What Rejection Actually Means about Your Writing

writing, rejection, submissions, agents

What Rejection Actually Means about Your Writing

Last week I read an excellent Writer Unboxed article by author Julianna Baggott that talked about how to take–and not to take—rejection from agents and editors, specifically the dreaded “I just didn’t connect with this story.”

This is the point at which often authors feel a rejection deeply personally. If your dream agent or editor isn’t connecting with your work, what are you doing wrong? How can you fix it? What, exactly, does that even mean?

Baggott’s view–and one I heartily echo–is that often the answer to all three questions is, “Nothing”:

It means nothing. Do not fold. Do not rewrite your characters to make them shinier or more likable – whatever that means. Do not change in order to be more universal. We know the loss that can come from that — for you and for readers who need your specific voice and lived experience. Do not rewrite in hopes of connecting your experience to the unknowable experience of an unknowable editor.

Rewrite, revise – yes. Make the work stronger, always. But do not smile for them.

Please reread that. A few times, if need be. This advice is gold: Rejection letters from industry pros are far more often than not simply form letters with empty, palliative, but probably well-intentioned phrases meant to cushion what they know is always a blow for authors–the equivalent of “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Take that at face value. “I just didn’t connect” could mean dozens, hundreds of things: The editor or agent is looking for a specific type of story at the moment and this wasn’t it, or it doesn’t fit her list, or she just signed someone else with this same concept or style, or she’s having a bad day, or isn’t in the mood for this kind of story today, or the hero has the name of her ex-husband she’s locked into conflict with, or she’s slogging through a towering slush pile before lunch and as she skimmed the query or pages all she could think about was how hungry she was, or the marketing department just put the kibosh on more stories about X, or maybe even that she doesn’t represent this genre (if you haven’t done your homework on submissions).

“I just didn’t connect”–or any of dozens of other meaningless, vague form rejections you can find out more about at QueryTracker with a $25/year membership that unlocks a forum where writers share rejections/responses they receive from agents, among myriad other wonderful resources if you’re submitting–are niceties, canned phrases industry professionals developed over usually years of sifting through submissions, the vast majority of which won’t catch their eye. They mean nothing specific about the quality or marketability of your manuscript except that this story on this day didn’t quite catch the attention of this particular agent or editor for any of thousands of reasons you cannot possibly know.

Unless you get a personal, detailed letter from an agent or editor, or an R&R (revise and resubmit) where they actually took time to give you specific, actionable feedback, rejections like this mean absolutely nothing except this story isn’t the one for this person. There’s no telling why–what you received is a form rejection necessitated by the volume of inquiries these professionals receive daily.

And that’s okay. Do you connect with every single book you pick up? Would you want an agent or editor who didn’t feel passionately excited about your book–who acquired or signed you with a nice, ringing “meh”?

Would you want an agent or editor who didn’t feel passionately excited about your book?

It’s not you. It’s them. It really, really is.

I liken it to any other relationship. When you dated, if someone didn’t want to see you again–or at all—did you assume it was you and try to mold yourself to whatever they might be looking for? Or did you assume that person wasn’t the one for you, and keep seeking someone who digs you just as you are?

That’s not to say by any means that your manuscript is a thing of perfection and you should stand by your words exactly as written no matter what, as if they’re fossilized in amber. Writing and storytelling are a process, one that often takes a lot of revision and rewriting to get the story on the page as effectively as you’re able to make it.

And sometimes, just as with dating, you also need to do the work on your own to be the best version of yourself you’re capable of at the moment–not to please anyone else, but simply to be your truest, most genuine, healthiest self. That’s what will attract someone who’s right for you.

So do that work. Tell your story–to the best of your abilities. Write it, and then edit, revise, rewrite, and repeat until you have made it as close to the shining vision in your head as you are capable of making it.

And then submit until you find an agent and editor and readers who feel as strongly about it as you do–your team, your champions…your people.

6 Comments. Leave new

  • Fliss Zakaszewska
    April 29, 2021 1:43 pm

    Absolutely Tiffany (and this from a cheeky newbie submitting to the great and good in the ‘Lit Agent’s’ world).

    I’ve just received a rejection from My Favourite Agent – I would’ve loved her to represent me but, as she started her rejection with “There was much I liked in your work…” and went on to say the fairly standard “…not passionate enough” adding stuff about the tough current market. But she finished off with “I’m really sorry it was a near-miss for me”. Disappointed? Of course, but also buoyed up by the fact that a top British agent went outside the usual standard rejection and I took it as a sign that I am very close.

    There is nothing I can do to make it ‘better for her’ as ‘better’ could be anything and the next agent might not like the ‘better’ anyway.

    After a hundred or so rejections (I started submitting the MS in 2012 and yes, I have worked on it and no, it ain’t anywhere near the same now as it was then!) you do know when you’ve received a ‘standard’ or whether s/he’s bothered to write something personal.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      April 30, 2021 2:20 am

      True! And it always seems that when those more personal ones start coming, you’re close to the “yes.” Hope yours comes soon. Thanks for commenting.

  • I know so many writers who need to hear this, including myself. Thank you for this uplifting post.

  • Finding the right agent/publisher is like finding the right partner… HOW many dates do YOU go on before you found “the one?” Did you stop dating? Of course not! How many did YOU reject for one reason or another? But how JOYFUL it is when you do find that perfect someone! Just remember the great writers who were rejected MANY times and are now laughing all the way to the bank! Write for the joy of writing. Write for the ONLY critic that matters.. YOU, and keep throwing your line into the water, eventually you WILL land the “big fish”!!


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