31 May 2010 ~ 4 Comments

Another Perspective on How to Write a Rejection Slip

written by David Steffen

Two weeks ago we posted the article How to Write a Rejection Slip by Christopher Miller, which sparked quite a bit of interesting discussions here, on Facebook, and on blog sites that linked to us. Some agreed, some didn’t, and a good time was had by all talking about what we really like or don’t like to see in a rejection slip.

As a counterpoint to Christopher’s list, I thought I’d post a list of my own. My list is quite different from Christopher’s, though there is some overlap. If anyone reading this has a different list, feel free to post it in the comments, or if you have a list on your blog to post a link to the list.

1. Write personal rejections, if possible.

Of the 289 rejections I’ve received to date, less than a third have been personalized. I always appreciate a personal response. It’s just nice to know sometimes that somebody actually bothered to read my story, and didn’t reject it out of hand because of my lack of Name Fame. Some markets seem to publish only the relatively famous, even when those stories are quite low quality (in my opinion) so it’s hard not to surmise that some of them just disregard newcomers completely.

Even if you don’t have time to write a personal rejection for every submission, there are ways to make your form letters more informative. For example:

-Use a tiered form letter system, which has different wording for different levels of success. Fantasy & Science Fiction uses this to great success. “Didn’t grab my interest” means that the slush reader didn’t finish reading it–you may want to work on the beginning to make it more compelling. “Didn’t quite work for me” means that they finished reading, but in the end it just wasn’t good enough for them. “Not right for F&SF” means that they acknowledge that it’s a good story, but it just doesn’t fit their magazine’s style.

-Create a form letter with checkboxes listing reasons why the story was rejected. Dreams of Decadence has a really nice rejection slip of this type. My last rejection from them had two boxes checked: “Plot is weak or nonexistent” and “Please try us again with something else.” In addition, there was a handwritten addition which said “Loved the concept, but moves too slowly.” Since it had a personal note, it’s not really a form rejection anymore, but even without the note, the content of this form letter would have been one of the nicer ones I’ve received. It gave me a specific reason why they didn’t buy it. Not only does this help me consider whether to revise the story, but it helps me focus my future submissions to their magazine. Apparently they prefer a story that develops more quickly than that, and I will now keep that in mind.

2. If possible, give constructive feedback or sincere compliments.

Constructive feedback is always useful. I may not revise a story based on such feedback, but it’s important for me to know why people didn’t like it. Feedback is the most useful if it points to something specific. Examples are:
-The beginning was too slow.
-The protagonist made an important decision that seemed out of character.
-The ending didn’t make sense.

With or without constructive feedback, if you have a sincere compliment about the story do not hesitate to share it with the writer. I’ve had about a 2% acceptance rate for my submissions in the last year, and it tells me that this is higher than average for users who submitted to the same markets as me. It’s not unusual to have hundreds of rejections per acceptance, particularly for those who have yet to establish Name Fame. My first acceptance occurred after 125 uninterrupted rejections. This can take a real toll on the self esteem, making one wonder if you’ll ever make that sale. If even a few of these rejections are complimentary in some specific way, it can really help balance out unending flow of bad news. As an example, that Dreams of Decadence rejection I mentioned in #1 was really quite easy to take. “Loved the concept” says I’m doing something right, and that really means something

3. Don’t be an ass (but don’t lie either)

This should go without saying, but abusive wording gains you nothing. I’ve rarely had this complaint about any editor, but it’s still worth listing. Keep in mind that, even if you didn’t like this story, this writer might send you another story that you do like in the future. This could be a future collaborator. But if you act like an asshole, then they may stop submitting to you. They may encourage other writers not to submit to you, because you’re a jerk. And all because you didn’t take a moment to construct a civil email.

I’m not saying you have to lie. Don’t say “We enjoyed your story” or anything of that variety, unless you mean it.

The closest I’ve come to this complaint is a rejection which said, in its entirety, “Sorry, no.” To me, this was too curt, and in this case I would’ve preferred a stock form letter which used complete sentences and the usual meaningless phrasing.

