: SF not fantasy or horror or romance or western, etc.).

dichroic | March 23, 2005 02:08 PM

I don't know. I can see at least one place where TNH's slushpile article contradicts your request for stories that turn SF cliches on their head: I can imagine a scenario in which "reeking havoc" might indeed be an accurate description, rather than the more usual spelling. (Is it a coincidence my fingers tried to type "shit" for "which" in the preceding sentence?)

John Scalzi | March 23, 2005 02:14 PM

It's true that my particular editorial needs this time around are unusual; however, TNH's Slushkiller is an excellent general overview. And of course, if people give me cliche stories that are written, well, in a cliched manner, it'll have an impact on their potential sale to me.

Harry | March 23, 2005 04:24 PM

Thanks for #6. I much prefer form rejections.

John Scalzi | March 23, 2005 04:27 PM

You're welcome!

Joseph M. | March 23, 2005 04:51 PM

As an interesting side note, some of the rejection letters listed in the "Slushkiller" entry sounded awefully similar to the rejection letters I am currently collecting from grad schools. Most of the advice seemed to fit pretty well with my process, too.

Mike Kozlowski | March 23, 2005 07:47 PM

Y'know, I don't care how bad it was, I think I'd still publish Jesus' submission, because if those awful Lost Behind books can sit on the best-seller charts that long, a book by actual back-and-better-than-ever Jesus should put three generations of somebody's family through college.

RooK | March 24, 2005 01:43 AM

If literary rejection letters are deemed harsh because writers are so fragile and because editors have so little time to waste, allow me to present the opposite:

Engineering Co-op Rejection Letters

You have to realize that many engineers, especially when still in the larval student stage, are really really amazing socially inept and frighteningly determined. Consequently, unless the rejection letter is sufficiently firm the employer can expect the applicant to return with even more determination and/or desperation. The two classifications of rejection letters are the PFO (Please Fuck Off) and the FOAD (Fuck Off And Die), which I believe are common jargon for all sorts of rejections - however, only in engineering co-op rejection letters have I seen the actual words "fuck off" included.

Ozy | March 24, 2005 09:09 AM

Teresa sure sounds bitter. Perhaps someone should start a website that catalogues complaints editors have about rejected writers.

And what's up with her characterization of "flaccid, underperforming" manuscripts? Trouble at home?

Colour me enlightened.

John Scalzi | March 24, 2005 09:19 AM

Ozy: If that's the whole of your takeaway from "Slushkiller," I guess that's just too bad for you.

Ozy | March 24, 2005 10:36 AM

Obviously Teresa makes a few excellent points (laced in unnecessary sarcasm) but it seems superfluous to recount them here. My comment was not intended to log my "whole takeaway," but I do want you to know that at least one writer can slog through her entry and remain unenlightened.

By the way, what makes her entry "seminal"? Do you really find it particularly creative or original? I guess that's just too bad for you.

John Scalzi | March 24, 2005 10:56 AM

I find it seminal because it's been the launch pad both for additional commentary on the editorial process and it's also one of the few documents online that extensively addresses the submissions process from the point of view of the editors. It fits the adjective well.

As an aside, I find it fun to read -- Teresa's attitude apparently doesn't work for you as well as it does for me, but even aside from personal tastes, it goes to show that editors are people, not cogs in a publishing machine, and have their own points of view even as they do their jobs with competence. Writers -- particularly new writers -- often don't seem to get that,

"I do want you to know that at least one writer can slog through her entry and remain unenlightened."

Again, that's too bad for you.

Tripp | March 24, 2005 07:54 PM

Dang. You make me wish I was a writer!

mythago | March 25, 2005 11:41 AM

So, you mean to say that I won't even get a "Mwa ha ha ha ha!" in my form rejection?

Scalzi doesn't even give out ass-kissings anymore when you buy OMW. He's gotten all lazy and sloppy with his new success, I tell you.

As long as my rejection letter does not end with "If the above does not comport with your understanding, please contact me at your earliest convenience" I think I will be OK with it.

Kimberly | March 26, 2005 01:00 PM


I just missed the keyboard with the coffee. Just so you know.

Although I would be happier with that sign-off than with: "If I do not hear from you regarding this matter by Friday, we will have no choice but to address our concerns to the Court."

I will be devastated if my story is so bad that John feels the need to take it up with a judge.

mythago | March 26, 2005 04:36 PM

Ha! And the word "hereinbefore" better not show up in that rejection letter either. I'm just sayin'.

sylvia | September 1, 2005 07:55 PM

Just as a sideline, as I have nothing bitchy enough to fit in, I love personal rejections. I don't blame you for doing the form thing as a matter of expedience, but I actively collect and hug my personal rejections (my favourite to date is "good read" scribbled on the manuscript, with a form letting and no reason given for rejection).

Just wanted to give a different point of view from the previous commenter ;)

sylvia | September 8, 2005 10:47 PM

Came back to check on comments (WHERE ARE THEY?) and spotted my typo of "form letting" ... it's like blood letting, I think. It's supposed to do you good but it only hursts.

So I'm standing by it.

Anne C. | December 1, 2005 05:42 PM

I, too, am sad that there will not be at least some feedback in the form rejection, but understand it's a choice probably made out of expediency. I probably would have gotten my standard rejection anyway "Good story, but not enough space." I'm a chronic second-stringer.
I was looking forward to going home and finding what kind of rejection letter I would get, but you took all the suspense out of it. ;)

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