How to Write a Rejection Slip

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 slips,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 spam,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.

Born in Switzerland, raised in Chicago, mostly Canadian now. ÂRestaurateur, software developer. Loves writing all genres,sci-fi to literary, horror to erotica. E.g.:ÂÂGanymede Dreams (a.k.a. Ganymede’s Song) ;ÂTake Our kids to Work DayA Hawk Circling the WindAdam and Eve Reading (almost) Quietly in the Bathroom

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

12 thoughts on “How to Write a Rejection Slip”

  1. [For every rule set, there are exceptions. The following template is a functional composite of my own rejection-receiving experience that fitting publishers are welcome to usurp.]

    Dear Writer,

    Thank you for submitting to Lame Tales. Please excuse the five month delay as our editors put off reading all the unsolicited crap they receive. Since your piece has recently been moved to the à ₠ŔConsideredà ₠folder, I will assume that someone has skimmed a sentence or two of whatever it was. And although no specific notes or remarks were attached, I do recall overhearing someone say that everything they à ₠Ŕreadà ₠here last month was shit. So probably your submission was shit. Anyway, even if it werenà ₠℠t shit and we were to somehow magically discover this (LMFAO), we would still not (and I use the term very loosely here) publish it because you are neither a famous writer, nor have you ever given us any money. We will however endeavor to sell your email address to bulk mailers in order that they may keep you abreast of all the latest sex enhancement products and borrowing and investment opportunities that abound on the internet today, as well as place you on our own internal mailing list in order to keep you abreast of whom we are hobnobbing with or sucking up to at any given moment and to entice you into entering one of our myriad rigged creative writing competitions.

    The rights to whatever you submitted now revert back to you and you are free to attempt to get someone else to look at it (LMFAO again).

    Anyway, I regret our lack of interest, not just in the specific piece you sent, but in your writing,and indeed writing in general, and that you will therefore never enjoy the lavish lifestyle afforded by the 5$ we pay for each yearà ₠℠s featured story, or the fame and recognition afforded by the handful of friends and few close family members that comprise our readership.

    Keep writing!

  2. Excellent topic! Loved the rejection letter. Allow me to add my own favorite. This was the second rejection I received, a couple of years ago.

    >No. I’m not usually this harsh, but the spelling, punctuation and grammar are atrocious. In my opinion, it is unprofessional to submit something that hasn’t been proofed.

    Wow! Talk about getting a fist to the face. Harsh to the point where I had to force myself from responding with all my fury. Instead I absorbed it, reworked the piece, and sold it to the next publication that I submitted it to. It was my first sale.

    I think it was just what I needed to hear. Probably saved me a great deal of time submitting work that was far from ready (now I submit stuff that is only close to being ready).

    Now, if you could be so kind, what is the name of the publication you work for, Chris? I like challenges, and it looks like receiving the rejections will be half the fun.

  3. This is excellent. I think we violated all of these at Redstone Science Fiction – Ità ₠℠s a good thing we accepted stories from C. Miller and didnà ₠℠t send him a well-intended but foolhardy rejection. A story by Christopher will be the main fiction in our July issue.

    Michael Ray
    Editor, Redstone SF

  4. Snapper, I work for every publication that accepts anything Ià ₠℠ve written. But no, I donà ₠℠t do publicationà ₠℠s other heavy lifting. In all seriousness, the whole rejection thing is tough. Short and sweet is probably best. Sometimes comments are appreciated if it was a close call. Generally I think no response is preferred to something canned and long overdue. Had a first this week: Michael Kelly in compiling an anthology called à ₠ŔChilling Talesà ₠for publication Mar 2011, faced with a last-minute withdrawal I believe, asked me to send him any unpublished horror story in the 5000 word range I might have kicking around. So I sent him one of my favorites. Two days later he rejected it as too à ₠Ŕnon-commercialà ₠and à ₠Ŕnon-traditional.à ₠I was stung. Then he asked me to send him any others I might have that might remotely qualify. So I sent him 5 or 6, including some of my very best and most recent work. He took one I wrote over 5 years ago and have never submitted.

    Michael Ray, above, of Redstone Science Fiction, on the other hand, has accepted two of my absolute personal favorite (though very different) pieces in the 4K range. So naturally Ià ₠℠m now biased toward his taste and readership. Still I canà ₠℠t help but think that theyà ₠℠re doing it right. Pro rates. Considerate, educated, interested and mature editors. Open-minded science fiction for grown ups. Really canà ₠℠t wait to see!

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