I began last year with the quiet hope that I might manage to get at least one new story published somewhere. While I definitely had some wins, I didn’t end up getting any stories published. What I did end up with was a small pile of rejection emails. You might think that’s a bad thing, but it’s not, and here’s why …

Rejection might seem like the painful, unloved, pointlessly arduous first hurdle in the life of a writer, but it’s an inevitable stage in that life. Indeed, I’d argue that it’s essential. In fact, I’d argue that it’s an essential part of anyone’s life [full stop]. Without rejection, or even the risk of it, I suspect we’d all go through life without any desire to improve ourselves, and with absolutely no appreciation of our boundaries and limitations. If nothing else, this could cause some serious issues when it comes to assessing our capabilities … or lack thereof.

“Hey, you reckon I can have a stab at that brain surgery right there?”
“Sure, pal – why don’t you just go right ahead. Here, take my scalpel…”

We are all rejects

You may not be a writer, so it may be that you’ll never experience the abyssal plummet that comes from finding out that your story (the one that was at last going to kickstart your career!) hasn’t made the cut after all. But that’s fine: rejection comes to us all. Have you ever applied for a job you didn’t get? Or suffered the wetfish smack around the chops of being turned down when you finally worked up the pluck to ask that boy or girl out? Sure you have. It sucks, right? Well, not really … bear with me.

There can be complex reasons behind any rejection, but what helps me maintain a bit of perspective in these situations is to boil it down to one of two basic causes (and, whichever one you hit, each is worth taking some time to reflect on):

  1. You’re not the right person;
  2. It’s not the right time (closely related to: someone else is the right person).

It’s all about you

The first reason means there’s something not quite compatible between you and them. Maybe you don’t have the right skills for the job. Maybe he/she is looking for something different in than whatever it is you’re offering. Maybe your story didn’t hit the right note for that particular publication.

To a degree, you can look at this sort of rejection as a blessing: it’s a near-miss, but the good kind. Being in the wrong job sucks; definitely for yourself and often for your colleagues as well. Being in a relationship with the wrong person is torture. Having the wrong publication printing your story means, among other things, you miss getting the kind of readership you’re looking for. Equally, having a sub-par story in the right publication means chunks of your potential readship might give you a miss next time. Either way, this rejection has probably spared your writing career a few bumps.

If you’re paying attention, there are lessons you can learn as well: which is another positive. If you really want that job, you go off and learn the skills you need. If you really want that boy/girl to say yes, then you need to understand completely what their needs are and change yourself to match. If you want to get your story in that magazine, you’ve got to write the right kind of story, and make sure it’s good enough.

You listen, you learn, and you improve. There’s no downside: either way, you’re ending up a better person (and/or writer).

It’s got nothing to do with you

The other reason for rejection is also important, and it’s the one where nothing you could have done would have likely made any difference: someone else got the job; that person isn’t looking for a relationship; that magazine didn’t need any more stories for that particular issue.

It’s important to let yourself understand from time to time that it’s not your fault. It’s possibly even more important to understand that it’s not their fault either. Rejection can be frustrating, it can make you angry, it can inspire irrational responses. Just take a breath in these instances and remember that it’s nothing personal.

This is important because you’ll feel happier, and you’ll feel better about youself. And you won’t need to stab anyone either.

Back to the point

I deal with rejection in the above way because most of the rejections I receive don’t come with any feedback. Which means I have to make assumptions. And those assumptions could include any or none of the following:

  • The specific individual who read my story simply didn’t respond to it;
  • The story wasn’t a good fit for the magazine;
  • The story isn’t good enough yet

One of those things is something I have no control over, but two of them are things I can work on. With each rejection I take a moment to remind myself that it’s nothing personal, and that it’s an opportunity to do better the next time.

Obviously, any comment or criticism is something I latch onto with the utmost gratitude. If someone can actually tell me what is wrong with my story, it’s almost like having a repair manual. A rejection with criticism may not quite be the holy grail, but at this point in my career it’s the next best thing to an acceptance.

I want to repeat that: criticism is like gold dust to a writer. If someone can tell you what’s wrong, where you’ve made mistakes, what sucks about your story, then that person is giving you the best chance you could hope for to make your story excellent. Sure, criticism hurts, but so does life-saving heart surgery (I assume).

The thing to remember is that rejection is a fundamental part of any writer’s life. If you don’t have a respectable pile of rejection ‘slips’ then there’s a chance you might not be doing the writer thing correctly (if people aren’t reading your work, then what are you writing it for?). Even writers who have long progressed beyond rejection are still partly defined by the extent of their rejection in the past. You only need to look at all those articles about how many times J.K.Rowling was turned down before someone finally took a chance on Harry Potter.

So, this is why every time I get a rejection I remind myself of the following:

  • this rejection means I wrote something;
  • this rejection means I finished writing something;
  • this rejection means that I actually stepped out of my comfort zone long enough to send my story to a complete stranger for judgement;
  • this rejection is an achievement.

In short: every rejection you get is not a step backwards – it’s a sign you’re still moving forward. Keep ’em coming.