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Rejection Letters – How to Write and Respond to Them

You SuckGreetings gentle reader, before we get down to the business of this month’s column, I’d like to tell you a horror story. A real life horror story.

A good friend of mine, with an especially bad history of boyfriends, once told me a tale about her worst date. The guy in question actually picked her up from a friend’s house to take her to the restaurant. This might have scored him some brownie points had it not led her to wonder which he had last cleaned  the car or his armpits? So great was the throat stopping odour of unscrubbed body parts that she was actually glad when he filled the car with cigar smoke and cranked Barry Manilow to the max on his stereo.

Through the haze of cigar smoke she noticed he was perched on the sort of cushion favoured by those stricken with haemorrhoids. En route to the restaurant he stopped to fill up his car. As he went to pay she glanced over at the cushion and a saw a huge, sticky puddle of blood and other liquids on it. She then glanced out the window at the seat of his pants and the large wet stain that glistened in the forecourt lights. It seemed that his haemorrhoids had just burst.

Choking back the vomit, my friend slipped off her heels scrawled a hasty note and then ran for her sweet life. The note read “So sorry, changed my mind. Please DON’T phone me xxx” Brutal perhaps but she had to do something. There are worse ways of breaking up with someone. One of my sister’s ex-boyfriends once ended their relationship by throwing a flaming bag of dog shit at her head (which probably tells you all you need to know about my family background). My friend chose to end this brief encounter with a rejection letter.

Which brings us rather neatly to the subject of this month’s column – Rejection Letters. If you have a writing career that lasts any length of time, then you’re going to amass a lot of these, from agents, editors and just about anyone to whom you send your work. They’re an unfortunate, but unavoidable part of our careers. Every writer gets them. Stephen King used to have a huge spike on his wall where he’d impale his rejection letters. James Lee Burke kept his in a shoebox and told himself one day he was going to autograph every one of them and auction them off. Every major publishing success of the last hundred years from Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz through to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has racked up an impressive pile of rejection letters.

Like all jobbing writers I’ve learned to cope with rejection letters and the disappointment they bring. What seems most ironic to me however, is that considering these letters are written by people whose job it is to spot good writing, they’re often not at all well written themselves. It’s not that they’re misspelled or riddled with the sort of mistakes that send grammar Nazis reaching for their Lugers, it’s just that I’m not sure enough thought was put into how they’re received.

I have to admit from the off that while I’ve had a career that’s included just about every form of professional writing, from journalism and copywriting to novels and scripts, I’ve never actually written a rejection letter myself. Not even to a guy who’s piles had just burst. So while I’m aware of what a difficult and delicate matter it is, it’s a dreaded deed I’ve never had to do (unlike excessive alliteration, which I can’t seem to get enough of).

George Bernard Shaw (a leading proponent of beards and plays that never seemed to end) once said: “the right to criticise is attained by the ability to do better”. As I can’t claim I would do a better job myself I decided instead to devote the rest of this column to helping those who are forced to shatter the hopes and trample on the dreams of budding writers everywhere. Think of it as a public service.

The best way I can think of to go about this is to write a composite rejection letter based on those that I, and my many colleagues, have received, showing what your average editor/agent says. Then below each line, in italics,  I’ll show you what the budding author actually hears.

So here goes:

Dear Author

And I use the term Author in its loosest possible sense.

Thank you for sending us your manuscript.

No honestly, we really appreciate it. Our Mailboy’s been wanting a break for ages and thanks to the hernia you gave him lugging the blasted thing upstairs he can now take all the time he wants.

Unfortunately I’m afraid we can’t take it any further.

Any further than the incinerator that is, which is where the cliché-ridden, turgid pile of unreadable crap I referred to, even more loosely, as your ‘manuscript’ actually belongs.

While we took every care to consider your work…

Yeah right! I removed it from the envelope like it was an anthrax coated dog turd and flung it instantly into the slush pile. A toxic mound of manuscripts that have been festering in the corner of my office for so long that some of them are written in languages nobody speaks anymore. Then, to punish a junior employee for letting yet another best selling author slip through our fingers I commanded her to read it. She immediately stapled her eyelids shut to avoid doing this, so I was forced to hand it over to the chimp I hired as a teaboy, in our latest cost cutting programme, who had great fun using it as a target for his own faeces.

…we really don’t think there’s a market for it at the moment.

Outside of the seventh level of HELL that is! Where my rival colleagues should be forced to listen to you read it aloud for all eternity as a punishment for their insufferable smugness.

You must understand that we are a very small company and we receive a lot of submissions.

