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Nothing to Fear but Rejection Itself?

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"I could never send a story to an editor," a woman told me at a writer's conference, "because it might be rejected." Fear of rejection has kept more than this one person from getting published. Even people salaried to write operating manuals may fear sending their freelance articles to journals or submitting their Great American Novels to publishers. Yet, rejection is a fact of writing life. Even salaried writers experience a measure of rejection when their work must be redone. Freelance work, however, is particularly fraught with inevitable and plentiful rejections.

Psychology of Rejection

Rejection, from whatever source, produces feelings of loss. Rejection means lost love, money, time, glory, or self-esteem. Working with people experiencing the greatest loss of all, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross discovered terminally ill patients journeyed through five psychological stages in their last dying months. After the initial shock/denial stage of learning they had a fatal disease, the patients experienced anger, depression, bargaining, and finally acceptance. Even with losses less dramatic than death one can experience these stages. Jane Q. Pulitzer, for example, just found her manuscript "101 Uses for a Defective Floppy Disk" returned to her in the mail by Computer Universe. In shock and denial she stammers: "Not my manuscript!" Seconds later harsh reality seeps into her brain causing an angry burst: "How dare they!" Hours later the adrenaline burns off, and anger degenerates into depression: "I'm a rotten writer." The next day she hopes to change reality by bargaining: "Maybe Computer Universe will accept this article if I change that second paragraph . . ." The following day Jane finally accepts the facts: "Yes, Computer Universe rejected this manuscript, but another market might like it."

Reasons for Rejection

Why are writers' masterpieces rejected? Poorly written? Even professionals can sometimes be hacks, and more thought and polish can improve any manuscript. Wrong format? Professionals use standard manuscript submission mechanics, but some markets use unique formats that can only be determined from their writer's guidelines. Wrong market? Sending a humorous piece to a humorless magazine wastes time and postage. Know your audience. Wrong timing? Perhaps the journal has just accepted a similar article or has an overstock of manuscripts. The editor had a bad day? Perhaps he rejected every manuscript he found on his desk before going home to kick his dog.

Recovery from Rejection

Don't take it personally. Only your manuscript was rejected--not you. Even if your writing stinks, you are still a valuable person. After a major disappointment be nice to yourself. Treat yourself to a double fudge sundae--that may even help you look forward to rejection. Accept rejection with grace. Don't return the rejection slip to the editor with a note: "I'm sorry, but this rejection letter doesn't meet my needs at this time." To relieve frustration, go ahead and write a nasty letter to the editor--but don't send it. Remember others' failure and success stories. Robert Frost wrote poetry for 20 years before selling a volume. Stephen King, on his way to the top of the horror heap, had 60 stories and 4 novels turned down. Rejected manuscripts return home weeks or even months after you first create them. After time's passage you can critique your work more objectively than you could during the heat of writing passion. Use the rejection as an opportunity to improve your manuscript. With the revised text in hand, it's time for Plan B. If Computer Universe didn't like it, maybe Computer Cosmos will. Always keep alternate markets in mind, and as soon as possible mail the manuscript out again. Keep manuscripts in the mail, not in the drawer.

Copyright 1993 Mark D. Stucky
Originally published in the May 1993 issue of the Watermark.

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