Updated: Nov 8
Last week we went overs some basics dos and don'ts for publishers who were writing the rejection letters. We covered how to be professional and sensitive to writers who are getting bad news. But today we're hopping back to writing advice; how to deal with the bad news.
It's one of the hardest parts of writing, and we pretty much have to do it all the time.
Is There a "Right" Way to Handle Rejection?
If there were a single "right" or "correct" way to deal with the emotional fall out of being rejected, I promise, we would tell you what it was. We'd probably also be very rich. Unfortunately, emotions are complicated and there's no easy, reliable solution that's going to work for everyone.
This article isn't so much telling you what to do or how to act. It's just going to cover the dangers of reacting poorly and give you some tips about good general practices. We can offer a list of things to try but it's all about finding what works for you.
Some Basic Etiquette:
Never respond to a rejection letter.
Unless there is something offensive in the letter that warrants a call-out, you probably want to refrain from airing grievances about the rejection publicly.
If you do post somewhere about the rejection, don't say anything you wouldn't be comfortable getting back to the press (because it always could.)
Just to elaborate on that first point a little, don't ever respond to a rejection letter. Even if they were super polite, even if you think you're being polite, don't do it. It's not expected of you. It's not customary. I can't think of a single situation where it's ever been wanted from a press. Don't do it.
The only possible exception to this would be if they, for some reason, ask you a question directly. Maybe you were short-listed or wait-listed or they have another project that they asked you specifically to submit to, and that alone would warrant a response. Otherwise, let it go.
As to the other two points: remember that the writing community is a community. People in it will talk. It's easy to treat social media like screaming into a void when we don't feel seen or appreciated, but our colleagues can see what we say publicly, and it's good to remember that.
If you send out "I just got this awful rejection from a press. No one appreciates my work" then chances are that same press you're talking about is going to see it. You could accidentally encourage that press not to want to work with you in the future, or stir up drama, or generally paint yourself as someone who can't handle the drawbacks of the industry in a professional manner.
Much like how you wouldn't want to submit to a press with an unprofessional rejection letter, the press is less likely to want submissions from writers who can't handle rejections professionally.
Transparency in Publishing
There is one sort of caveat to this, and let's talk about it.
Some people genuinely try to be transparent about their work in the industry. On social media it feels like all we see all the time are success stories, and it can feel either very fake or very discouraging. Some people try to curate their online experience in a way that's more genuine, and generally more transparent, showing both the ups and downs.
A lot of this can be achieved with stat posts, sharing the numbers of rejections and acceptances, the ratios, the math. It's impersonal, and hard to criticize, but it shows that there is a downside. This is generally better than criticizing rejections -- even vaguely -- but you might want to be even more honest. That can be okay as well.
I think it's more than fair to open up about the lows that you're experiencing on your personal account. Let's be honest, we all have a lot of low moments as creatives. There are a lot of battles with bad timing and imposter syndrome, negative feedback, etc. I think it's really brave when writers feel comfortable enough to show the constant effort it takes to develop and maintain a thick skin in this industry. It's just important that you do these things mindfully whenever possible and not with malice or too much self-pity.
Villainizing presses over your own feelings, making sweeping generalizations, self-deprecating your own work, or dramatizing real emotions for sympathy are always things that are going to be seen as unprofessional, even on a social media feed. Even when that feels unfair and difficult to maintain, it's the expected level of professionalism for authors in the eyes of many presses.
Framing is important.
You're more likely to encounter supportive peers, real sympathy, and fewer consequences if you frame your bad moments as something personal that you're struggling with or working on. When in doubt, try to use "I" statements.
It's going to sound a lot better to say "I'm dealing with imposter syndrome after a long string of rejections" than "Another press rejected my work today" which has accusatory implications, regardless of whether or not you intend them.
Welcome to the Internet: There Can Still Be Unintended Consequences of Posting Anything Publicly.
Allow me to get my personal story time out of the way early in this post.
Recently, I had a big project fall through. I am someone who tries to be pretty transparent online about both my wins and losses, so I sent out a tweet about how it really only takes one instance of losing a contract to feel bad about my work.