Me! Me! It’s all about MEEEEE! Never mind that I just wiped my butt with your dreams I’m now going to complain that I just burst a haemorrhoid while doing so!!! Do you have any idea how tough it is out there at the moment? Do you know how many kidneys my junior employees had to sell just to keep this place afloat?! And now to top it all off you want me to interrupt my nervous breakdown to read your unpublished work. I mean it’s not like it’s my job to read manuscripts or anything… oh wait …

But I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you lots of luck finding a home for your work elsewhere.

Cos lets face it Buddy, You Are Going To NEED IT!

yours &Etc …

A. S. S. Hole (D.Lit.)

If I’m honest, I don’t think there is an ideal way to write a rejection letter. No matter how you go about it, or how tactfully you choose your words, you’re still going to be dashing someone’s hopes. If you are landed with the unenviable task of writing one, might I politely suggest that you take the time to really consider how the person to whom you’re writing might take your words. Sometimes the most innocuous comment can turn out to be amazingly crass or insensitive.

From my own experience the worst rejection letter I ever received was from a children’s publisher who’d actually solicited a contribution from me then sent me a standard rejection letter that informed me that they were only a small imprint (owned by a multi-national publisher) so they had to: “…really, really love everything we publish.” A phrase which has the unspoken corollary “...and we fucking HATED your work.”

If you do receive a rejection letter yourself, the single best bit of advice I can give you is to make sure you always respond as politely and graciously as possible. I owe my entire career to the fact that I binned the excoriating rants I first dashed off to the ignoramuses who rejected my work, took a deep breath and instead wrote a polite and humble letter thanking them for the time and the trouble they took to consider my work. In many instances this opened up a correspondence that led to my first professional sales.

If I’d sent that first letter I’d probably be toiling as a teaboy for some two bit publisher right now and flinging my own faeces at the slush pile.

Trust your Uncle Jasp on this one. You know it makes sense.

JASPER BARK

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15 comments

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  1. I one hundred percent agree on this one, and I have had a few rejection letters mailed to me in return for a manuscript that I wrote and sent in to a big professional publishing company of the classics and was, I’ll say, inbetween, unfortunate and fortunate to have it reached the secretary’s hand and she said: We have recieved your manuscript and I have placed it in our files and we will be looking into it as soon as our editors are free, is what she stated to me in the letter. I got my hopes all up and waited for at least three months and called, because there was a toll free number to call and talk to staff. Well, I did and after the chat involving the manuscript I received my manuscript and a swift and sassy note stating that they had read my manuscript and it had them laughting their butts off and they reread it, it gave them so much joy seeing that they had dozens of other things to do along with handling other manuscripts, but at this time I would have to write to their sistering publication company. I never recieved my manuscript back in the mail. I guess you can about guess where it ended up, in their trash bin! Here is advice from a struggling author, that each time she send s a manuscript to any publisher they tell her that her work shows some potential in writing and then dumps the manuscript, paper or electronic in their trash bin, never contact the office of a publisher and never chat with their secretary, give them ample time to respond to you. I learned my lesson, and if I had of just waited I would be writing for a large firm to this day.

    1. Thanks for your comment Andrea, sorry to hear about your experience though. I’m sure with a bit of perseverance you can still write for a large firm though.

    • Lex Sinclair on June 28, 2013 at 4:59 pm
    • Reply

    I absolutely loved this article, and truly believe that there are quite a few publishers and agents out there who mean something entirely different to what is written on a standard rejection slip.
    As a published writer, I have been rejected for well over a decade before I really got anywhere and I definitely thought some of the things were the real truth as pointed out hilariously by Jasper Bark.

    Lex Sinclair author of (Neighbourhood Watch, Killer Spiders and Nobody Goes There.

    1. Lex, thank you so much for your kind words. I quite agree with you about what is meant and what is written too.

  2. I can’t speak for publishers and agents, but as an anthology editor I can say that writing rejections is the toughest part of the job. I try to give an honest reason and some (hopefully) useful advice, and I am careful not to use phrasing that could be taken the wrong way (though I’m sure I don’t always succeed).

    So while I know from bitter experience that receiving a rejection is harder, it’s no picnic writing them either…

    1. Richard I don’t envy you that job at all. I have actually received some really kind and encouraging rejection letters over the years too. Many were really helpful as well, pointing out ways to improve the story that led to an eventual sale elsewhere. I guess I didn’t mention that enough in the article because it’s the carelessly written, self obsessed rejection letters that really stick in your craw, though in truth they’re not the rule but the exception.

