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How to Respond to Rejections & Negative Feedback

May 25, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 26, 2011

The article I was working on for tonight—on grammar and punctuation—has been pre-empted by this one.

Just two weeks ago I wrote an article on discouragement—I didn’t know how timely it was.

I’ve heard from several writers this week who’ve received either highly negative rejections or nasty feedback. Feedback nasty enough that the writers are discouraged about continuing to write.

Let me first say that I’m sorry when anyone gets nasty comments about his or her writing. I think you can tell a writer he needs work—even a lot of work—without resorting to nastiness. Without crushing the writer’s spirit.

That doesn’t mean I think that agents or editors (or contest judges) should sugarcoat either. But there’s a lot of leeway between sugarcoating and painting every comment with contempt.

Yes, agents and editors and publishers are busy. No, they don’t owe writers—especially ones who’ve not done their homework—writing lessons or even tips on what they could do to improve their manuscripts.

They do, however, owe writers simple professional courtesy.

This article is not a bashing of agents and publishers; they do a damned tough job. If sometimes they let frustration get the better of them, as we all do, I hope they resolve to hold back that frustration the next time.

And there will be a next time.

Agents and editors receive hundreds, thousands, of manuscripts a year that are simply not ready. Not ready to be seen, certainly not ready to be published. Not ready to be bought and promoted by a reputable publishing house.

Before submitting stories, writers need to do their jobs. And that includes learning the craft of writing and how to submit according to publisher guidelines. I’m not blaming writers for a particular agent’s or editor’s uncomplimentary rejection; I am saying that writers can help themselves by being better prepared. Each time writers submit poorly written manuscripts, they create a tougher environment for other writers. To help themselves, writers should

Learn the elements of story, from broad basics to fine nuance

Learn grammar and punctuation rules

Write and then rewrite and then rewrite again

Solicit feedback from other writers—and listen to them

Never submit a manuscript before its time—a first draft should never be submitted

Be prepared for rejection, for negative and cutting comments

Write the next manuscript, realizing that most writers don’t sell their early projects

________________________________

Writers, you will face rejection. Many times. But with those rejections, you might hear compliments about your story, even if a publisher can’t buy your book. Other times you’ll hear only the negative, everything that’s wrong with the manuscript and your style and your plot and the title and your characters and the dialogue and the way you cross your Ts. Still other times you’ll get no response at all, leaving you wondering where you stand.

Unless you’ve been promised feedback, don’t expect it. And don’t read anything, positive or negative, into a lack of comments. Just send your manuscript to the next agent or editor on your list.

When you do get a heavily negative response, remind yourself that this is one person sharing one opinion. Even if the negative feedback is from your favorite agent, remember that he is one man, one opinion, one voice. He is not the arbiter of all things written. His words didn’t start your writing career and his words won’t end it. Don’t let them end it.

He doesn’t have every answer. None of us knows it all.

And don’t forget, once you’ve gotten over the shock, to actually consider his words.

He might be absolutely, infuriatingly, spot on right.

And you might give your career the best boost ever by listening to him and following his suggestions.

Rejection and painful comments are ahead of you if you go forward with your writing career, and I can’t tell you that you won’t face either or that they’re not going to hurt.

I can tell you that unless the agent or editor or publisher knows you, the rejection truly isn’t personal.

You are not being rejected.

Yes, your story might be rejected, but you are not your manuscript.

You are the creator and you can create again. A better story. A more skillfully written manuscript. A novel an agent or publisher can sell.

So . . . to the point of the article, besides the ones I’ve already made here: how do you respond to highly negative rejections and feedback and critiques and judges’ comments?

Feel free to mix and match from the following responses—

Complain to your spouse (mother, best friend, crit partner)

Enjoy a jumbo margarita

Serve yourself an extra scoop of chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream

Write a nasty letter in return to get the emotions out—need I say do not send it?

Play with your children

Read the rejection letters and rejection histories of favorite or famous authors

Write something new

Exercise (yes, I’m serious)

Carefully consider the suggestions in the feedback, if there were any

Take a class, join a writing group, learn more about the art of writing and the skills necessary to produce good art

Stir yourself to write a better story, to show the agent, editor, publisher, or judge what you’re made of

Be willing to face reality—A dozen rejections, even a couple of dozen, is not uncommon. But three hundred rejections for the same manuscript? It’s time to put that manuscript away and begin the next. 

