Rejected! Rejection Letter Words of Wisdom

Any writer who puts their work “out there”, either submitting to various markets, or by self-publishing on various platforms, will be familiar with rejections. They go with the territory. I earned my first rejection letter forty years ago (!) when I made my first short story submission while still in college, to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was a form rejection.

Two years later, I received a personal rejection from Amazing Stories Magazine for my story, “Love Through Eating Illegals,” which posited a future where chocolate had been banned because of a particular chemical found in cocoa, and the anti-hero of the story was burgling houses trying to find hidden caches. (I’ll admit the idea of a world where chocolate is banned is almost too horrible to contemplate.)

The rejection letter, from editor George Scithers, spelled out why he rejected the story—namely, there wasn’t much of a story and what there was didn’t really work. He was absolutely right. It took me many more years and much study of fiction craft and a lot more writing to finally earn my first story acceptance for a story called “Dead Wife Waiting,” but those early rejection letters started me on the path.

Self-publishing has its own form of rejection, namely a lack of sales, readers, and/or reviews, which, like any kind of publishing rejection, can be learned from.

Today’s Words of Wisdom tackles rejection, and shows how it can help you become a better writer. As usual, the full articles are linked at the end of their respective excerpts and well worth reading in full. I hope they inspire you and also start a discussion here about turning rejection to your advantage.

I’m familiar with rejection. Before my first novel was published I wrote four books that went nowhere. I received rejection letters from every major publisher in the industry and a hell of a lot of minor ones too. (And because this record of rejection dates back to the late Eighties, some of them were actual letters rather than e-mails. Typed on paper, for crying out loud!) The rejections that hurt the most were of the “It’s good, but…” variety. You know what I mean: It’s well-written, but I didn’t like the characters. It starts well, but I lost interest. I liked the book, but I didn’t love it.  Or the worst: I loved the book, but it’s not right for us.

I hated those letters. My reaction was: If you like it so much, why don’t you just publish it? In my disappointment, I wondered whether the compliments were sincere. Perhaps the editors actually disliked the book but were trying to soften the blow. In a perverse way, I almost hoped that the praise was false. If it was genuine, that meant I’d come close to success but fallen short, which was more frustrating than missing by a long shot.

In retrospect, I realize how wrongheaded my reasoning was. First of all, I’ve learned that book editors are outrageously busy people. The notion that they’d take the time to invent a compliment seems so ludicrous now. I’ve also realized there are many valid reasons for rejection that have nothing to do with the quality of the novel. The publisher may have too many books on its list already. Or perhaps the imprint rejects a manuscript because it just published something similar and it didn’t sell very well. Publishing is a business, after all. An editor can afford to make a few money-losing bets, but not too many.

But my worst mistake was ignoring the obvious message of those letters: You’re getting close! You should keep trying! Now I see that receiving one of those “It’s good, but…” rejections is the equivalent of hitting the green outer ring of the bull’s-eye on a dartboard. If you can consistently hit that ring, then it’s just a matter of time before you’ll land within the inner circle and win the big prize.

Mark Alpert—February 9, 2013


Before self-publishing became viable, when you got rejected it truly tested your mettle. First novels almost never got picked up by an agent or publisher. And most of the time they never told you why. Just something like, “Does not fit our needs at this time.”

This would sting for a few days. Maybe you’d throw things around and think, “I just don’t have what it takes!” But if you were a real writer you’d get back to work. You’d figure out (with help from others) what was wrong with your writing. You’d study the marketplace. If you were wise, you’d study the craft, too. Maybe join a critique group, go to a conference or two or three. Invest in yourself.

Most important of all, you would continue to write. And then maybe two or three or five years later an agent would take a chance on you. And another year or two later, you might land that first contract. And then eighteen months later, your book would hit the stores.

And you would discover the truth behind Martin Myers’ keen observation: “First you’re an unknown, then you write one book and you move up to obscurity.”

Yet all that rejection and heartache and sticktoitiveness made you a better writer. Which, in turn, increased your chances of having an actual career.

So if you’re a brand new writer with a brand new novel (and a lot of you will be at the end of this NaNoWriMo month), go out and get some rejection. Use the beta reader grinder system. Seek open and honest opinion. Take the chip off your shoulder. Consider hiring a freelance editor. Start thinking like a business. Set up quality controls.

Heck, spend a month studying our library of first-page critiques. Talk about a concentrated course on storytelling!

Sure, you can skip all that and toss your novel up on Amazon, where it will get rejected by the people you most need—readers.

Or you can be a little patient, work hard, listen and learn and improve, and greatly increase your chances of success.

James Scott Bell—November 12, 2017


There is a hierarchy of rejections–a ladder to climb:

Rung #1 – Unsigned form letter: “This does not meet our needs at this time.”

Rung #2 – Unsigned form letter: “This does not meet our needs at this time but please try us again.”

Rung #3 – Same form letter with a handwritten note (unsigned): “This is good. Do you have anything else?”

Rung #4 – Personal letter: “Good story but too similar to one we recently published. I like your writing. Send more.” Actual editor’s signature.

