Dear Poetry Newbies: Rejection Therapy

Photo by Didrooglie.

An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

What are the eight words no writer ever wants to hear? “We are not using your work this time” of course! Most of us see that sentence and silently translate it to “you’ve been rejected, therefore you suck,” and for some people, that’s enough to throw their writing off track for days, weeks, months or even years.
However, if you want to be a writer, you need to accept that rejection is as much a part of the writing game as inky fingers and writer’s cramp (or, these days, repetitive strain injury). But if you’re still finding the rejection pill hard to swallow, then read on…

Everyone gets rejected.
The first thing you need to realise is that you are absolutely NOT alone in your rejection misery. I don’t think there’s a single writer alive who hasn’t felt the sting of rejection in one form or another - even the most famous, successful and established writer will be able to tell you the tale of their worst rejection experience (or experiences)! Basically, rejection comes with the poetic territory… so don’t allow that nasty, negative voice in your head to do the whole “what’s wrong with you? Everyone else gets accepted” routine. Don’t believe me? Join a writing group, workshop or forum and just mention the R-word… I guarantee that everyone will have a story to tell.

It’s not personal… or it shouldn’t be.
Why is it that your confidence takes a massive nosedive when you hear your work has been rejected? Probably because you make it personal - and don’t get me wrong, that’s not unusual, but it’s also not a good way of dealing with it. It’s important that you realise it isn’t personal - chances are, the rejection has nothing to do with who you are as an individual. The editor hasn’t turned you down because they have a personal vendetta against you, or because they hate young / old / gay / straight / male / female writers like you, or because they could tell from reading your stuff that you sometimes surreptitiously listen to Cliff Richard. And if they DID turn you down for personal reasons, then they’re just a bad editor - no two ways about it - and you’re better off not being associated with their publication. So there!!

It does NOT mean your writing sucks.
There are heaps of factors that can influence an editor’s decision. First and foremost, they have to find pieces that will physically fit into their publication - it might be that your poem exceeded their maximum length, or the formatting was just too tricky for them to work with. And your work also has to “fit” in a more abstract sense… so just because one magazine perhaps doesn’t think your work belongs on their particular pages, that doesn’t mean every zine in the world will turn you down. Reading submission guidelines is really important, because knowing what kind of place you’re submitting to and making sure you follow their rules to the letter can eliminate these possible-rejection factors. You also need to bear in mind that any successful magazine has a rigorous selection process, because only a small percentage of submissions can be accepted. Sometimes, editors are even forced to reject work that they actually really love.

All editors are different…
…and this is important for two reasons. One: there are some editors out there who will reject you for something as minor as a typo, or an uncredited reference to another writer. Others are more forgiving when it comes to the little details, but draw the line at things like an absent cover-letter when they specifically requested one. And there are some editors who’ll forgive you just about anything as long as your poems are good enough - problem is, you just don’t know what kind of editor is on the other end of your submission!
And two: at the end of the day, the editor you’re sending your work to is just another reader - and you can’t expect every single reader to love you, can you? Admittedly, a bigger, more democratic editorial team makes for a better magazine, and so most publications have a kind of “panel” system by which they decide who to accept. Lone editors often have to base their choices on personal taste, which seems unfair, but it’s the way the cookie crumbles. And just because one person - or even a four-person team - didn’t love your work, that doesn’t mean there won’t he heaps of people out there who do!

Rejection is no fun for anyone.
Believe it or not, most editors hate the whole rejection thing as much as you do. Sure, you meet the odd sadistic weirdo who loves to put eager young poets down (I’ve met with one of these so far), but generally - unless someone’s been really annoying, ie, ignored submission guidelines or been rude - sending the rejection letters is considered one of the least fun parts of the job. I used to HATE sending out the Read This rejections, because I know all too well that awful sinking feeling you get when your personal turn-down reaches your mailbox. So take comfort in the fact that, somewhere, there may well be a magazine editor squirming with guilt as they imagine you reading your rejection letter!

