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Diagnosing Rejection Letters

Thanks, but no thanks. Sigh. Rejection letters stink, no matter how they’re worded. Did you know, though, that the words really do matter? What the editor says in the rejection letter makes all the difference in the world.

This is my sad face...because rejection letters are sad.

If you’re attempting to get published in print media, rejection letters are much more common. Even if you’re applying for online jobs, though, most clients will send an email that tells you they’re going with another writer.

Typically, rejection letters fall into three basic formats:

1. The Form Letter
2. The Short Note
3. The Personalized Rejection

Form letters are basic rejection letters that are sent to 99% of writers. It may include you name, but there’s nothing to indicate that anyone ever read your submission or application for the job. They could have sent that letter to 100 other writers, 1000 other writers, maybe even 10,000 other writers. When you get a form letter, don’t be discouraged. It just means that you weren’t on the right track or that you applied for the job after they already hired someone. It doesn’t mean you can’t sell your piece elsewhere or get a job with another client.

Sometimes, editors will send a short note. This could be its own letter, or it might be scribbled in the margin of form letter (or the the case of an email, it will be a tacked-on sentence or two at the beginning or end of what looks otherwise like a form letter). Either way, read the note carefully. Someone without much time on his or her hands actually took the time to talk to you!

For print, it could mean one of three things (usually):

1. Your writing style is what they want, but the topic was off-base.
2. They published something similar recently.
3. You have a great topic idea, but your writing style isn’t what they need.

For freelancing clients online, it could mean:

1. It was a tough decision between you and other applicants.
2. You applied after they already hired someone.
3. You have the right writing style, but no experience in the topic.
4. You have experience in the topic, but your samples didn’t have the right writing style.

When this happens, definitely submit again in the future if you write something new for the publication or see that they have another job opening for a writer – and make reference to your past submission. Thank the person for their note to you. It reminds them that you were a step above the “form rejection” crowd in the past.

Lastly, you might get a personalized letter. When that happens, be excited; it’s almost as good as getting accepted! It means that you were really close to the mark, and usually a editor wants to read more of your work, in the case of print. Pay close attention to what he or she has to say and submit again, as quickly as possible, paying close attention to the tips you were given. You got an “almost” – and that’s a good thing.

Remember, sometimes you have to read between the lines. In college, I took a class where we submitted articles to four publications over the course of a semester. As the rejection letters rolled in (along with a few acceptance letters), we sat around a table and decoded the messages. Editors aren’t always the best at coming out and giving you specific tips.

The same is true of emails when you aren’t hired for a job. If the client sends a long, personal email, that’s a good sign. As someone who has hired writers in the past, I can tell you that sometimes there are two people who are equally strong and hiring comes down to a game of eanie meanie minie mo. If that’s the case, you should email the client back after about 6 weeks and remind that that you’re available in case the previous writer didn’t work out or they have new projects opening up.

The most important point to keep in mind, though, is that rejection only makes your writing stronger. Don’t get too down on yourself when you don’t get published. Even if you collect 100 rejections letters, at least you’re getting closer with each submission to that “yes.”

A version of this post, written by me, was first published on b5media’s Bizzia website. It is reposted here with permission.


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