Edit and rewrite again if the manuscript needs it

Submit to the next agent or publisher on your list

What you shouldn’t do—

Complain about the agent, editor, publisher, or contest on your blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, or in any other public place

Quit writing

Allow the opinions of others to turn you away from your writing goals

Allow a single person to stifle, steal, or destroy your dream

What to do if your feedback is always positive and yet you still don’t sell the manuscript, can’t get an agent, never win a contest—

Check your genre against the needs of the agent and publisher—maybe you’re not submitting to the right people

Be bold and ask one, maybe two (but not all), of the agents or editors who seem especially encouraging why they didn’t accept your manuscript

Rework your synopsis if you’ve been including one—maybe it isn’t doing its job and maybe it’s working against you

Review your personal presentation and your reputation—have you positioned yourself as a writer that agents and publishers will want to work with?

Write and/or submit your next manuscript

Review your manuscript—determine if there are ways to change it from a good story to a great one

Review your stance—are you willing to make changes in the story in order to sell it and if not, has that attitude colored your interactions with agents and editors?

Make personal contact with editors and agents at conferences—you may have better success with someone who’s met you

Realize that you may never get a satisfactory answer for why a manuscript doesn’t sell

*******

I won’t say I’m sorry for having written another article on encouragement so close to the last one—I want you to know that you’re not alone, that there’s a worldwide writing community on your side, that there are agents and editors and publishers who aren’t trying to derail you but simply trying to do their jobs with the tools that they’ve acquired and with the skills they’ve developed and with the reality of the hundreds of unready manuscripts they face each week.

Yes, rejection is painful. Yes, writing is tough. Yes, you give up a lot for the privilege to write.

But writing is deeply satisfying and writers should write, often and with passion and unwavering determination, in order to feel the satisfaction of putting words together to make story, story that others can enjoy and ponder over and wonder about.

Write well today. And write with a renewed heart.

You can succeed.

***

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14 Responses to “How to Respond to Rejections & Negative Feedback”

  1. Nice article and I agree with all the points raised. One topic not touched on though is how to handle nice comment after nice comment after nice comment, but still no one takes the work on. This is even more infuriating that getting criticism because you have no idea of why you are being rejected.

  2. Jill Kemerer says:

    I hope all newer writers on their first round of queries can read this. I agree with you completely–the rejections aren’t about US, they’re about our writing. Great post!

  3. Trevor, sometimes it is worse, not knowing why a well-received manuscript doesn’t find a home or doesn’t net a writer an agent. I’m guessing that most times it’s simply because the manuscript doesn’t fit the editor’s/publisher’s needs of the moment. Sometimes the genre isn’t right and sometimes the publisher just acquired a similar story.

    If your story isn’t time sensitive, put it aside for a while and then submit again the following year. Needs and circumstances will be different and perhaps your story can then find its place.

    Thanks for the tip—I’ve added a few suggestions for just this situation.

  4. Jill, those first manuscripts do seem such a part of us, don’t they? A reminder that we are more than our words is always helpful.

    Thank you for letting me know you were here.

  5. I remember to *hope* not *expect*, to get published. So many things are out of our hands — agents’ subjective tastes, editors, too, and even whether a story fits the market or stands out amongst others similar.

    The hardest part is not placing a ms even when it’s a good one. Other times, yes, another rewrite/ revisions may be just what is needed to hit that wonderful ms out of the ballpark.

    There are a lot of “close almosts” at all stages of the process, and writers can forget to afford those moments their full worth because it’s not the end goal a writer was aiming for. But those close almosts, even the rejections, are badges of honor. It means we’re in the game. Not everyone can write a whole ms! I know writers who don’t submit their work due to fear of rejection. It’s a big deal just putting ourselves out there!

    Also, it’s so important not to get caught up in one work like it’s the end all, be all. Write the next ms, then the next. Keep writing. That itself will improve your writing so that, eventually, one of those projects becomes THE ONE.

    A published author is an amateur who didn’t quit. Period.

    In one word? Perseverance.

  6. Emily, I’m all for rewarding achievement at each stage and then pressing forward again.

    You’re so right that much is out of the writer’s hands. So the writer can only do his or her part to the best of his ability and place himself in the best position for the next steps. There are ways to get noticed, but still no guarantees.

    Thanks for adding your words of encouragement.

  7. You’re very welcome, Beth.

    Your post stilI had me thinking, so I gave you a shout out on my blog, today, with a link to yours, so other writer friends can be educated and cheered. : )

  8. Another thanks, Emily. I love encouraging writers.

  9. Rima says:

    When I receive rejections or negative feedback, I do everything you listed above — in succession. 😉 And exercise is immensely powerful in dealing with negativity, even if you follow it with chocolate ice cream and a margarita.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

  10. Rima, I’m with you—sometimes we need multiple therapies. But chocolate almost always boosts me.