Rejection Dissection

Everybody does it.

You eye the rejection in your hand (or your inbox) and wonder, “what did the editor mean by that?” The paper is blue! The paper is yellow! The paper is…white? Wait! Augh! What are these typed words? Who signed it? Did they lick the envelope? What’s the timestamp on the email? Who reads slush at 3 a.m.? Augh! What? What?

The Bottom Line

I’m going to give you the bottom line first, because ultimately, that’s what you care about. It’s what you want to know. It’s the magic answer! A rejection means no. Plain and simple. The story didn’t work for the editor. That’s it.

But That Can’t Be All!

Yeah, as a new writer, you want a little more than that. Why didn’t it work? What does this rejection really mean about this specific story?


Beyond the time the rejection was sent (yes, sometimes we read slush at odd hours…we’re writers, too…we aren’t normal), and beyond the color of the paper it may have arrived on, what do all these jumbled words mean? Let’s see if we can dissect a bit.

The Story Didn’t Grab Me

This can mean a few things, but chiefly, it means the story didn’t rise up and yank the reader into the world and its problems. The characters possibly didn’t have a clear problem from the start; the world didn’t make itself immediately clear, or the clues provided weren’t intriguing enough to keep the editor reading. This is often tied to:

The Story Was Slow to Start

We are told to start in media res–in the middle of things. We want to be sucked into the story from paragraph one. Don’t bury the good stuff. If the good stuff doesn’t show up until page twelve…why? Try putting your page twelve goodies on page one. Try putting them in sentence one. In a short story, you have no time to waste. Readers want to be pulled out of their ordinary worlds, into some place extraordinary.

I Liked X, but Y Didn’t Work For Me

This typically means we liked the story, but there was something broken within its framework. The story is close, but not right for Shimmer. Which ties into:

Rewriting to Work in the Helpful Bits You May Get in a Rejection

Unless a Shimmer editor specifically asks for a rewrite, do not submit one. Plain and simple. We try to comment on every story we receive. I liked X, but the story didn’t work because of Y. This doesn’t mean that if you fix Y, the story would be a sale to us.

Not A Good Fit

Every publication wants something slightly different. Shimmer‘s stories are unlike Asimov’s stories. Shimmer‘s stories are unlike Realms of Fantasy stories. Shimmer‘s editors pretty much know what they’re after, but sometimes they don’t know what that is until they see it. Did I ever dream about falling in love with a story about a caveman in the slush pile? I did not, but when I saw the story, I knew it was a fit for Shimmer. Always read a few issues of the publication you’re submitting to, to get a feel for what they really want.

If it says “please send us more and/or your next”….

Do it. Not every rejection will say this; if yours does, please take it to heart. It means we really do want to see more from you.

And That’s the Key to Everything

“Your next story.” The most solid advice I can give here is this: don’t spend too much time dissecting one rejection. Mark it down in your submission log, see which market your story may fit, and send it out again. A story can’t sell if it’s not in an editor’s possession. Also: keep writing–always have a story ready to go–and keep submitting! No rejection is personal. It just means that story didn’t work for that editor. Keep submitting and eventually you’ll find the right combination of pieces.

Your Turn

What was your worst rejection? What was your best? You don’t have to name names, but sometimes rejections can actually be helpful.

4 thoughts on “Rejection Dissection”

  1. The worst rejection I’ve ever gotten was from a major horror magazine that rejected what I thought was one of my better stories. The rejection was personal, and basically slammed my ability to create sympathetic characters and honestly horrific stories. I was so upset I ended up withdrawing all of the active submissions I had at the time, and nearly gave up writing altogether. It did, however, get me to focus on characterization in future stories. I just wish the editor had been softer-spoken about it.

  2. This is a good post and much appreciated, especially since rejections are such an emotionally fraught subject. It is sometimes so very hard for a writer to remember that an editor who rejects their story does not hate them personally and want to eat their kitten*; they have a job to do, mountains of submissions to wade through, and limited waking hours in which to do so.

    *at least, no editor *I’ve* ever encountered…

  3. I ldon’t mind brutal rejections. I took a couple of writing classes in university and the problem was that everyone would sit around being nice and not say anything helpful.

    I worked in the newspaper business, and there’s no hand holding. The section editor will scribble your masterpiece with a red pen or plain tell you it sucks. And it really, really helps. It sharpens you. It also prepares you for the reality of having people trash your story on a forum or getting a bad review.

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