Why You Get Form Rejection Letters

By Jenna Glatzer

It's not your fault.  Really,it isn't-- not unless you're one of "those" writers. Allow me to explain.

Whenever I've worked as an editor, I've invited queryletters and unsolicited submissions.  Forvarious reasons, most of them weren't appropriate for the publications for whichthey were intended.  Although Inever used what you'd technically call form rejection letters, most of them wereclose. 

When I had nothing positive to say, my letters basicallyread, "Thanks, but this isn't for us."  It's when the submissions had merit that I ran into trouble.

Then I had the tough decision to make: Do I tell thiswriter WHY I'm rejecting the submission, or not?

You may wonder why that's a tough decision. Of course there's the time issue; editors who get inundated with submissionsdon't have the time to respond personally to each writer who submits.  Butwhen we do have a free moment and would like to be honest with the writer, someof us bite our tongues anyway.  The reason?  Not all writers know what it means tobe a professional.  And not all of them can take criticism.

Whenever I sent constructive criticism with a rejection, Iknew there was about a 75% chance I'd hear nothing back (which was fine), a 5%chance I'd get a quick "thanks for your consideration anyway" (whichwas nice), and a 20% chance I'd get an argument (which was not fine).

Here's today's example.

A writer sent me a 58-page writing-related e-book that shehoped I'd sell on Absolute Write.  Iwrote back to explain why I couldn't carry the book: It was too short (in myexperience, people feel ripped off if they pay for a "book" and getsomething less than 100 pages), it needed copyediting, some of the links werebroken, at least one of her statistics was very outdated, and her style wasinconsistent-- some links were "live," others were not.

Instead of paying attention to what I wrote and taking itin the spirit that it was intended, she wrote back to tell me that I was"unfair" to her book, and that I was basing my rejection on"minor points."  She gaveme a whole list of reasons and excuses for why it was okay that her book hadn'tbeen proofread, and why I must have been wrong about the broken links (Iwasn't). 

She concluded by telling me that her book was better thananything she's read when she started promoting her (vanity-published) book. 

I wrote back to tell her that I didn't consider any ofthose points minor, and that while she might be willing to overlook her book'sflaws, I wasn't. 

I should have known better. Of course, I got a second ego-smattered note complaining some more abouthow I must not have really paid attention to what she wrote. 

She, my friends, is exactly why you get form rejectionletters.  As an editor, not only doI not have the time or energy to get into arguments with every writer whose workI turn down, but I also just plain don't want to.  I was under no obligation to explain to that writer why Ididn't choose to carry her book, but I made the mistake of thinking it mighthelp her to know the flaws that I found. 

Unfortunately, thanks to her, and others like her, editorsgrow weary of explaining themselves, and those who'll stick their neck out andoffer real criticism come few and far between.

I appreciate editors like Elaine Greene at HouseBeautiful.  Although she'srejected two of my stories, she took the chance and told me exactly why thestories weren't right for her magazine.  Sheeven went on to suggest which magazines might publish the pieces, and she usedmy SASE to send me an example of something she'd recently published that wasalong the lines of one of my stories.  NowTHAT was sticking her neck out.  Iadmire her example.

She ran the risk that I'd write back and tell her why shewas wrong, why my piece was too good for her (yes, some writers really do saythings like that), threaten her (yes, some writers really do things like that),etc.  I've had writers ask me forfull "critiques" of pieces I've already said I can't publish, send mequotes from their old English teachers to prove that they're really the greatestwriters in the world, and put me down directly because I dared to find a flaw intheir flawless prose.  I have noquestion that an editor at House Beautiful has gotten even more flak thanI have, so the fact that she took her chances that I wouldn't be one of the"bad seeds" meant a lot to me.

I hate form rejection letters.  I hate getting them, and I hate giving them. I'd much rather offer my honest appraisals, because I like to think thatsometimes, a writer takes what I say and actually does something with it--revises an article to make it stronger, hires a proofreader, learns how to writea stronger opening sentence, etc.  Buteditors get burned time and again, and then we get jaded.

We learn that those 20% of authors who will write back toargue just sap our energy.  Theyleave us with "bad vibes."  Theymake us never want to offer another piece of possibly-helpful criticism again. 

The only proper response to a personal rejection letter is,"Thank you for your time and consideration." I don't care whether you think the editor is from Mars and has read somecompletely different manuscript than the one you wrote; it does you absolutelyno good to write back and complain.  It'snot going to get you published, it's not going to make the editor think you'resuddenly a better writer than the one whose work she rejected, and it'scertainly not going to help you in the future. Editors talk to each other, and they remember the "unprofessionals." (I keep a small list of the ones whose work I never, ever want to seeanywhere near my desk again.)

You can write a bad article, or a bad query, or a badmanuscript, and chances are, I won't remember your name six months from now(which is good, because you have a clean slate when you write something new). But if you waste my time by arguing with my free advice or commentary,you can bet I'll remember, and wherever I go as an editor, I'll make sure not tohire you.

It does such a disservice to the 80% of writers who couldactually benefit from an editor's words to resort to form letters. The strongest editors may continue to offer comments despite theunprofessional writers, but many just throw in the towel.

So, take heart-- it's not your fault that those lettersseem so impersonal.  Really, itisn't-- not unless you're one of "those" writers.


Reprinted with permission.

Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of www.absolutewrite.com, where writers can get a free list of more than 180 agents who are open to new writers! She is also the author of Outwitting Writer's Block and Other Problemsof the Pen and other books for writers, which you can read about at: http://www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htm if you want to make her day.