Submitter's guide to rejections
Part 1: Rejection types
This is part 1 of a two-part guide to rejections. Learn more in Part 2: Rejection records.
In this guide we discuss
• How to identify three types of rejections (You are here)
• Keeping record of your rejection statistics (Part 2)
• Using your rejection statistics to make informed adjustments to your submissions goals (Part 2)
If you submit to literary magazines as much as I do, you've scared up some rejections. In 2020, I actually met my 100-rejections-a-year goal.
But even if you haven't gamified rejections like I have, you can still make use out of them. The types of rejections you receive provide you with important feedback. Namely, how are you stacking up against other submissions in your target markets? Is your submission noticed by editors? And if not, what can you do?
These are necessary questions if you've been submitting a piece with no luck. Don't ignore rejections—take advantage of them. Your rejection statistics can help you game plan for an eventual acceptance.
For our purposes let's divide rejections into three categories:
In the following sections we'll look at an overview of each category with examples.
Unfortunately, editors receive too many submissions to respond to each individually. Most publications create a stock-standard letter to streamline the process. This is the form rejection, the baseline type of rejection. Here are a few examples of what a form rejection can look like, courtesy my inbox:
Thank you for sending us [submission]. We appreciate the opportunity to read your work and regret that it does not fit the needs of [magazine]. We wish you success in placing it for publication.
The example above is a bare bones form rejection. It thanks the submitter for submitting and politely turns down the piece. The well wishes at the end give it a human touch.
Next, here's an example that expands a little on the first. It assures the submitter that their piece was given appropriate consideration.
Thank you for submitting to [magazine]. We read every story, poem, and essay submitted to us carefully, and we delight in publishing both established and emerging writers. Unfortunately, we are not able to accept your work for publication at this time.
We appreciate your interest in the journal, and we wish you the best in your writing.
Finally, here's one that, while long-winded, is a form rejection nonetheless. It provides the submitter some insight into the editorial process. It also assuages the feelings of inadequacy a rejection might conjure in a submitter.
Thank you for submitting to [magazine]. Although we will not be publishing [submission] at this time and are sorry to disappoint you, please be assured that your manuscript was read carefully by editors and trained screeners. Our reasons for not accepting particular submissions are varied and often have more to do with the shape of our recent acquisitions and upcoming issues than with the quality of writing we receive. Thank you again for the opportunity to consider your work, and we regret any delay in our response to you. We hope you'll continue to read and submit to [magazine].
What these rejections have in common is general applicability. Any submitter could receive these messages. Yes, the forms may plug in a name or a title Mad Libs-style, but the message itself is not personalized.
Form rejections aren't bad—they're standard. That said, there's always variation in when and how often a publication sends form rejections. Some journals send exclusively form rejections. Other journals (usually small ones) send few or no form rejections.
A subset of form rejection is the tiered rejection. These rejections are also a stock standard an editor can send with the click of a button. But, as the name implies, there can be tiers above that of a standard form rejection. Let's start with some examples:
Thank you for sharing this work with [magazine]. After a careful review of your submission, the staff has decided that this work is not quite right for the journal at this time—though our readers and editors enjoyed this work, so we very much hope you will continue to share work with us.
Best of luck placing this work elsewhere, and we hope to hear from you again soon!
This message has a lot in common with the previous examples of form rejections. It thanks the submitter for their time and expresses the work is not the right fit. What's new here is where it says, "our readers and editors enjoyed this work." A standard form rejection doesn't characterize how a submission was received. Which is why this example is a tier above the standard.
The message also states "we very much you will continue to share work with us." Most large publications have no shortage of submitters. They don't have to encourage those that they've rejected to send more work. That is, unless a submission sparked some interest.
Fewer submitters receive high-tier messages than those who receive a standard form. Meaning, that although a submission wasn't accepted, it did set itself apart from the crowd. This is a positive indicator!
Here's some language pulled from tiered rejections:
• "our team was impressed by its quality"
• "we [...] gave your work special consideration"
• "we read this submission with more than the casual amount of interest; your work distinguished itself from many of our other submissions..."
• "we found much to admire in your story [...] please feel free to mention this note in your cover letter"
• "your work was of great interest to our editorial staff, and advanced far into our editorial process"
Remember that tiered rejections are still forms. There's nothing in these quotes that speaks specifically to the submission content. But they're an editor's way of letting you know you're on the right track.
A personal rejection is a different beast than our first two categories. It refers to a letter in which all or part has been personalized by an editor.
You'll know a response is personal if it references the specifics of your submission. By nature, personal rejections are variable, but here are examples I've received:
Please know that your submission made it through the highest rounds of review and inspired a lot of interesting discussion. We adored its structure and style and were so moved by what is happening with the child in the story.
The editors have personalized their responses by referencing the submissions' strengths. These responses don't function as a general forms. Rather, they're written with the individual submitter in mind.
Not all personalized rejections are near-misses. Some editors may respond with constructive criticism. For instance:
I enjoyed this story, but wanted more from it—perhaps more of a glimpse of the wider world of the story. Maybe this could be the start of a longer piece?
[...] the take here isn't sufficiently original or emotionally-resonant. I wanted to know these characters better, and for the texture of their world to appear more on the page. For a piece of this length, it is also important that the ending give some hint regarding what might come next for our protagonist. The ending, as it stands, reads a bit too tidy for my taste.
Even if a personal rejection is not all sunshine and rainbows, it's still a win! Remember, editors often field thousands of submissions. It's easiest for them to send a one-click form. If they took the time to write something personal, something in a submission stood out to them.
Again, there's always variation between publications. Some rarely, if ever, use personal rejections. Others make it a common practice.
Now that you can identify types of rejections, what's next? Learn more in Part 2: Rejection records.