Dealing with Rejection as a Writer

Ignore the murdered editor and look for the positives

Reader, I was once a visitor…

Rejection’s part of the writing game. We all know it. Any writer in this for the long haul – and I’d suggest there is no other haul – has to develop a very thick skin.

It’s from the days when you had to submit your articles by mail, along with return postage for the rejection letter.

My folder’s crammed with such letters. Hundreds of them. As well as slips from small press magazines to which I submitted stories in the 90s, there are polite letters from editors of magazines with such titles as Happy Home and Pets’ Corner.

Most of these rejections include polite stock phrases: I will keep your details on file; thank you for thinking of us; sadly, due to staff cutbacks…; I’m afraid I won’t be following it up; I am sorry to disappoint….

One dog magazine inexplicably turned down the opportunity to publish my proposed in-depth article about blocked anal glands in Spaniels. With diagrams, if you please. I was going to draw them myself. I’m no artist, but I had a pad, a pencil and a barrel full of enthusiasm. A combination of factors contributed to this particular no thank you. Not least of which was the fact that, according to the rejection letter, the magazine’s editor had recently been murdered. Dear reader, I shit you not. (You’ll see what I did there…)

When the acceptances come

Over time, the occasional acceptance reared its ugly head. I’d receive a letter praising some story or other, and informing me it would be published in due course. At this time there was no financial reward, just a free copy, kudos, and a confidence boost.

As the years passed, these acceptance letters became more regular. Payment of a free copy gradually shifted towards payment in cash. When my first story was accepted into an anthology, there was even a launch party! My wife was around 11 months pregnant at the time. Nonetheless, we trekked to London and spent the night on an uncomfortable bed in a cheap hotel surrounded by sirens and shouting. If you’re fortunate enough to get someone so supportive into your life, hang on to them, because they’re worth more than any published piece of writing will ever be.

These gems of acceptance really deserve a folder of their own, but they’re lost in the pile of negativity upon which every writer seems to focus. It’s some kind of survival instinct, apparently, so we don’t make the same mistakes again. Unfortunately, we writers are too stupid to take any notice.

Toughen up, punk

In more recent times I had high hopes for an audio drama script. This had gone through multiple readings at the BBC, and I was invited to a meeting at Broadcasting House (whenever I see it on TV I think to myself I went through that door!). This meeting was very positive, and my script was passed on to a producer responsible for many audio dramas I’d admired in the past. There followed a year of rewrites, during which said producer was enthusiastic and engaged. Everything was heading in the right direction.

Then, some months after submission of the sixth draft, I received an email with the project’s title in the subject line. This was it! The one I’d been waiting for! But the two-line preview told me all I needed to know: Dear Martin, thank you for giving me the opportunity to read this. While I…

And there I stopped.

While I. I knew what those two words preceded.

It was another couple of hours before I could bring myself to read the message in full. It confirmed that the project was going no further, but all the work I’d put in was appreciated and they would be interested in seeing more.

I was still writing on spec, so I knew that falling off the horse at this late stage was a possibility, but what felt like hundreds of hours lost on this piece really stung. I entered a very dark period.

This dark period lasted around 48 hours, after which I bounced back!

One of the benefits of receiving many rejections over the years is that their impact declines. It wasn’t always like that. Years ago, a rejection could plunge me into depression for weeks. But it does get easier to deal with. Although very disappointed and frustrated, I took what positives I could from this rejection – because there were several: numerous very busy people at the BBC felt my work had sufficient merit to spend time reading it; the script had improved during the course of the rewrites; I’d learned a lot from the producer; I had an open invitation to submit more. There was a lot of good stuff to take away. Those hours weren’t lost. They were just part of the process.

We, the gatekeepers

Rejection is something you’re going to have to deal with as a writer - especially if writing for money, which is what most people do on this platform. On Medium I see rejection reframed as not being accepted. While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure attempting to soften things in this way does anyone any favours. Writing professionally is not an every-child-wins-a-prize endeavour. Money, regardless of the amount, makes this a serious business.

It’s also important to remember that the majority of words you produce as a writer aren’t going to be published — and they probably shouldn’t be. They’re just part of the creative process. But if we’re self publishing, blogging or YouTubing, rejection isn’t an issue because we, the creators, are also the gatekeepers to our work, deciding ourselves whether what we produce is good enough to be made public. I’d question whether many of us have the necessary distance to judge.

Looking back through my rejection slips now, I’m proud of the fact that I submitted so many things to so many places in those early years. Remember, this was back in the days when submitting something to a publication required printing the article or enquiry letter, buying envelopes and stamps, going to the post box and then waiting. Sometimes for weeks. There were times I’d get home and find half a dozen rejections waiting for me on the doormat. But I kept going despite the odds and repeated knocks.

Rejection is an important and unavoidable part of writing. You’ve got to earn your stripes. So when your next rejection or not acceptance comes in, give yourself some space, consider the context and content, and find the positives, because there will be some. Even if it’s only the fact that every rejection is one step closer to acceptance. And one day, perhaps even a launch party.

I’m a novelist and scriptwriter, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Get the lowdown on updates, insight into projects, and a look behind the scenes on creative stuff.

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