Dealing with rejections: 3 thoughts to make them less painful

Writing is hard, editing is harder. But getting rejected can be the most heart-wrenching experience of all. And I wouldn’t be a Passionate Writer coach if I didn’t discuss dealing with rejections in a blogpost.

Now, at this point in the game, you’ve gained a lot of experience. And if you’ve hired an editor, you’ll probably also know what the strengths and weaknesses of your writing are. But you’ve learned and perfected. And now you’ve submitted your work for publication.

Getting published = dealing with rejections

For most writers, publication is the ultimate goal. If you are an academic, your job and future may depend on it. If you’re looking to become a paid author, the first publication will open doors for you. And if you want to use publications to promote your business… well, you get the gist. In the age of the internet, there are many publication opportunities. Yes, there are still books, magazines and academic journals. But now, we also have blogs, podcasts (is that technically a publication?), video platforms. And of course, self-publishing is an option.

However, there are still good reasons to go through traditional channels. The one tricky aspect with those is, however, that competition is fierce. And that means that the chances of getting published are lower. (Though success after publication might be more likely.) So, I’ve compiled some thoughts about dealing with rejections, especially for those people who want to publish through traditional channels.

Dealing with rejections: some notes

Rejection is hard and painful. And I’m not here to tell you that it is not. When you put your heart and soul, sweat and tears, into your work, a rejection of your submission feels like a rejection of YOU. The reason why I’m writing this post is not that I have figured it out. A few months ago, I received a rejection. I had nightmares about it. And it took me about two months before I could sit down and integrate the feedback. The reason I feel I can say things about this, is that I have experience. Yes, I’ve received book contracts. I’ve had articles published. And I’ve contributed to other people’s books. But I’ve also had my fair share of rejection. So here are some thoughts that might help you when you’re dealing with rejections yourself.

1. It’s not personal (though it sure feels that way)

Yes, yes, I know. It feels personal. I used to have someone who, every time I received a rejection, told me: “It’s a numbers game.” And that infuriated me. Because I’m not just a number, this piece (article, post, book), represent hours, days, months or years of my life. I’ve put everything I had in there!

But yes, guess what: it’s a numbers game. Now, I’m not saying that the quality of your work has no effects on your chances of success. What I am saying is that there are a lot of different factors.

A few weeks ago, one of my clients asked me to edit an op-ed article they wanted to send to the New York Times. And the Times decided not to publish it. So she asked me: what could I have done to make this better, to make sure that next time they’ll publish it? Now, yes, there are always ways to make it better. However. Their selection depends on more than the quality of the writing.

The NYT editors see thousands of submissions per day. So, let’s say that 10% of those have been written and edited to perfection. That still leaves hundreds of articles, of which only a small selection can be published. So they have to choose. Which topics have they selected in the past? What do they think their readers are interested in right now? What topics interest the editors? Don’t forget, these are people. And people have preferences. This exact same thing is true for any other type of publication. The editors who select what to publish are people. And you might just have happened to submit something that they don’t feel comfortable with right now. It’s not just about you.

2. It’s just one/a handful of person(s)

The other day, on Facebook, I saw a meme. It said that even though 63 million people have now watched Queen’s Gambit (a highly popular Netflix show about chess), for the past 20 years the script was rejected by every major studio before Netflix picked it up. Why did they reject it? Because the studios thought that no-one would be interested in a story about chess. The studios, or acquisition editors, or Journal editors or… (fill in the blanks) are gatekeepers. They decide what gets published. And they base their decision on what they think sells. And guess what: these people can be wrong!

Now, there is a way around this: do your research. Don’t send your work to the first editor you find on the website of the biggest publisher or journal. Figure out what this publisher/journal has published in the past. Look at the topics that its editors get excited about. (They’re usually very open about that!) And figure out the best ways to convince them that your work is not only interesting but also relevant and perfectly timed. Convince them that it will sell.

And if all of this didn’t work, then this was not the publication or moment for you. But other companies (journals/publishers etc) have other people on staff. And these people will have different preferences, different ideas. So: do your research again and submit somewhere else.

3. Feedback is easier to process in your own words

And here’s the big one. Some of the more generous rejections include feedback. I say generous because these people have taken the time to help you improve, even though they themselves won’t reap the benefits. However, this kind of feedback is even more painful than those of friends or copy-editors. Don’t ask me why, I just know it is.

a. Translate the feedback

The first thing you need to do – after you’ve taken all the time you need to recover from the initial shock – is translate the feedback. In someone else’s words, these notes are more harsh, more painful, and add more fuel to your own self-doubt. So, take every comment they made and write them down in your own words. Trust me, this will make dealing with rejections much more bearable.

b. Choose what’s useful

Then, remember the second point I made above: it’s just one person. And that means that for all of their points you need to calmly decide whether you agree with them or not. Some comments are based on their own personal priorities, preferences or projections. And if you have good reasons to disagree with them: disagree with them. In the end, this is your work. And it’s just like relationships: if it doesn’t work out, you can change things about yourself. But in the end, you’ll need to find the partner/editor who loves you for who you are. So: weed out those comments that you disagree with.

c. Try again!

At this point, you’ll probably be left with some helpful feedback, in a voice (your own) that you’re familiar with. And this is the point where you can make the revisions needed to resubmit. Also, at this point, hopefully, you’ve done some research on the next person you’re going to submit to. And you might want to tweak your work a bit to bring out those aspects that this editor prioritizes.

In conclusion

Dealing with rejections is hard. But there are some things you can keep in mind that can help. And if it still feels too hard, just schedule a free video call with me. I can give you positive feedback, translate the critiques that accompanied the rejection in more positive terms, or help you research the right publication channel for you. All you need to do is click on the button on the bottom of your screen or go to my scheduling page.

And whatever you do: don’t give up. When one door closes… Netflix might pick you up.