written by Christopher Miller
With publishing’s gatekeepers now comprising the bulk of short fictions’ readership, I think it reasonable to say that for every story read at least one rejection slip is also read. The rare instances in which writers’ stories are not rejected and to some degree published and possibly read by others are offset by writers’ publishing their rejection slips on public blogs and forums and disseminating them in emails. Similarly, publishers’ returning the same rejection slip to many writers is offset by writers submitting the same story to many publishers. So even ignoring that rejection slips, unlike the stories that inspired them, are almost always read in their entirety, taken to heart and remembered, it all more than cancels out. Ergo rejection slips are the most widely and attentively read short literary genre.
And while there’s a humongous amount of material available on how to write good short stories and also a lot of information on reading (i.e. coping with) rejection slipsâ€”which may be summarized as 1) consider that you might be a shitty writer who will improve, 2) consider that the rejecter is an imbecile and/or pandering to an imbecilic demographic, and 3) don’t include return postage on your SASE, or, in the case of email submissions, flag the “sent to” address as spamâ€”nowhere (in my full minute of research) did I find anything on writing good rejection slips. So, as always and without further ado, here are my rules:
1. Never write “keep writing” in a rejection slip. This is particularly irksome as the slip’s closing sentiment and even more so when followed by an exclamation mark. Your reader is already disappointed and doesn’t need the implication that your passing on the piece might constitute a reason to stop writing. In other words, this generic and ingenuous “chin up” just makes readers want to punch you in the face. It is beyond your rejection slip’s scope to provide personal or career counseling.
2. Never critique work you are rejecting. It just makes you look stupid, even when you’re right, which usually you are not. It is beyond your rejection slip’s scope to teach creative writing.
3. Never say a piece is “not right” for you. This rule may be excepted if you actually really did like the submission but have had all your creative joie de vivre and artistic license crushed out of you by having to cater to the dreary formula upon which your publication is based and you can convey this in some credible way. Similarly, unless you can say who, do not point out that someone else might like it. The reader would not have sent you the piece if they didn’t like it. The same rules of concision that apply to all writing apply to rejection slips. Be specific. Avoid stating the obvious.
4. Never chirp how you “enjoyed the read.” You have just injured your reader. “I dozed off while reading your submission and chipped a tooth on my coffee mug” might be more uplifting.
5. Never metaphorically equate a piece’s acceptance with its finding “a home.” The story you are rejecting is not some derelict bumming spare change, eating out of dumpsters and sleeping on benches and grates. Particularly offensive and almost as bad as “Keep writing!” is “Good luck finding a home for it!” Really you should avoid bestowing any sort of hope, wish or prayer for success on your reader. What you need to keep in mind is that, no matter how you sugarcoat them, rejection slips hurt. And so, if only briefly, your reader is your enemy, and doesn’t want your gloating condescension.
6. Avoid saying you hope the author will submit more of their work in the future, even if you really do. This is a toughie, I know. But if you really like the piece that much, then ask if you can hold onto it in the hopes a slot opens up. Or send a follow-up invitation. Most times, if you solicit work from an author, he will comply. But consider that your reader is reading in a temporarily bummed out state. His best efforts have just been found wanting. Even ephemeral depression twists all emotions into negative forms. So, instead of interested, you just sound greedy. And instead of uplifted, your reader just feels used, like you’ve walked up to his promotional free-sample display in the supermarket where he works weekends on commission, and, after gobbling down all his carefully prepared little sausages, crackers, cheeses, dips or whatever, exclaimed how delicious they were, burped and asked when more will be available.
7. Conversely, do not be afraid to write things like, “We would appreciate if you didn’t submit any more of your work to us,” or “We only barely read the first paragraph,” or “We receive thousands of submissions each month and yours was second worst!” Honesty is always the best policy. Writers can smell bullshit like weed at a concert. A miss is as good as a mile.