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 my next 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!).

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?

Submitting in 2021: Get It Done!

I’ve been watching Twitter feeds in the #writingcommunity hashtag and seeing lots of folks post that 2021 is the year they will finally submit — to magazines or literary magazines or a book publisher. I say, YAY. GO FOR IT! You pour yourself into those words and you have something to say into the world.

In order to do that, you’ll need to submit to gatekeepers at these various publications. Let’s make sure you do everything you can to get read! Following are a few tips as you make 2021 your year for submitting!

1. Follow the submission guidelines.

I can’t stress this enough. Read those submission guidelines — don’t just send off your piece. Not following the guidelines will assure that your submission will be rejected before it’s even read. Remember that editors and agents receive hundreds of submissions. They will immediately toss or delete anything that isn’t submitted per the guidelines.

You can find submissions guidelines on most publication or publisher websites (same for literary agents). You might need to scroll to the fine print at the bottom of the home page, or locate the contact page, but generally they will be there. You can also find information in Writer’s Market (or Christian Writer’s Market Guide if you’re writing for the Christian market).

For instance, if you’re going to submit to Grit magazine, navigate to their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Here’s the link as an example. Notice on the Grit submissions page that it tells you:

  • what they publish and what they don’t
  • the fact that you can’t send anything unsolicited; you must send a query letter first
  • where and how to send the query (even what to put in the subject line of your email)
  • word counts
  • where and how to send your submission

Or check out the submission guidelines for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books here. Notice again:

  • how to write your submission (even how the first paragraph should read)
  • how NOT to write your submission
  • that you must submit through their website

That basic information will get you a long way toward getting your piece in front of an editor’s eyes. Of course, you still need to write well, have a compelling piece, and fit the editor’s desires or needs (which, of course, you have no idea about necessarily). But you could have all of that but will lose the opportunity if you don’t follow the submission guidelines to the letter. So make that a resolution!

2. Proofread your submission and have someone else (who knows what they’re doing) proofread as well.

Have your proofreader double check your submission along with the submission guidelines. (They might see something you missed.) Make it a joint effort. Don’t be in such a hurry to meet your goals of submitting that you hurt yourself. And proofreading by yourself is never a good idea. You’ve read the piece so many times your mind will automatically correct words or fill in missing words. I have previously noted some tips and tricks to help you proofread.

3. Don’t take rejection personally.

You’re going to get rejection letters. The more you submit, the more you’ll get rejected. That’s just the way it is. But also, the more you submit, the more opportunity you have to get published. It might help to do as this writer did and actually set a goal for rejections — the point being, of course, that eventually out of all those submissions will come publication. Sort of takes the sting out of it . . . a little . . .

Image courtesy of writers.write.co.za

4. Keep good records of your submissions.

Do this now if you haven’t already. Create a document or an Excel sheet or some kind of system whereby you track where you send what. Trust me, over time, you’ll forget. Whether you’re writing articles or seeking an agent/publisher for your book, you want to capture:

  • the name of the publication/publisher/agent
  • website link
  • submission guidelines general information
  • title of the article/book you queried (or sent)
  • date sent (so that if it says they’ll respond in one month, you know when that month has elapsed and you can follow up)

In addition, you can keep a running list of various places that you want to query. In my Freelancing class (in the Professional Writing program at Taylor University), where we focus on writing articles, the students create a tracking system listing at least 10 possible magazines they can submit to, a separate page for literary magazines, and then another page with their various article ideas or WIPs captured. If they hope to one day get a book published, a new page can begin to capture potential agents or book publishers for the genre of their book. For every piece they write, they have to write an accompanying query letter, and then actually send three of those letters during the semester. Learning to have the discipline of creating solid query letters, tracking where they’re sent, and having a list of potential publications means that they can keep writing.

For example, you send out the query, you receive a rejection. Instead of letting that stop you, you go to your tracking list and mark down the rejection (so you don’t accidentally send the same query to them again). Then you look on your list for another publication that might like that same article or that article with a slightly different slant or focus or word count. You revise your query letter and send it to that publication. I know some writers who have such a system that, when a rejection arrives, they have that same article pitched somewhere else within 24 hours.

The same goes for book publishers. Find the agents and publishers that accept what you’re writing, create a solid query to them, and send it on. When a rejection arrives, move on to someone else.

The point is, keep going, dear #writingcommunity. Make 2021 your year!