Or… you could just do this*:

*Don’t do this.

Your worst rejection? Care to share?


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

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8 Responses to “Dear Poetry Newbies: Rejection Therapy”

  1. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » How To Get Started: Publishing in Magazines Says:

    [...] writing magazines (1) will give you the lowdown on the coolest zines around, and if you ever need rejection therapy, I’m [...]

  2. Simon Freedman Says:

    Some great advice you’ve got here. For what it’s worth, here’s my approach.

    Finish the poem. Thrill from head to toe at the masterpiece you’ve just created. DO NOT read it for at least 3 months, then read it with the specific intention of finding fault with it, no matter how minor. If the poem withstands this scrutiny, the rejection of 1,000 editors should be water off a duck’s back to you. If not, that’s what the bin’s there for.

    That said, when you do get published, it is one hell of a buzz…good luck!

  3. Claire Says:

    Simon, I think you’re right — I feel much more ‘able’ to edit a piece when it’s been shelved for a while. It’s like you’re looking at it with the eyes of an unbiased reader. But I can’t always make myself wait as long as three months!

  4. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Dealing with rejection fallout. Says:

    [...] so if you’ve read Rejection Therapy, you know a bit about why your work might be or might have been rejected, and how you can stop it [...]

  5. Bob McDearmid Says:

    I am a work in progress and I know I will rarely please myself… my best poems are the ones that heightened the emotions of another. If I can make you climax by talking about the weather I know I’ve done well.
    I take rejection as “you never stopped to see me naked so how do you know what lies underneath the surface.”

    I am never as bad as I once was, so there is hope. All I need to do is read something I wrote 10 years ago… to realize “yes grasshopper, you have learned, but there is still miles and miles to go.”

    I also know there is a good deal of flatulance and bull dung in all of us and I can laugh at me with you. I am a rolling ball of hyperbole and I know I may have to stick out my hand for you to see if I am walking or rolling.
    I also know success often is found locked in a casket, and I prefer a rocking chair and a cold beer.

  6. Claire Says:

    Bob, you’ve made a great point there. Looking back at your old works post-rejection can most definitely make you feel better, show you what a huge capacity for improvement there is in your work. Thank you!

  7. Says:

    Rejection Therapy…

    Had your work rejected by a publisher? Feeling dejected? Wondering why it happened? Read on to find out more about rejection, and to feel better!…

  8. Paul Brucker Says:

    Here’s a poem I wrote about continually having my poems rejected by literary editors. Ugh. Paul Brucker

    Thank you for submitting to our journal, but …

    We always open the envelope, hoping to discover a gem –
    a fresh insight, something that will justify or thrill us.

    But, after a little fretting and ringing of hands,
    and much serious discussion
    that reaffirmed our tastes and criteria, we agreed
    we are unable (i.e. unwilling) to publish your “poem.”

    We never heard of you, nor will our readers.
    But we can tell you are a “special” boy
    who is not special enough –
    the guy the high school literary teacher encouraged
    to write about his fears, truths and longings.

    And it doesn’t matter
    whether your mother loved you,
    or whether you’re more sad or lonely than us.
    It doesn’t matter that you’re the most intent listener during poetry readings
    or whether you wrote 20 drafts, searching for the perfect words
    (and somebody said your voice is moving – if not brilliant).

    We receive 3,000 submissions each issue
    and accept approximately 1.5%.
    Too bad you paid 83 cents for a self-addressed envelope
    so we could return your “poem”(which we recycled in the round file).

    It may hurt, but it’s time you realized
    that you’ll never get what you want.
    Still, you must value yourself for who you are,
    not for how well you satisfy the needs of others.

    Good luck finding a home for your “poem” elsewhere.

    By the way, if you want to see what real poetry is,
    we encourage you to subscribe to our magazine
    – a real steal for $20. Our themes for the next two issues:
    “death and redemption” and “a penny for your thoughts.”