How to Face Rejection, Especially When You’re the One Doing the Rejecting

March 2016

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

In the publishing world, rejection comes with the territory. I don’t know of any writer worth her salt that hasn’t been turned down for a proposal or already completed work. Knowing it’s happened to the best of us brings me comfort when my own work is rejected, and it’s what I draw upon when I’m the one delivering the bad news. And I deliver that bad news on a regular basis as the editor-in-chief of an IT publication that receives more submissions than we can publish.

I’m about to provide some tips for writers, but the same principals can apply to many other areas of work and life. So even if landing a byline in The New Yorker or a six-figure book contract is not your goal, you may still learn a thing or two.

1. Be gentle…and be quick about it. Always remember that this person you’re about to reject likely has already invested some personal equity—they’ve done research (including on you), maybe even written a draft that took hours, days, weeks, months…who knows. You may not be their first choice, or even their fourth or fifth. But their effort needs to be acknowledged and then a clear explanation of why it won’t work needs to be given. What I do: I find a kernel of a good idea within a bad proposal or manuscript and suggest they work from there and resubmit, provided that new idea has legs. Or, I’ll suggest another publication it might be worth submitting in current or future form. It keeps hope alive, but also in check.

Along the same lines, no one likes hearing bad news, whether on the phone, in person or in an email or text. And we all know it’s bad form to send such news in a text. So don’t put off letting down someone once a decision is made. The longer you wait, the more false hope it gives that deliberations are working in their favor. Show respect by responding in a timely manner.

2. It’s not you, it’s me. Sometimes good works get pitched to the wrong publications. When I’m first approached, I send our Writer Guidelines and see what comes back, now that the writer is aware of our editorial standards and publishing rights. I think about 50% continue to pursue a relationship. Be upfront about any conflicts or concerns so everyone knows where you’re coming from. Then you may not have to issue a formal refusal; it’ll happen on its own.

3. Your timing is all wrong. Dynamic, online publications, like blogs and eZines, can post an accepted piece quickly, but if you want your work in a print or digital publication on a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly schedule, you have to submit work months ahead of time and according to an editorial calendar (which every publication has).

Sometimes, too, your timing is all right. I’ve had an assignment fall through just before a deadline and—lo and behold!—another, unsolicited piece in good shape shows up in my inbox the same week. This doesn’t happen often, though.

4. Spare me the details—to a certain point. Sometimes I’ll open an email solicitation, see a screenful of words, and close it for later. Brevity is a virtue (and indicator of writing skills). Start with spelling an editor’s name correctly in the salutation and one (short) paragraph to introduce yourself and what qualifies you to write on a topic. Then write another paragraph of specifics and/or use bullet points to highlight what makes it different from all the other pieces on the same topic. End with a link to your other published works. This last point is important; if you haven’t been published elsewhere, then have blog posts or LinkedIn posts ready to send. And if you don’t have those, you now have a new homework assignment.

5. This doesn’t mean it’s over. When I reject a writer, I always leave the door ajar for future collaborations. Some take me up on the offer and others take me off their list. Just beware that some people will be fueled by your words and others will let them fester. I once sent an unsolicited manuscript back to someone who replied with some harsh words for me—all because I asked him to further explain a couple of points in the piece I was considering. I saw it as conditional acceptance; he viewed it as questioning his intellect. The conversation ended there.

Remember that rejection is also about customer service and shapes your corporate and personal brand. Show respect for others’ earnest efforts and you’ll reap it in return. That goes for any endeavor in which you have power over other people’s work.