  3. I agree! In my instance, I decided it wasn’t worth my time to sit around waiting and crying over them. I tore them up and threw them away. Now that most of those rejection letters were received through email, I’m not going to impale my laptop. That would be just expensive to go through laptops. Although, I will admit, I’ve thought about it a time or two. (smirk) But, on that note, I’ve decided to let it go by the wayside, I have better things to do, like write. So, on that note, my advice is “Let it go today, let it go tomorrow, but when you make it big and you’re on national television giving an interview, go ahead and name some of those companies or agents that turned you away. That’s the beauty of technology today, you don’t need to write a letter back thanking for them for their time and appreciation. You should have already done that in the query letter. Keep walking with your head high, chin up, and taking it in stride because you know what…you took a chance and there’s many more chances to take in this world.

    If I saved every rejection letter I received, I’d have about 75 of those puppies impaled to a stake on my wall. As for how poorly some of those rejection letters were written, most sounded standard. I did receive some good positive feedback yet most told me they just weren’t taking on new authors. I don’t have many complaints about how they were written, but just the fact I received them. Ah, well ce la vies’! It’s time to re-edit that story, get a few reviews and then move on to the next.

    1. That’s a really brilliant approach Lynn and I agree with all your points. Glad you didn’t impale your laptop and I look forward to hearing you name names on national television when you hit it big.

      Here’s to many more chances.

  4. “The right to criticize is attained by the audience who had to endure the work.”
    – E.C. McMullen Jr.

    1. That cracked me up Feo. That’s a much better quote than the one I used.

      Overhearing a particularly pithy quip one evening, Wilde exclaimed: “Oh I wish I’d said that.”
      “Don’t worry Oscar,” said a waggish acquaintance. “You will”.

      Don’t worry Feo, I will nab this quote too.

    • Richmond Clements on July 5, 2013 at 7:16 pm
    • Reply

    The ‘best’ one I ever got was one for a 2000ad Future Shock submission. I suspect it was David Bishop in charge at the time.
    It read: “Not very original.”
    And that was all.

    In retrospect, he was quite correct – I later read a strip that had been published previously with the same twist… But still: harsh!

    1. Bishop was harsh but terse. His two successors on 2000AD and the Megazine were worse. My old editor at the Games Workshop used to collect the rejection letters of Bishop’s successor on 2000AD because they were so rude they were hilarious.

      I never got a letter from the successor, because I got my start on 2000AD when I was a film and music journalist. I quite brazenly offered to take said editor out to any gig or film he wanted to see. I would pitch him stories in the pub afterwards and he often ripped me a new arsehole or two.

      The worst though was the Megazine editor who precedes the current one. He held nothing back. But you should have read some of his acceptance letters which were even worse. You’d have to read them several times before you realised that although you were the most moronic and untalented writer ever to waste his time, he’d actually bought your story.

      Names withheld for the sake of my career and yours (you know who I’m talking about anyway).

  5. And then there’s other rejection letters that just use the silent answers- such as you don’t see anything written back from the editor- At All! I had one do that to me. I will leave out the names, but they wrote out a simple submission rule and I followed it and I was sure that my story would be chosen by this company and I waited the three months as they stated and I never heard from them. Those type of rejections from a publisher makes you just want to almost give up any type of hope or writing at all. I hate those kind where they get your heads ringing and your hopes up and you’re all joyful and you can’t hold it in and tell almost everyone and then they reply with ‘sorry, but our firm has no place for your story or at this time we are busy with another successful story and we don’t or are not accepting stories of this kind at our company at the moment but maybe in the near future we will and would love to hear from you then, but until then you can work on improving the manuscript. I just feel like a complete loser then and lose interest in the story. But, with the spider story I am still going strong with it and high hopes of getting it published and watching it make a big success!

    1. Good point Andrea, those sort of rejections are awful and somewhat rude on the publisher’s part. I’m sure the spider story will be a huge success when published.

  6. I really hope so. After all the hard work I have put into it, if it doesn’t I will be putting it on the top shelf in my bed room closet to collect dust over the next couple of years and gouge my face and tear my eye brows from over my eyes! HaHa. I have worked on the spider story for years now and I have revised it and re revised it so it makes sense and is accepted. I learned from a very famous and wealthy writer (Hint) a billionairess, that is a book is done just right- in which the writer learned from a secret source- then it will be a hugh success! So, here’s to hoping that since I am doing the spider book right after so many rewrites, it will become such a success it’s a run away best seller! And, also that it gets into the right hands. For a book or any type of book to sell good, it has to be done right and most importantly, it has to have a beginning, middle and an end.

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