Writers Need Thick Skin, Part 1: Dealing with Rejection

I tell my students this all the time: “You want to be a writer? You want to get published? You want to get your writing into the hands of readers? Then develop a thick skin.”

Sounds tough, I know. But it’s 100 percent true.

And this theme is a key element of my upcoming book, which has no title yet but is right now affectionately called, “So you’ve finished your manuscript? You want to get published? Here is everything you need to know, prepare, do, and plan for.” I know, too long. But that’s basically what it’s about.

And there’s a whole chapter on the idea of having a thick skin. Because writers need it.

We need it before we get published, and we need it after (which I will discuss in a later post as Part 2).

First, the BEFORE. Anyone who has been writing and submitting for more than a week has discovered that rejection is simply a part of the process. Writers need thick skin to be ready to handle those inevitable rounds of rejection and maintain personal mental health. No matter how many years you’ve been at it, no matter how many pieces you have or have not published, those four simple words “not right for us” hit right in the gut.

Every. Time.

Why does it hurt so much? Well, as a much-rejected writer, I believe it just comes down to how much of ourselves we put into every piece we write and how rejection feels like a rejection of us personally. Whether it’s a literary story, or a transparent memoir, or a how-to on keeping houseplants alive, we worked hard and put ourselves out there. So it is always with great fear and trembling that we send out the piece or the query or the proposal and anxiously await the response.

We fear that someone out there will laugh uproariously at our audacity to think we can write and that anyone would publish us, show it around so everyone else laughs at our expense, and then reply with the terse email, “Not right for us.”

Courtesy of memebetter.com meme generator (which I love!). Grumpy cat photo and meme created by Tabatha Bundesen.

Can I offer up a few facts to help keep those rejections in perspective?

However, first, I’m going to assume that you are a careful writer and researcher, that others have read and critiqued your work, that you’ve revised and revised to make it the best you can deliver. That is my assumption. (Please don’t be one of those writers who tries to send off the first draft or who dares to think that “God gave me the words” so therefore it’s perfect as is.) Good, solid writing takes time and care.

Beyond that, here are some thoughts from my own (and many others’) experiences:

  • Everyone gets rejected. Every single famous author started out right where you are — wallowing in the misery of the “not right for us.” If you don’t believe me, here’s an article about best-selling books that were initially rejected (often many times).
  • You have to understand how many pieces these editors are seeing every single day. Sometimes hundreds. You have a lot of competition when there are a couple hundred submissions for a single spot in a magazine, or when there are hundreds of book proposals for perhaps five publication slots at an imprint of your genre for the next publication season. So don’t take it personally.
  • It could be that, although your piece or proposal is stellar, someone got in right before you with something very similar. And yours gets rejected. There’s no way you could know that.
  • Acceptance is very subjective. The gatekeeper reading your query or literary piece or proposal needs to “feel it.” They need to resonate with your topic or your voice. And if they don’t, then it will be rejected. Not because you’re a terrible writer, but simply because this particular editor just didn’t have that gut reaction. And there’s no way you can control that.
  • Rejection is about the piece, the query, the proposal — it is not a rejection of you as a person or as a writer (no matter how much it feels that way).

So how can you handle rejection? Here are a few more thoughts:

  • Allow yourself to feel bad for a bit. It does hurt. (Give yourself a day to wallow, if needed. But no negative self-talk. Remember, it’s not a rejection of you.)
  • Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back to your tracking system for the next place to submit. (You do have a tracking system, don’t you? If not, create one. Make a list of all the places you want to submit to on something like an Excel doc. More on that in a later post — oh, and also in my upcoming book. <just a teaser>). What I mean is that on such a list you can now mark down that XX publication or publisher rejected it, so now turn around and send it to YY. Of course you’ll have to revise your piece, and double check submission guidelines and word counts, but get it out there again. If you really believe in it, keep trying at other places. You might hit right at the moment when they DO need just your piece and the editor DOES resonate with it.
  • You could even take an optimistic approach, like this writer, on why you should aim for 100 rejections a year (pardon the swear word in the article — but the point is valid). The basic premise is that the more you’re submitting, yes, the more you’ll get rejected, but by the law of averages, it also means the more chances you’re giving yourself to eventually be published.
  • Stay classy, don’t burn bridges with any editor or publisher, and thicken that skin.

You writers out there who have experienced rejection, how do you handle it and keep your writing sanity?

5 thoughts on “Writers Need Thick Skin, Part 1: Dealing with Rejection

  1. Linda, this piece should definitely be required reading for every writer. Certainly perfect for me today, as I have a proposal in to a publisher and I’m waiting for a response. I will be buying your book when it comes out for sure.

  2. I agree with Maggie. This should be standard reading for every writer. Great advice! I have experienced rejection so much, I’ve lost track. Ninety plus rejections for one book alone. (I lost the exact count on that one. At least 91.) I have quit writing more times than I can count—generally in response to rejection. I quit writing for three years once and felt miserable. So I know quitting doesn’t work. The only way I can handle rejection is with God. He is the only reason I am writing anything today. Ninety-five percent of the books I’ve written that have been published came after that three-year “I’m never writing anything else again” period. God had to resurrect that desire in me.

    The only advice I have is to be prayerful. Know what God is leading you to pursue and what to let go of that might be a time waster. Two or three weeks ago I received the second rejection on a proposal from a publisher I queried. Each time they said great things about what I’d given them and that they would happily see another proposal. But in this case, I’m not sure I’ll keep pursuing projects with them. It’s too much of a guessing game with them. I have another manuscript out on submission right now.

    1. Wow! Linda, that is such a powerful testimony of God’s grace and guidance. I’m so glad you came back to writing. I also tell that to my students — ultimately, it’s all in God’s hands. Give it to him, let him take it where he takes it. Prayers for that proposal! It is a little disconcerting when they have great things to say but then still don’t accept it.

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