Rung #5 – Personal letter signed with editor’s first name. Now we’re buddies.

With today’s electronic submissions, the process is similar, just faster and cheaper without the cost of postage and printing.

But the process still requires climbing the rungs.

Finally you clamber onto an exciting but scary roof with a steep pitch. The editor/agent likes the sample chapter and asks for the whole manuscript. Get a toehold on the rain gutter.

A month or five later, the rejection says: “This is good BUT…”

Fill in the blank with:

“Characters felt inconsistent.”

“The climax didn’t live up to expectations.”

“I just didn’t love it enough.”


Slide down the roof a bit but hang on with fingernails.

Rewrite and submit more. Inch up the shingles. 

“All the editors loved it but the marketing department doesn’t think they can sell it.”

At last, you reach the peak of the roof when you receive a long, detailed, personal letter with specific suggestions.

In December, I received the most beautiful rejection of my entire career (and I’ve received hundreds!). I couldn’t even be unhappy when I read the following:

“Several of us read it and we all enjoyed your fresh, exciting take on a thriller—particularly the way you used the genre to explore the very real issue of elder fraud. There are several striking scenes that are seared in my memory (especially that late-night rescue in the snowstorm!). We thought you developed Tawny and Moe’s relationship with great sensitivity and nuance, and this in turn made Moe’s shifts between lucidity and violence a more emotional experience for readers. Unfortunately, we had difficulty connecting as deeply to Tawny—it often felt like she was kept at a remove from us. For this reason, despite our admiration for your writing and the compelling and dynamic world you’ve created, we don’t think we’re the right publisher for your book. I’m sorry not to have better news. Thank you so much for the opportunity to read and consider STALKING MIDAS, and best wishes in finding the right home for it.”

It felt like the editor had sent me a dozen roses! 

When you tell civilians (non-writers) about the wonderful rejection you received, they usually draw their chins back and look down their noses. “You got rejected and you’re happy?”

Only other writers understand the irony of a rave rejection.

What do rejections really mean?

You’re in the game.

What do rave rejections mean?

Publication is in your future.

Debbie Burke—September 3, 2019


Now it’s your turn.

  1. What have you learned from receiving a rejection, and how have you used it to improve your writing?
  2. Have you ever received a “rave rejection,” and how did it affect your outlook?
  3. Any advice on handling rejection?

27 thoughts on “Rejected! Rejection Letter Words of Wisdom

  1. Thanks for freaking me out first thing in the morning with the mere thought of a world without chocolate. Talk about a horror story! 😎 😎 😎

    Back around 2010 I won a first chapter contest in my genre & as a result I believe it was submitted to 1-2 editors and I did get the brief “it’s not the right fit” type message. That could be for a lot of reasons but I assumed it was because my story wasn’t a romance, which at the time felt to me like all anyone was publishing.

    Frankly, it was neither defeating nor encouraging. Don’t get me wrong–I totally get WHY an editor gives you a 5 word response–they’re getting tons of submissions. But it also isn’t helpful one way or the other. I think that’s one of the key things that made me decide that I would self-publish when the time came. My thought was if you have to go through non-feedback feedback for traditional publishing, just write the best book you can and publish it yourself and skip the empty words. Stick to getting feedback through your critiquers or your own editors (and on the back end you’ll get feedback from your reviewers).

    • Sorry to give you a scare first thing, BK 🙂
      I agree that a terse form response typically isn’t helpful. Trying to parse the different sorts of form responses used to be called “rejectomancy” in science fiction/fantasy writing circles, and was considered a waste of time.

  2. Sometimes rejection letters are less than helpful.
    “We did review your proposal, and for some reason we don’t feel we can represent it. Some of them come close, and yours may well be one of those, but we do have our reasons for declining.”

    • That sort of “there are several possible reasons” form rejection is not helpful. This reminds me of an old joke about sending a form reply to a rejection letter, something along the lines of “I would like to reply personally to each rejection I receive, but the the volume I receive prevents me.” (I have the curse of not having a good memory for recalling exact quotes 🙂

  3. Best rejection letter I received was from Woman’s World for the short story that’s on my blog—“Blood Kin”. It was on a postcard and said, “Love this story but the arsenic should have shown up in routine blood tests.”
    I knew doctors didn’t test for arsenic in those routine test, but I hadn’t put that in the story. Fixed the problem and resubmitted. A month later the editor bought the story,

    • That’s a wonderful rejection story, and shows the value of having a ready fix that will earn an acceptance upon a resubmission. Thanks for sharing it, Patricia.

  4. I think the most frustrating rejection letter is “Doesn’t meet our needs at this time.” Drat! If only I’d hit “Send” an hour earlier — or later.

    • Timing seems to be everything 😀 Certainly that letter can fuel a session or two of “rejectomancy” as the submitter tries to figure out exactly what the publisher’s needs that weren’t being met are, and also, when might said submission might meet those unstated needs. Better not to go down that rabbit hole, though many have in my experience.

    • An editor friend told an apocryphal story of getting a manuscript slid to him while he was in a bathroom stall. He removed the first two pages, then slid the MS back with a scribbled note: “Your manuscript has met my needs at this time.”

