Handling rejection as a writer

Mary_Magdalene_Crying_StatueI had to do a training exercise at work once where I asked a colleague about her favourite thing in the world then, while she was telling me about it, suddenly lost interest and completely blanked her. She wasn’t happy to say the least, I think if she’d had a blunt object to hand I would have been on my way to A and E.

The point, we were told, was to show how your reaction to people you are dealing with can affect how they feel about you. I kind of knew that after 20 odd years in journalism, but it was still a stark reminder. She was cross with me for the rest of the day I‘d say, even though she knew it hadn’t been real.

I’m guessing the way she was feeling right then was how most of us feel when our beloved manuscripts get rejected by publishers, agents, magazine editors, competition judges and the rest of the queue of people waiting in line to crush our dreams.

I’ve had more rejections than I can remember on my way to the successes I have also enjoyed – so here’s my tool kit for dealing with them.

It’s ok to be angry or upset
I don’t think it does any good to bottle these things up. If you feel brassed off or gutted that you have been ignored or passed over then admit it to yourself – have a rant to a close personal or the bathroom mirror – whatever it takes. Acknowledge your emotions.

Put it in perspective
Nobody’s died. Nothing in your life has got worse. One thing has not gone your way, but that hasn’t affected anything else. You still have what you had before and you still have opportunities ahead of you.

Grow a thick skin
It helps if your pre-prepare for disappointment, and nothing aids that like having a fat wad of rejection slips already in your bottom drawer. I remember when I first started sending short stories out to competitions and magazines and getting rejections, or complete silence, in return, I was upset. Now – not so much. The power rejection has over you wears off in time. I think you grow calluses eventually and you realise that, in the scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a step on the road.

Learn from it
I like to say that being rejected has helped me as a writer – and I really believe that. I was talking to a creative writing tutor recently who told me her young students were often angry and disbelieving when their work was rejected, they felt it had been a mistake – their work was wonderful, how could it have been passed over? They were often quite arrogant about it. I remember being like that too. Rejection slips are a salutary lesson that you can improve as a writer and that you are not the finished article.

Use it as an incentive
Rework the piece which got rejected and make it better, then try it somewhere else. At the same time, start writing something new. Use your experience to grow as a writer, and make something positive out of the negative emotions which come with rejection.

Move on
There are plenty of other potential homes for your work out there. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right outlet for your writing. That’s particularly true when you are looking for a publisher for a novel I think. Publishers are often very specific about what they take on, your work might not have been right for their list, it might be right for someone else’s.

Never give up
Never. Ever. You are doing a remarkable thing by producing creative work and it will only get better the more you practice your craft. There are no guarantees you will get the recognition you deserve but the harder you work the luckier you get.

So those are my tips for dealing with writing rejection – tell me yours?

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13 thoughts on “Handling rejection as a writer”

  1. I reviewed books for a book review blog for a couple of years before I started putting my own work out there. I was always struck by the authors who, even though I would give them a great overall review, would take me to task for something – however small – that I did find fault with.

    No ones work is perfect. Not everything you right is going to be a complete fit for every reader. When an editor, a beta reader or a reviewer offers up a criticism or a concern, a writer really needs to try and look at it from the perspective of the person offering their opinion. Sometimes it’s just that – an opinion. Other times, it’s advice that could help them to be a better writer or tell a better story.

    My tip is, don’t argue with your critics. Say thank you and move on if you don’t agree. If you do find some kernel of truth in what a critic has said, start a constructive conversation with them if you can. If you can’t, back away until you can be more objective.

    1. Great advice Anne! I’ve been on both sides of the fence too. I think sometimes when young writers ask for criticism they don’t really want an honest appraisal, they just want yo be told how wonderful their work is. That’s something I understand all too well as a writer – when you have poured your heart and soul into something you are hoping it will be well received. 🙂

  2. Great advice here Chris. I’ve got so used to hearing ‘no’ or no resonse at all that I am fully braced for it now and can’t quite believe my eyes when the answer is positive.
    I would add that another way to make rejection easier is to keep writing. That way you can start to feel that passionate attachment to the new novel and the previous one slips into the background like an ex. The submitting gets a little less personal when you have that distance.

    1. That’s very true Clare – there’s no doubt your current project is always your favourite and not having all your eggs in one basket has to be sound advice.

  3. Somewhat amazingly I seem to have an incredibly thick skin when dealing with rejection. I have no idea how I developed this, but when I receive the ‘no thanks’ email or letter, I can happily shrug it off, understand that my work isn’t right for whoever I sent it to, and just keep on going. On the other hand, I am perpetually taken aback at some writers’ inability to accept any kind of criticism of their work and who then proceed to harangue publishers etc. That can never be a good idea! 🙂

    1. That’s a great asset to have as a writer I think Helena. I agree with you that it’s surprising some people get so upset and yes, we do have to remember that the people who don’t accept our stuff on occasion might have perfectly valid reasons for it. For example, I judged a literature prize recently, there were plenty of good entries, but they couldn’t all be the winner! Personally I find that I’ve got more used to rejection over time and learned how to bounce back from it in a positive way.

  4. Chris, I’ve got used to rejection, but find it very hard to cope with agents/publishers who don’t even bother replying to phone calls or emails (particularly those who have made money from my work). If they want to work out why Kindle and Ebooks are doing so well, they should consider that.

    1. That does sound very frustrating Jeff – not much loyalty out there is there? It will be interesting to see how the publishing hierarchy as it currently stands copes with the revolution in epublishing and self-publishing which is currently underway.

  5. I think when being successful too quickly you have no ability to deal with the inevitable downs along the way.
    We are all used to ups and downs in life and i have put all of the negatives into my writing, it keeps my sanity.
    Four years ago my life changed and i could feel myself drowning, my Doctor and my writing saved me otherwise i would not have been here.
    So now would i feel devastated if i was rejected..no i would try and chill and just carry on having faith in what i do. If i am rejected that does not mean my work is bad or not good enough to publish, remember whoever reviews your work for future publishing is making their decision based on what they believe and we are all entitled to our opinions….however go and prove like everyone they can also make bad decisions

    1. That sounds like a very healthy way of approaching it! I don’t know that I have met anyone who became successful quickly – but yes, I imagine that would give you a somewhat wonky version of reality.

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