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Writers Talk About Writing

How to Recover From a Writing Rejection

Most of us have had jobs we didn't get, partners who dumped us, schools we didn’t get into and teachers who didn't like us. We’ve all had lots of experience with rejection. So, why is it so exquisitely hurtful to be rejected as a writer?

The major issue is that writing feels so personal. We put our thoughts and our feelings onto the page, and suddenly we are sharing private parts of ourselves. To have someone say they didn’t like what we wrote feels like a criticism of us as human beings. As well, we learned to write in grade school. Suddenly, to be told we’re not very good at writing takes us back to the state of being young and vulnerable. We experience those feelings all over again.

I know many people who are tough, mature and tenacious and yet, they are frequently undone by a writing rejection.

If you’re dealing with this sort of emotion, understand it's normal to feel like hell after getting a writing rejection. If you want to keep writing, however, it's equally important to have a strategy for dealing with those feelings.

First, understand that rejection is never personal. What others think about your writing is always a subjective evaluation. There is no universal standard for writing. Instead, the editors (and other “judges” out there) respond to what they read through the lens of their own history, education and preferences. If you are unlucky enough to have to write for an editor whose tastes don't match yours, your odds of being rejected are much higher. This does not make you a bad writer or a bad person. It is often a question of luck.

True, there are undoubtedly some ways in which you can improve your writing. And, for this reason, you should eventually evaluate the possible merits of a rejection. But don't do this analysis right away. Instead, take the time to allow yourself to feel bummed out. We are neither soldiers nor computers. We are allowed to have feelings. In fact, ignoring feelings will be more damaging to our psyches. This is why you shouldn't try to be a Susie Sunshine or a Happy Harry about a rejection. You need some time and space to allow yourself to recover before you can achieve greater levels of insight. So, spend a few days wallowing in your anger or despair.

After that, undertake some specific steps to become more comfortable with failure:

  • Have a clear sense of purpose. Why are you writing? Is it because you need to earn money? Or is it because you find writing satisfying and rewarding? Do you have something important to say? Try to connect with your underlying, intrinsic motivation so that the extrinsic goals — a publishing contract, a thrilled boss, devoted readers — seem less important
  • Always have more than one writing project on the go. Plan for how you can produce more written work. In his book, On the Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, psychologist Dean Simonton says that "creativity is a probabilistic consequence of productivity". What he means is that successful people produce more. And they do that by failing. Consider the inventor of WD-40, whom I’ve written about previously. If you have another project you can resume after a rejection, you're less likely to feel anxious and upset about the piece of writing that was rejected
  • Deliberately seek out opportunities to be rejected. American poet Brett Elizabeth Jenkins set out to get 100 rejections in one year. Read about her project, here. The delight of her strategy is that it takes something horrible — getting rejected — and turns it into a game. Here’s another interesting bonus: some of her initial rejections turned into acceptances. Overall, she judged the project to be a massive success.
  • Remember that the biggest, scariest critic of all is always YOU. Here’s where the Socratic dictum — know thyself — becomes especially important. Be aware that the urge to edit-on-the-go may become particularly acute after a rejection. You will be tempted to believe that — if you’re careful enough — future editors will have no possible reason for turning you down. Wrong! When you are most desperate to succeed, double down and aggressively stop yourself from editing while you write. Write faster and take a break. Then, spend more time editing. More determined editing (AFTER writing) is the surest way to improve.

Rejection is part of the package that goes with being a writer. Just as actors fail at a certain percentage of rejections, writers can’t be published without hearing “no” many times first. Take this as a motivational cue to make yourself better at being rejected.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.