The Debate Rages: Form Rejection or Personal Note?

The first few rejection letters you receive as a writer are heartbreaking. You’ve worked and strived and sweated to create this story that shines, that is perfect in your eyes. You had every sympathetic friend and relative read it just so you could build up the courage to actually submit it somewhere. You sat in a library (yes, this was “back in the day”) with a notebook and the most current Writer’s Market from the reference section, choosing the best possible magazines or agents for your masterpiece.

You wait anxiously for that SASE to show up in your mailbox, the one from the editor who was so blown away by your talent and skill that she wants every word you’ve ever written. Not only that, she has an agent friend who happened to read your submitted story and wants to sign you right now, and thinks he can get a multimillion dollar sale for your first novel.

But what actually comes is a slow trickle of photocopied pages: “Thank you for submitting…not for us…good luck.” They’re pretty much all the same, right? And your wounded ego rails at them for being so impersonal, for treating you as something less than human. Not only did they say no to you, they didn’t even care enough to say “no” in a different way, individualized to you.

I went through that, and I’m over it. Why? Because lately I’ve gotten a few of those “personal” rejections, and I’ve got to say, most of the time I prefer the form letter. After all, when it comes right down to it, a no is a no is a no. Do I really care that the editor didn’t like my main character’s name? Do I want to know that the agent felt my writing was not a style she could connect with? What the hell am I supposed to do with these little comments? They’re usually not constructive, or even concrete enough for me to translate into something constructive. They’re just a “no” with added doubt about my writing mixed in: a double whammy.

There is a scale of rejection, I have discovered, a range of the “no”s a writer can receive:

1. Form letters. Just a stark “no.” I don’t mind them, really. This is a business, we have to remember that. Do you get a personal letter from your mortgage lender when they turn you down, telling you everything they think about you and why you didn’t meet their standards, and how you can do better next time? Hell, no. Agents and editors don’t have time to coddle every writer they turn away. So take the no, write another story, and move on.

2. Personal letters with throwaway comments. Sometimes this agent/editor is new to the game. They haven’t had to hand out a lot of rejections yet, and they still feel bad about every one. So they struggle to come up with something to cushion the blow. Sometimes though, they do like the story, but it’s just not what they’re looking for. They want to encourage you, but explain why the story isn’t right for them.

These letters usually go badly. They don’t have time to really get into the whys and wherefores. So you get a line or two about “not the right voice” or “the writing is good, but the characters don’t meet our guidelines”. The editor thinks they’ve done a great thing, letting you down gently, but in actuality you lie there in bed at night like a teenage girl in the throes of her first relationship breakup, wondering over and over “What does it all mean?”

In the end, it’s just a no, same as the form letter, but with added emotional drama.

Even worse are the ones where they knew fairly quickly they didn’t want to take you on, so didn’t really bother to read the rest of the story. They give comments anyway, comments like “I don’t really connect to a story where none of the characters have names” when everyone is named by page 2 and continue referring to one another’s monikers throughout the tale. Just send a form letter, guys. Really. It’s okay.

3. The “Nearly There” Personal Letter. These are the best. Ideally, for authors, agents and editors should just stop with the middle category of letter altogether. Give a form rejection, or give this “nearly there” rejection. This is the one that says “no…BUT I really like your work and hope you will keep submitting.” This is the one that tells us to keep writing, to keep working, because soon it will all pay off. This one tells us the agent really struggled to turn us down, that we’re on the right track.

This is the one that tells us to keep writing. If you get one of these letters, jump for joy. You can see the summit. You can take a few more puffs of oxygen and get there. Whereas the 2nd category of confusing personal rejections confuses us, makes us wonder if any of it is worthwhile, this “nearly there” letter is a beacon in the night, beckoning us forward.

I’m getting more and more of these encouraging letters. My stories are garnering acceptance, my novels are getting reads. It won’t be long before I can stand at the peak and have a look around. (*crosses fingers*) I hope!

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