Decoding Form Rejections

Depressed young man


So, you’ve completed an awesome manuscript, polished it, and sent it (or its representative, the query) out into the world. You wait, with baited breath, for the first response. Aaaaaaand, it’s a “no.” A no?  They didn’t think it was awesome? Does this mean you suck? Should you quit writing altogether? Send it in again because obviously there was a mistake or something? Did they even read the thing? What does it all mean?


Short (and obvious) answer is–they simply aren’t interested in acquiring your work. “Well, duh, Syd. I know that,” you might say. “But why? What can I take from it and use?” Although there’s not real way to absolutely truly know why, there are a few generalizations to help take some of the mystery (if not the sting) out of the process.


It may have your name on it to personalize/soften the blow, but a form rejection is short, vague, and the worst of the worst to get for us sensitive souls. It means that our work didn’t even make it past Go, let alone get $200. Hell, we’d be happy with that amount as an advance if the letter had said Yes. But, instead, we’re left channeling Nancy Kerrigan:

nancy kerrigan









While there is no pat answer for 100% of cases, usually, the reason why can be broken down into three possibilities:

  1. Specificity. Be honest. Did you send out your query and three chapters to every agent and editor you could find with a valid email address? If your answer is even remotely close to yes, then the form rejection might mean that you are submitting to the wrong people. If you have written dark science fiction, and the editor you’ve queried works for a publisher of inspirational fiction, it will be a pass every time, even if you’ve written something fantastic. Sure, the more people you query raises the odds of an acceptance, but I view the shotgun approach to querying like the dude in the bar who hits on every woman there in the hope of hooking up with any one of them. If you query smart by researching each editor or agent’s interests and/or acquisition list, you stand a much better chance of making a love connection.
  2. Hook. You may have a great story, nobody is going to read it if your query doesn’t make it sound interesting. A query should be brief, compelling, and make your story stand out. It’s the Elevator Pitch in written form. There are many resources for crafting a query that will get a bite on the web.
  3. Your actual work. Unfortunately, sometimes it is your story. When we pour everything into a manuscript, neglecting all sorts of other important life responsibilities until we type The End, it’s hard to get the distance needed to really, truly know if your work is ready for the world, or if it would be better off in the safety and comfort of your hard drive for the time being. You’ve meticulously researched agents and editors, sent out a query that resulted in a request, and then waited (sometimes for months), only to get the dreaded two sentence form rejection. If this is the case, some aspect of the writing is not ready for publication. Trust me, I’ve been there. After the initial upset, I went back and read my rejected submission with fresh eyes. Guess what? It wasn’t that great. The opening was slow, the writing was repetitive. I knew the truth: I sucked. Eventually, I realized I didn’t suck. I wasn’t a bad writer–just not ready for the big time, yet. And that’s okay. We’ve all got to start somewhere.


Here’s what these hard-learned lessons got me: a new perspective on rejection, and more results that are (slowly) pointing to success. I’ve had some good contest feedback, including a couple of finals, and my rejections have gotten mostly out of the form category and into personalized, positive, show me something else type rejections. These are the ones that show me that while I’m not there yet, I’m on the right track, and I will get there sooner or later. And you know what? The first stepping stone on that path is the crappy form rejection, so chin up and keep on truckin!


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