When Everyone Passes: How to Deal with Rejection

A few months back, I wrote a story.

It almost felt like one of those stories that tells itself. I had this visceral scene in my mind and when I put my fingers to the keyboard, it all came pouring out of me.

A few days and a little polishing later, I had what I felt was the best thing I'd ever written.

But then, when I was ready to publish it, I hit a brick wall.

I submitted to Salon -- "good luck placing it elsewhere" -- then I submitted to The Atlantic and Huffington Post -- radio silence -- and I submitted to The Rumpus -- "thanks so much for submitting".

There aren't a ton of big outlets out there for stories like mine -- those were some of the best ones. I felt like I was out of options.

I thought maybe I should hold onto it for a while longer. I could submit to a print journal and wait six or eight months to see if they too would reject it. Maybe I could try rewriting it. Or maybe I could just kill it.

All I knew is that I was disappointed.

I mean, this was my best work, and it was growing mold, tucked away in a Google Doc somewhere.

This wasn't my first go-round with rejection, though. I've been writing for years now and trying to publish or sell my writing for just as long.

So I know a thing or two about No.

Before I talk about what I ended up doing with my story, here are a couple of things I think are really important for writers (and anyone else) to know about rejection:

1) Rejection is a fake smile, not a frown

It's easy to think of editors as these ungodly busy people who've been so hardened by years behind a desk that they have no qualms about crushing your soul.

But it's not true.

Rejection is hardly ever as blunt as you'd expect.

Think about talking to a pretty girl in a bar and striking out. You're not going to get, "You're too ugly for me." You're going to get, "Sorry, I'm here with my friends."

Same thing with writing.

It's never, "This is crap. Why would you even waste your time sending this?"

It's, "I really enjoyed reading this, but it's not quite a fit for us. Thanks for submitting and good luck placing it elsewhere."

Same thing with interviewing for a job.

If you've ever interviewed someone, you know about the hushed conversations that take place after candidates leave.

He was arrogant. She couldn't make eye contact. He was too wordy. She was too quiet.

But they never hear those things. They get an email thanking them for their interest. Maybe even telling them they were a finalist.

The point is, you will be lied to by people that don't want to hurt your feelings. Even people that don't know you and have no reason to protect you. No one wants to be a dick.

And the worst thing you can do is believe the candy coated letdown, continuing on thinking you're this close to landing your big break.

Rejection is rejection. Accept it.

2) Rejection means nothing...

Accept rejection, but don't let it get you too down.

One of the best things I've read lately is a story about a guy who, fed up with his work being turned away by journals and publications, ripped off an essay from The New Yorker, changed the title, and sent it off to everyone he could think of.

His reasoning -- The New Yorker is pretty much widely regarded as Everest in the eyes of essayists, columnists, and journalists. They feature the best of the best writers in the world, so, surely, that genius should be easily recognized by the rest of the literary elite. Right?

Wrong. The stolen story was rejected by every single outlet.

What's the point?

Who knows. No one knows. That's the point.

No one knows what's good. Everyone has their own tastes and they take educated guesses at what people will respond to, based on what they respond to, but publishing is not a science.

I've read stuff on respected websites or in literary outlets and thought it was crap. I've read lauded stories that I thought were a bunch of artsy bullshit and I've read acclaimed essays that I thought were a bunch of overly-intellectual nonsense.

What do you love? What do you think is good?

Write that.

3) ... except when it doesn't.

The above is a great story. Uplifting. Optimistic. Right?

Well, sadly, it wouldn't be very productive going through life thinking that your success is entirely up to chance, and that nothing you do impacts the outcome.

Sometimes, there might be no reason for the rejection. Who's to say if the editor even read your piece? Maybe the slush pile was getting out of hand and they decided to thin it out. Maybe they did read your piece and it was too similar to something they'd published recently, or maybe the subject matter just wasn't quite right for their audience.

But usually (and unfortunately) there is a reason behind rejection.

Your piece might have been fine. Good even. But it obviously didn't grab them and force them to keep reading. It could have been funnier. More dramatic. More emotional. More visceral. Tighter. Longer. Shorter. Riskier. Sexier.

Something. Anything.

You have to take the rejection as a call to look at yourself, your writing, your resume, your interview skills, whatever it is. You have to look at these things and ask if there's a way for you to be better.

And then do it.

So, to recap, rejection isn't blunt. It's often kind. But don't buy into it. Except do. But believe in yourself. Except when you shouldn't.

Confused yet?

Let me wrap up the story of my story and, hopefully, that will shed some light on where I stand on rejection.

The Story of My Story

So everyone had turned me down. Well, not everyone, but everyone I had my sights on. The places I daydream about being published.

My other option was to publish it somewhere smaller. More attainable.

I had published on the Human Parts collection on Medium before and felt good I could get in there again.

But I was hesitant to do this.

Human Parts has about 7000 "followers", which is a little bit of an inflated number. I had published there previously and only had my story viewed by about 300 people. (Think Twitter followers -- just because you have 1000 doesn't mean they'll all see any given Tweet.)

So -- if this was really my best work, something I thought would really connect with people, would that be enough?

I had wanted bigger and better things for this story.

But my options were limited. I couldn't sit on the story any longer. And I couldn't kill it. I believed in it too much for that.

So I went ahead and published on Human Parts -- a smaller outlet than I would have liked. And I hoped that it would have the kind of impact I imagined.

Today, the story has been read by over 400 people. Read, as in, beginning to end.

That may not sound like a lot, but that's amazing to me. 400 people stopped and read my story the whole way through -- all 2000 words. Over 1100 viewed or skimmed it. Others reached out and thanked me for sharing my story. Some shared their own story with me.

It may not have had the exposure I initially wanted, but it had an impact.

And that might be even better.

(You can read the published story here.)

The Bottom Line

So, the thing with rejection is, it sucks. And it will always suck no matter how many times you go through it.

But it forces you to look at yourself honestly. There are a lot of people in this world that have never tried to do anything before, and have never been rejected. They're the ones that say, I could have been a pro athlete, or they say I'd be a better performer than (insert crappy pop artist), or they say I have so many great stories, I could write an awesome book... if I had time.

Rejection means you're doing something right.

It's up to you if and when rejection means going back to the drawing board, and when it means putting your head down and plowing ahead anyway.

Sometimes, the people that doubted you will be wrong. Sometimes, you'll be wrong.

In my case, I don't think I was wrong or right. My story was good, and it was well received by a lot of people. But it wasn't a runaway hit. It wasn't a viral sensation. In that sense, the bigger publications may have been right to turn it down.

But, for now, I'm still proud of it. And I know I'll get published on Salon or Slate or, hell, maybe even The New Yorker one day.

If I keep working hard. Keep improving.

But one thing is for sure.

There's bound to be a lot more rejection along the way.

Knowing When Not to Publish

Writing as a Weapon

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About Evan

Evan is a copywriter, content marketer, freelance writer, blogger, husband, and new Dad.