  5. Thanks for pulling these articles from the archives, Dale. Great advice.

    Early in my career, I had a book accepted by a small publisher, who soon thereafter filed for bankruptcy. I got my copyright back with some help from Joe Hartlaub. Following that, I had an agent who forgot me. I had been following TKZ, and decided I had had enough of the trad publishing insanity and would go indie. Glad I did. Never going back.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks, Steve. I’m glad that Joe was there to help you recover your copyright and that you went indie. Hope you have a great weekend as well!

  6. Dale, thanks for including my post.

    If anything, non-response is more common now. IMO, being ignored is worse than rejection b/c you can’t learn from it. That’s why critique groups and beta readers are even more crucial to improving your work.

    With short-staffing in the publishing biz, maybe AI bots now review submissions?

    • Thank you for writing that post, Debbie. From what I’ve know from other writer friends still trying the trad route, non-response is quite common. Excellent point about critique partners and beta readers being more important than ever.

      It could be that AI bots might be reviewing submissions. That’s a chilling thought, but given the perpetual drive to cut costs, I could see some doing that.

  7. I queried a novel back in 2018. Lucky for me, or unlucky you choose, I didn’t care a wit about the novel. It’s the story the world wanted me to write and told me so every time I mentioned I like writing. It was also the type of story that was selling like hot cakes at the time (cute little disabled kids anyone?).

    Needless to say, rejection didn’t sting. I got several full manuscript requests, ones that I shouldn’t have gotten since my protagonist didn’t fit any age category. I learned the ins and outs of the market, querying and publishing with no skin in the game.

    • Thanks for sharing this story, Azali. The market is such a moving target to try and hit, even when people might say “X” is the thing to write in the moment. The best advice I’ve seen on that is to write the story you are passionate about, while being aware of what readers want, and find a space where the two overlap, the Venn-diagram of writer-reader interests, as JSB has illustrated for us. I’m glad this provided you with a worthwhile learning opportunity, one which you took full advantage of.

  8. Thanks for excavating these posts, Dale.

    Here’s a beautifully written paragraph in a rejection email I received from an agent:

    The question that I’ve wrestled with all this time was whether or not I could place such a unique story on your behalf and I haven’t been able to answer that question. Without an answer at this point, that’s the sign that I need to step back and let you pursue other options.

    That was after more than a year of waiting, and after she had asked me to send her the full MS.

    “Unique story” . . . I guess that means she didn’t know what to do with it in agent-speak. She didn’t really say anything else about the novel, or give any further comments that might have helped me.

    The MS in question is No Tomorrows, due to be released this October.


    • Wow, Deb. There’s an example of a dithering response being taken to another level 🙂
      It would tell me that she’s not the agent for me, since I’d rather be told straight up that she couldn’t sell it or didn’t think it was the sort of book she would want to try and sell.

      Congratulations on the upcoming publication of No Tomorrows!

  9. The chocolate story sounds like something Lawrence Block would write, but Bernie would find a dead body instead.

    Don’t pay too much attention to the levels of rejection letters. I’ve received the most insulting kind when I was at the point of contract, and my editor left. The new editor dumped everyone to create her own stable of writers. Not an editor I would have wanted to work with.

    • My chocolate story needed a corpse to make it more interesting and lead to an actual plot 🙂
      The insulting rejection letter was very unprofessional, but did do you the favor of indicating what she would have been like to work with.

  10. I have a bunch of rejection letters for my first novel/mystery series – probably one each at least of every type mentioned.

    The irritating part was that none of them gave any information about a specific why. “Send us your next,” when they had been uninformative after asking for the full (and this was the days of paper copies of ‘the full’ sent off in the mail) didn’t help much.

    But when I took everything I had learned, and a big fat story-of-the-heart trilogy dropped into my lap, I remembered the time wasted waiting for a response to those fulls, how I felt when they came back, and realized there had to be a better way. For me, any way. I literally, already ill at that time, could not take the stress – and the aftereffects of the adrenaline cost me days.

    The decision made me a far better writer – I learned to identify and solve my own problems. By the time Mr. Bezos came along, I was primed ( 🙂 ), and it only took me ten more years after that point to satisfy my own standards and publish the first PC trilogy volume; another seven years, and the second volume was ready – published last year. And I’m in the slow throes of organizing the third so I can take the unbelievably bad rough draft, all my notes, and wrap this baby up in another five years or so.

    I don’t think any of this would have been possible under the effects of outside pressure – I’m better on my own.

    So I guess I owe it all to those rejection letters, nice as they were – training me to not expect external validation from BP. For excruciatingly slow writers, the waterways are not navigable. And 23 years will go by whether you’re using them to write – or not: so what do you want to create for yourself in that time?

    • I think that rejection letter lesson is one we can all learn from, Alicia. Thanks for sharing it here. Any external validation is really outside of our control. All we do control is our own writing, and that’s challenge enough as far as I’m concerned.

  11. I got a rejection for a short story I submitted that said, “We enjoyed your story, but please study our magazine and submit something else.” Busted, totally busted. I learned my lesson!

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