We regret to inform you, but …
Like it or not, rejection is a huge part of being a writer (or, truly, any kind of creative). And it can be crushing to have worked so hard on a project, maybe for years, and feel like your wandering the desert, hoping anyone (anyone?) will look at your work. I understand. I thought I’d share some of my failures over the past few years. I took a deep breath and sought some examples of rejections and harsh critiques I’ve received over the years. There are, of course, many many more, this is just a sampling!
“… I wasn’t as pulled in by the opening page as I hoped.” – This was from one of the only agents who responded to a query submission. She clearly wasn’t into it. (She was very polite, as have every agent and editor I’ve dealt with in the publishing world. I think they have a very hard job and am definitely not trying to dump on anyone!)
“… could be a good story but I feel the quality of writing lets it down.” – From a manuscript review. I mean: ouch. He followed this by literally 20 pages of examples of my poor quality writing.
I self-published a book a long time ago now and I got one rather cruel review, where it seemed the reviewer was out to get laughs. I’m not going to lie, that one stung a lot. I wanted to share some of the words she wrote about my work, but I found she’s removed most of the review. That was kind of a relief. I’ve blocked out most of it, but I do remember it involves a lot of palm-face emojis and referred to my main character as too stupid to live. (Not saying it wasn’t fair, it was just also mean!)
Rejection is a huge part of being a writer. That doesn’t mean you’re gonna like it. It sucks pretty much every time. I’ve had my fair share of rejection and I hope that I’m slowly developing the thick skin I’m going to need to continue in this field. The thing about writing is that you are essentially putting your soul out there on the line, and you’re giving others, random strangers, carte blanche to judge you and what you identify as your very self. That takes a special kind of courage. And I suspect no matter how successful you end up being, it will always be difficult on some level.
How to Deal?
You get a form rejection letter or a critique of your writing you feel is unfair. Now what?
First things first, when you get a rejection, the most important thing to do is just allow yourself to feel it. I’m a big fan of grieving losses, even the little ones. It’s all right to get down every once in a while, and I would even recommend wallowing. Allow me to qualify that: I would recommend timed wallowing. Lean into how crappy that made you feel, but put your timer on. Whatever you think is an appropriate amount of time. It should probably be less than an hour. I suspect if you allow yourself a period of time of complete self-pity, you will get so sick of yourself before the time limit is up that you will be ready to move on.
Secondly, it’s important to have a good strategy that works for you that you use when the tough times are eating away at you. This could be a support network of other writers, your critique group, or your friends and family. It’s always great to have your personal cheering section who can give you perspective. Seek out comfort and reinforcement when you need it; whatever it takes so that you do not give up.
The third thing to do is realize this is all a part of the process and is actually a good thing. Here’s why:
It’s Not Personal
It might feel as though someone is taking needles to your soul, but rejection and critiques are rarely about you. They might be that your genre doesn’t match what an agent is looking for, or that contest already has a similar story. Even when the critiques feel pointed (see: poor quality of writing), that reviewer isn’t looking at you: they are assessing the work and how it can be improved.
I have found that the more edits and critiques I do for other writers, the easier it is for me to accept critiques of my own work. As I edit somebody else’s writing, I am not thinking about them as a person. Any critiques I give are to make the writing better, rather than to insult the person behind the writing. Viewing the editing process from the other side gives me perspective, so when I receive a harsh critique I’m able to take a few steps away, to see whether this is valid and I’m just taking it personally. That is almost always the case.
It Will Help You Grow
There is something to be said for the struggle. At the risk of copying Calvin and Hobbes, it builds character. It also helps you with your craft. The truth is most of us are just plodding along with a string of failures that follows every win.
Every rejection you receive, every negative review, every harsh critique, is setting you up to improve. I think that all of these words that we internalize as negative need to be turned around into a positive. Every time I am rejected, I vowed that next time I’m going to do better.
Perhaps a good example is this Princeton Professor’s CV of failures. I think this is an awesome exercise for everyone to do! I think it helps put every success into context. Behind every successful person (no matter the profession) is a mountain of rejections. This is evidence of trying, of putting yourself out there, of letting your work or yourself be vulnerable to criticism. If you don’t go through this process, I can guarantee you’re not going to succeed. The only way to the top is to climb the pile of your failures (which is rather a dramatic visual). I enjoy the irony that the professor, in this case, notes his biggest failure is the fact his biggest success is his CV of failures.
The manuscript review that called out my quality of writing was pretty scathing, but ended with: It was actually a pretty good story that I enjoyed. Keep on going to do this justice. I took this comment to heart more than anything. I bought about 18 books on storycraft, watched endless youtube videos on how to improve my writing. I took courses, wrote short stories, joined critique groups and essentially took a deep dive into, basically, “how to write.”
Am I a spectacular writer now? Not yet. But I am better than when I wrote that manuscript.
Wrapped up with rejection and failure can be the nefarious imposter syndrome, and I wanted to address this particularly. Imposter syndrome is the belief you are not as good as other people perceive you to be, and you feel like a fraud. It is also extremely common in women. We are told to second-guess ourselves from birth, so I can kind of see why we’re all suffering from this.
If you beat yourself up over the mistakes and failures and refuse to acknowledge the part you played in your successes, you might just have imposter syndrome. It focuses on the negative: the bad reviews, the rejections, the critiques that feel way too personal.
Imposter syndrome isn’t going to help you. If you only take credit for the negatives, and refuse to acknowledge the hard work and talent that goes into your successes, of course you’re going to feel like a failure. You got to cut that out. The very fact that you are creating your work, and having the courage to put it out there proves that you’re not a fraud. It may seem counterintuitive, but I find that the more rejection I have to deal with, the less fraudulent I feel when I get the win. I know I’ve worked hard for that success, and it feels earned.
For tips on how to deal with imposter syndrome, check out this article: You’re Not A Fraud.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
I don’t normally read self-help books, but when I do there’s going to be lots of cursing! And I’m always happy to give a book recommendation. I LOVED The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. With chapters like Happiness Is A Problem, You Are Not Special, … And Then You Die, this book is an ego killer for sure, and that’s an awesome thing when you need to get beyond rejection. There’s some tough love in here to help you get back on track, and it’s also pretty funny.
Rejection shouldn’t be dismissed, but learned from. Every rejection is just the next footstep on the path to your success. And now I sound like a cute cat meme.
Despite how difficult this can be, you have to keep on doing it. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to put yourself out there. Your writing, your soul, needs to be put out there on the line, and that opens you up to hurt. Accept this and overcome.
To end, I just want to say that all you writers out there, whether you are just starting out, aspiring to become great authors, or already in that rarified echelon, I have such respect for what you do. It takes a special kind of courage to put yourself out there the way you do. Please keep on going.
For some writing tough love, check out my article on Why Your First Draft Sucks (psst: It’s supposed to!) I also have some how-tos when you’re planning out your book: 7 Steps to a Perfect Novel Outline and How to Write a Novel in a Month.
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public.” —Paulo Coelho