The Rejection Letter Primer:
How to Analyze Rejection Slips

by Eva Augustin Rumpf


When I began submitting article manuscripts as a freelance writer many years ago, I became acquainted with the humiliation of the rejection letter. To stave off discouragement, I adopted a positive attitude.

I'll keep these early setbacks, I thought, and someday, when I've made it as a published author, I'll parade them out and have a good laugh on the shortsighted scoundrels who sent them.

I knew I was in good company. Famous authors such as Jane Austen, Pearl Buck, Edgar Allan Poe and George Orwell were once cruelly rejected by publishers. Even Dr. Seuss and George Bernard Shaw were told to give up writing.

I found comfort in the words of humorist Garrison Keillor, who said that he spent many years writing for The Atlantic - only they weren't aware of it.

So I started my file of rejects and tucked away each one, smiling sardonically. I'll just see how many I can collect before my big breakthrough, I thought.

Soon the habit became an obsession. I amassed rejection letters the way naturalists collect butterflies, examining, dating, sorting and labeling each one. If the daily mail didn't contain at least one rejection letter, I felt neglected.

I became fascinated with the diversity of the letters, in size, type, tone and appearance. I studied each one and conjured up images of their authors. I became a student of rejection letters.

Soon my files bulged with over 100 specimens of various shapes and sizes, including letter-size sheets, half sheets and post cards. The smallest one, apparently from a low-budget operation, measured less than four by four inches. The shortest letter was a terse 14 words; the longest rambled on for more than 200.

Most were preprinted form letters that bore no signature or other indication that a human hand had touched them. This made me wonder if human eyes had looked at my manuscript or if these places were all machine-operated.

Form letters on plain paper instead of letterhead sent me searching for clues to their source. The rudest rejection didn't even contain a form letter, just my returned manuscript in the SASE with no message whatsoever. Only the postmark gave me a clue to the sender.

Some editorial assistants went to the trouble of adding my name and address to the rejection letter. That was a big boost to the self-image of a sensitive writer who sometimes wondered if she really existed.

I was thrilled by individually typed letters that looked like they were written just for me. And sometimes they actually referred to the title of my manuscript! That kind of affirmation can make a writer's day.

The tone of the letters varied considerably from the cold and formal to the folksy and friendly. I once received one that was downright poetic. The lyrical letter rhapsodized: "It is regrettable that so many noble ambitions and efforts go unrewarded. Often real merit is like the good seed that falls on barren ground. But such is the way of success."

Some rejects made a stab at courtesy, apologizing for the form letter and the absence of a critique of my manuscript. Others went to great length to assure me that a rejection did not imply criticism, and my manuscript did indeed have merit.

Occasionally a rejection letter worked on my sympathy, creating an image of an overworked editor who's buried under tons of manuscripts, agonizing over which ones to reject. That made me feel guilty for having the audacity to send mine in.

One rejection letter almost brought me to tears. It was from a magazine that had ceased publication, citing lack of funds and expended energies. I felt like sending them a sympathy card.

Some editors rejected my manuscript and then tried to sell me a subscription to their magazine. They'd already eroded my confidence and robbed me of fame and fortune, and then they wanted my $14.95 as well!

I developed an appreciation for little courtesies. Seeing my name in the salutation warmed my heart. The editor who sent a personal note, even if hastily written on my returned cover letter, merited sainthood.

The kindest rejections came from religious publications. Their reverent editors bestowed blessings upon me and promised to pray for me. I appreciated that; I needed all the help I could get.

Many rejection letters included one or more reasons for the editor's dastardly decision. The standard line was: "Your manuscript doesn't fit the needs of our publication at this time." You may think you have the magazine's needs figured out after studying the last ten issues. But what you have absolutely no clue about is the whim of the editor on any given day.

Or they might say, "We are unable to fit your submission into our publication schedule." What does that mean? That the issues are all booked up for the next five years?

The rejection reason that was easiest to take was "Sorry, but we have a similar story in the works." Wow, I'd think. It was a great idea; I just didn't get it in soon enough.

The standard closing for rejection letters is something on the theme, "We appreciate your interest." That's hard to believe, particularly if the implication in the previous paragraph is that the editor is swamped with unwanted manuscripts.

How the letters are signed indicates the editor's personality. The ones signed simply "The Editors" are either shy or fearful of retribution. The ones who pen only their initials are indecisive and shouldn't be taken seriously. The arrogant, busy ones have their names preprinted on the form letters.

An authentic, hand-written signature denotes a person of good character who respects authors. The rare editor who signs just his or her first name is a warm, lovable human being whom you should get to know.

If there's no complimentary closing and signature, assume that the place is run totally by computers and stay away from it.

Many of the rejection letters I've received wished me good luck in placing my manuscript elsewhere. With such a storehouse of potential good fortune built up, I expect it to start paying off any day now.

©copyright 2004 Eva Augustin Rumpf

This article previously appeared in Creativity Connection.

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