Every writer will say, “Yes!” Editors, publishers and literary agents will say, “Sometimes.”
For a writer, a bland pre-printed standard rejection slip usually saying something along the lines of “thanks for thinking of us but we can’t accept your work at this time” is frustrating. It offers no clues as to whether we were close to being accepted and should try again another time or whether we were so far out that we should not bother again, ever.
For editors, publishers and literary agents, some submissions are such obvious candidates for rejection, there’s no point in saying why. Most are snowed under with submissions so don’t have time to translate a gut instinct or experienced reaction into a neat, tactful two sentence rejection. Most common reasons for rejection are:
- Manuscript littered with grammar and/or spelling errors. One or two errors will slip through but a manuscript full of errors suggests the writer couldn’t be bothered so the writer will be hard work and time consuming. Spellcheckers won’t catch everything so if you’re not good at proof-reading your own work, find someone who can proof it for you or pay for a professional proof-reader.
- The manuscript is the wrong genre. No poetry magazine will accept a novel, even in verse. No science-fiction magazine will accept your recipes, even if for alien cupcakes. No non fiction publisher will accept your space opera magnum opus, even if you’ve set it on a real planet and elaborately described the terrain. All writers need to do their research and check that the editor, publisher or agent will accept the writing being submitted.
- The submission is too long or too short. Most poetry magazines will not accept poems over 40 lines because a 40 line poem fits on one side of page (an exception may be made for a poetry sequence where each part of the sequence is 40 lines or less). Most magazines accepting short stories have strict word counts because they need a short story to fit around advertising and illustrations. Similarly articles will have strict word counts. Book publishers have limits too. A novel is generally around 70,000 to 120,000 words and a saga may be up to 250,000 words. Check with the publisher and double-check your word count before submitting.
- The timing was wrong. Summer fiction specials are often planned early in the year and Christmas issues are often decided in July. Generally themed issues are planned at least six months in advance and if you want to publish a book to time with an anniversary, you could have to submit three or more years in advance.
- The writer had clearly not read any contemporary literature. You want to be a published writer, you have to read what is being published now. If you don’t read, you won’t know what’s being published and you’ll waste editor’s, publisher’s and agent’s time by submitting writing that would have been accepted last century but is not acceptable now.
However, if a writer has done their research, written to a publishable standard, got feedback from trusted, contemporary readers (possibly other writers) and edited and polished their work, but still gets a rejection, it would be a courtesy to know why. Even a scrawled “too many submissions, can’t accept all”, “sorry, this doesn’t fit us”, “liked but already accepted something similar” would help.
The worst rejection of all is from the editor, publisher or agent who wanted to let the writer down gently, the one that suggests the rejecter liked the writing but couldn’t use it. This only encourages future submissions, which may not have been the intention, and eventual discouragement and even rage after the writer realises, several submissions and rejections down the line, that the rejecter had absolutely no intention of ever accepting the work.
Naturally some editors are wary of giving reasons because they fear a backlash from the writer. There are some writers who think they have to the right to be published just because they’ve written something, even if that something doesn’t fit, is the wrong length, is badly written or is simply so riddled with errors it’s not worth editing. No writer has the right to be published, even long-standing, much-published ones, that’s a right that has to be earnt. It’s earnt by reading, practicing, writing, editing, further editing, research, checking guidelines, further research, more reading, more writing, more editing and sending writing to the right editor.