From my perspective, this seemed like a great way to share that even though I've been posting a lot of good news and release information, I still struggle with imposter syndrome, and get sensitive about my work when things don't go well. Don't we all? I made sure to frame it in a way where it was about my feelings and not demonizing the people who had been working with me behind the scenes before everything fell through. I didn't name names. I didn't villainize anyone. I made sure to keep it about my experience and my own doubts.
But my timing was very, very unfortunate because there were a lot of other writers who had received bad news on the same day about an entirely different project. I got a lot of sympathy and support for something I was not involved with and did not have any details of. A big consequence of this was me feeling like an ass trying to explain that my message was entirely unrelated.
There was no huge backlash from this, it's not like it stirred up a ton of drama, but it was a good reminder. You're never going to be aware of everything that's going on in the writing world, or what external, out of your control circumstances people may associate with your status updates and vague tweets.
This is also a good reminder that even when you know better, sometimes you're going to slip up and make people think the worst. I was already writing this very article when I had this happen, and was already well aware of how poor timing can paint a misleading picture. I just wasn't aware that my timing was poor until, well, after the fact.
The only thing to do when you make a mistake is apologize if warranted, and try to do better moving forward. No one is perfect, so don't put too much pressure on yourself to make every post palatable for a future press you might someday want to work with. Just try to be aware of your post pattern and the image you present of yourself overall.
How to Vent Bad Feelings if Not Online
So far we've talked a lot about what not to do. But chances are if you've just gotten a rejection, you have a lot of less than positive energy pent up and you're going to want to do something. So here are my three biggest tips on how you can positively handle rejections in a way that won't come back to bite you.
Manually track rejections (and grievances)
A lot of writers keep track of their stats, be it through a tally sheet or a submission software/service. When I suggest you track your rejections, I'm talking about something a little more personal. A journal. A grievance log. A printed out, nailed to the wall style system that will help get out the negative feelings while fueling you to do more.
This will probably take some trial and error to find what works best for you. But it's important to have a little space to deal with things in a way that's 100% genuine. When it's not on display, it doesn't have to be as healthy or professional, and you can let your bitterness or your pain or hell, even your jealousy show. That's a good way to get those feelings out of your system. We all have them sometimes, and it's okay. The biggest harm is only when you're broadcasting them to the whole internet.
Even once you have that system in place, talking it through and venting in a private group can make a world of difference. I cannot overstate how important it is to have friends who understand the business. Having a support system is vital to anyone's mental health, and I handle things so much better now that I'm not going at it alone. Writing does not have to be a solo venture, and I wish I had realized that sooner than I did.
Finally, treat yourself. Be kind to yourself. Spoil yourself a little on the bad days. It's always easy to remember to go out and celebrate big wins, but often the days we need the self care are the days that aren't going as well, like when we get rejections. Make some sort of ritual for yourself that reminds you that rejections are an important part of the process.
I used to have a practice of buying myself tacos whenever I received a rejection letter. I'd still be doing this if I hadn't nearly bankrupted myself buying tacos so many times a week. If you're submitting a lot, you may have to be realistic about what's feasible, but making a ritual out of it is a good way to turn it into something positive. Food? A long shower? An episode of your favorite show? Something.
Constructive, Not Destructive.
Rejections give off a certain energy. We've all felt it. It's easy to channel that energy inward on ourselves in a way that's destructive. Going back over the manuscript to look for errors that aren't there. Beating ourselves up. Reflecting on all the losses we've ever had. Wondering what might have been. Being jealous of the people who weren't rejected.
It's okay to feel a little bad if that's how you feel, but it's better to use that energy in a constructive way. Here are a few of my favorites:
Lifting up other writers
Submitting to a new place
Writing something new
Being a spiteful bitch
That last one sounds like a joke, but I'm being dead serious. If you are the kind of person who believes in astrology, you can blame this on me being a Scorpio or whatever, but I find that I am very spite motivated. Even if you want to get to a place where you're happy about your rejections, I think it's easier for a lot of us, being human, to get angry about our rejections. That's a stepping stone, believe it or not. A little bit of spite can be a great motivator. If a press rejects you, make it your mission to write something they want. Show them they're wrong. Make it a challenge. Frame it like revenge, if that helps you get to a place where you feel motivated to be creative again.
