I first wrote A Note about Rejection Letters in March of 2007, one month before Gary Wilkens and I founded The Externalist: A Journal of Perspectives. The Externalist is more than two years old now, and as I continue to receive rejection letters of my own, I’m forced to consider the whole process from the other side of the desk. I know now that a rejection really might have nothing to do with the quality of my work. I know now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if an editor takes the time to write a note on my rejection letter, that is a positive sign (unless, of course, it says something like “Don’t ever submit to us again”). I know that good writing is turned down all the time and that if one market doesn’t like a piece, another market still might. Interestingly enough, none of this makes me feel any better. Rejection is, after all, still rejection, right?
As if the simple knowledge that rejection is still rejection isn’t enough, having been on the other side of the desk, I now recognize that certain mistakes in cover letters or manuscript format or submission method can be the cause of a rejection just as easily as “not quite right for us,” “too many good pieces to publish all of them,” or any of the other standard jargon that comes in a letter.
For example, a writer sent me an email not long ago asking for permission to send their piece as an attachment to protect formatting needs. I replied that permission was given and to tell the poetry editor that I had done so in the cover letter so he would know, and signed, as I always do, “Sincerely, Larina Warnock, editor.” The writer immediately (I’m talking within five minutes) sends the submission–to the wrong email address and thereby, the wrong editor–with a cover letter that begins, “Dear Lorinda.”
I’d be lying if I said that my gut reaction was anything other than to write a Bectonian email and use my position as editor to block this writer’s work from seeing the light of day. I am, after all, only human and on a particularly bad day, when someone makes a mistake like that one, it does cross my mind that I can send cruel emails or worse, send no email at all. This writer was lucky as it wasn’t a particularly bad day, so I only wrote back and said, “All poetry submissions must go to our poetry editor” (I have since ceased this practice and just delete any unsolicited submission sent to the general editor email addy). I didn’t even bold my name when I signed the reply.
A few weeks ago, I received a very nice rejection letter (my third) from Beloit Poetry Journal. Handwritten on the letter was a note that cited two of the poems I’d sent as coming very close and encouragement to submit again, but what caught my attention more than that was that my original cover letter addressed, “Dear Mr. Rosenwald & Mr. Sharkey.” The second Mr. was circled and above it, handwritten, was a “Ms.” Snap.
So I second guess myself. If it takes a long time to hear back, I wonder if I forgot to send a SASE. If that length of time ends with a form letter, I wonder if it took a long time because the work came close, sucked bad enough to not be worth an immediate reply, or was justifiable revenge for misaddressing the cover letter.
Worse, just as those who get a standardized rejection letter from The Externalist will likely never know if the editor was short on time that day or in a really bad mood, I will never know if my own very human, but very irresponsible mistakes have cost me a publication or two. But hey, it beats wondering if the writing is really that bad, doesn’t it?