4. Even if it’s a form letter, at least personalize a couple things.

The first rejection I ever received was a grainy photocopy of an undated standard form letter, “Dear Author”, “Signed, the Editors”. Okay, I know that editorial staff are busy, but that seems a little extreme. I’ve even received some email rejections which don’t even refer to the story name, but just say “Regarding your recent submission.” This email form letter could be populated automatically with a minimum of effort, so this annoys me every time I see it.

First, it should absolutely always have the name of the editor/slushreader who rejected it. Your typical magazine is not going to change editors that often, so it’s a minimal effort to just put their name in the form letter. Omission of this goes beyond mere laziness–it makes me think that the editor is afraid that he will be associated with his own rejections. What are you afraid of? As an editor, you have to make editorial choices, and if you want to be successful you have to stand by those choices. If you’re too scared to put your own name on the rejection, it gives the impression that you’d rather stay anonymous, and makes me wonder if this person has the intestinal fortitude required to be a competent editor. If it was rejected by a slush reader, I really think that the slush readers name should be on it, not the editor. Some magazines put the editors name on it even if it was a slushreader doing the reading, but I prefer to be able to tell if I made it to the real editor or not, and this misleading signature obscures this information from me.

In addition to the rejecter’s name, it’s really nice if it can have the following:
-Name of Author
-Name of Story

This really doesn’t take much effort, and in the case of email rejections, most of it can be completely automated, so there’s really no excuse. If the editorial staff can’t be bothered to refer to me or my story by name, it gives the impression that they’re just apathetic about the writers sending in their life’s work.

5. The longer the wait, the more annoying a form letter is.

I recently received a form rejection for a short story after nine months of waiting–that is the pinnacle of lameness. It’s bad enough that the amount of time was equivalent to the gestation period of a human fetus, they couldn’t even bother taking five minutes to write something about the story. On the other hand, I usually get form rejections from Clarkesworld, but they’ve also never taken longer than three days to send me a rejection, so I have no complaints about receiving a form rejection from them.

As a rule of thumb, I’d say that any market that takes more than 3 months to respond should be sending 100% personal responses.

6. Don’t say “Keep writing!”

Never. Just don’t do it. It will always come off as condescending. We appreciate the attempted encouragement, but it comes off as condescending every time. Whenever I read this, I picture a parent picking up their kid after his peewee team loses the big game. “Chin up, sport. You did your best and that’s all that counts. I know what will cheer you up! Consolation cake!” For those who would stop writing because of a single rejection, well, two words isn’t going to change their course. For those who wouldn’t stop writing because of that, it gets really annoying to read this over and over.

7. Don’t write an all-purpose form letter that says “we enjoyed it”

I love to see this sentiment expressed in a personal rejection. In a form letter it is CLEARLY insincere because it’s a friggin’ form letter!

8. Needlessly obtuse sentence structure

These people are supposed to be editors, right? So I’d like to think that they can put words in some kind of coherent and parsable order. Adding more words doesn’t help unless the words add meaning. Things like: “We regret to have to inform you that we are declining acceptance at this time.”
-The regret is clearly insincere, because it’s a form letter that they send to everyone.
-According to their wording, they don’t regret rejecting you. They don’t regret informing you of your rejection. But they DO regret the fact that they feel obligated to inform you of your rejection.
-“Declining acceptance”? Who the hell wrote that? That rings of Captain Barbossa’s “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request” except this is apparently NOT trying to be funny.

9. Do NOT spam those who submit to you

Pedestal Magazine, this means you. Whenever I submit a story through Pedestal’s submissions form, about a minute later I get an email welcoming me to their mailing list, and thanking me for signing up for it. There’s no way to uncheck a box that will opt out of this form letter when you submit. And thereafter I get periodic emails from John Amen (who I don’t really care about) telling me of his upcoming book signings (in states I’ve never visited) and telling me about upcoming books (that I will not be buying). Luckily, I can just add this to my “spam” list–the story rejection comes from a different address than the spam. But even so, not spamming your submitters should be common sense.

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