Speaking of revenge. They say the best kind is to live well. If you want to get in this mindset of hypothetically proving a press wrong, you're not going to do it by showing them they've hurt you. You're going to do it by being aloof and then succeeding elsewhere with your work.
Is it healthy to think of presses as enemies? No. Definitely don't frame stuff like this in your head all the time. But if you're in a slump or have gotten a particularly hurtful comment in a rejection, don't be afraid to get a little silly in how you get yourself back to work. Imagine yourself publishing the story somewhere bigger. Pretend you're on stage accepting your award for the book they just snubbed. Do what you've got to do to not give up.
I always find that I maintain a better workflow if I get right back to it. It's hard to find the motivation to write when a bad rejection comes in, or to resubmit a story that was just turned down by a venue. We've heard from a lot of people as we've been compiling this that they feel the same way. It's better in the long run to get right back on the horse when it kicks you off, and if you need to hype yourself up to make it happen, do it.
I think one of the most wholesome things you can do as a writer, and as a person, is be a good loser. Support the people who got something you wanted, and try to see the vision of the people who gave it to them.
It's hard to do. It's also incredibly rewarding.
On several occasions, I have been rejected from anthologies that meant the world to me. Then I've bought those anthologies and reading through them, I can see how my work really wasn't a fit and it's made me feel better. I can see in real time that my story wasn't bad, it was just a different vibe than everyone else's, and then it's easier to be grateful for the product that I got as a result of not being included.
Even when that's not the case, it's a great sign of maturity and genuine support when you can congratulate the writers who made it in. It's probably a bad idea to tell them you were rejected from the thing, because that just makes their moment about you, but it's a great idea to say congratulations and that you're happy for them. Sharing exciting news means a lot to those authors, and it's a good way to show the press there are no hard feelings.
Sometimes there are hard feelings. If it's because the rejection was nasty or biased in some way, it's okay to harbor a little resentment. We spoke pretty openly last week about some of our worst rejection experiences and how isolating/harmful they can feel. If the hard feelings aren't because of the letter itself, and they're more about not being included, it could be time to take a step back.
Taking a Break
This is one of the hardest things to do as a writer, because it feels like giving up. But it really is okay to walk away, and know that you can always come back at literally any time.
People talk about writers having thick skins, but they don't start that way, and they don't stay that way without proper rest and maintenance.
If you find yourself getting to a place where your hopes are always getting too high, and the bad news is always cutting too deep, it's not a bad idea to put a pin in submitting/querying/etc. If you feel like you really have to, you can also put a pin in creating for a little while. Focus on freeing your mind. Recharge. Enjoy your other hobbies for a bit.
And then, if you can afford to, when you return, I always think it's a great idea to create something for yourself before returning to doing it for money.
One of the things that hurts professional creatives the most is tying the worth of our art to a monetary number. We have to do it sometimes to survive, but it's important to take these breaks and downtimes to remember that writing should be about the love of writing. It's not about money or rejections, it should first and foremost be something you do for yourself.
Private Breaks Should Be PRIVATE
There is just one small caveat to the advice above. I think rest is important. Breaks are important. You do what you have to do.
But be careful that you're resting for yourself, and not for the attention.
I hate to tie this all back in to online professionalism, but it's the age we live in. There's a big difference between saying "I'm having a tough time mentally and I need to step back for a little while" and threatening to step back if no one pays attention to your work. Again, we think it's a really good practice to be mindful of how you present yourself, and try not to place unearned blame on others in the industry.
So that we can end this on a good note, please don't be afraid to reach out if you find you're having a tough time handling rejections generally or one in particular. You can talk to someone you trust in the field, a friend, or even reach out to us on social media if you just need to vent or feel like someone is listening.
Try some of the tips and methods above, but above all, remember that you're not in this alone. Nobody has to be.
This is a topic we will be covering in the 102 series as well. We'll be talking about Stephen King's rejection nail, and the 100 Rejection Letter Method (which I use) and answering specific questions. If you have any questions you'd like us to cover in those follow-ups, please feel free to ask us on socials or leave a comment down below if you're comfortable.
Also feel free to share with us which of these methods you've tried and what coping mechanisms work best for you.