As a freelancer, author and teacher for 37 years who is also a shrinkaholic, I know that getting shot down is part of the process. When I finish a piece, pitch or book project I try to have low expectations and assume I’ll get blown off several times before it finds a home. In fact, I sometimes write a list of seven potential places where I can submit my piece and methodically go down the list. I tell myself I haven’t really tried until I’ve hit all seven. (And then I write another list of seven more.) Getting a bunch of thumbs down means nothing. My first book Five Men Who Broke My Heart had 30 rejections from agents and 30 rejections from editors before it found the perfect home at Random House (that led to a Today Show appearance, 7 foreign editions, a TV/film deal and 11 other books so far). There are many stories of famed manuscripts that were first rejected. George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm was allegedly called “a stupid and pointless fable” by the Knopf editor who hated it. It went on to sell twenty million copies.
I used to have “rejection slip parties” for my students where the cost of admission was a letter or e-mail printout from an editor saying, “No.” Taped to the walls were tons of my previous brush-offs. My favorite ones were from editors who later wound up buying my work. While turndowns can feel terrible, here’s how not to react:
- Don’t get manically depressed, drunk, and stoned (as I used to), which will make everything worse.
- Don’t post nasty notes on social media about the editors who said no, even if you think it’s in a private group or chat page. (I know tons of editors on private groups and chat pages.)
- Don’t drop out of your therapy, weekly meetings, class, writing workshop, college, or graduate school, claiming “it’s just too hard” and “there’s no way for someone new to break in.”
- Don’t resent every writer you read who gets in the publication you wanted to, or assume they all have more brains, balls, money, moxie, and/or connections than you do.
- Don’t catastrophize and assume one “no” means nothing you write in the future will see print.
How to handle rejection better
1. Discuss with your teacher/mentor/shrink/older colleagues.
Seek out someone more seasoned in the field to identify what you may be doing wrong and how to fix it. When students have asked me this over the years, my most common responses have been, “You’re being impatient,” “Why did you submit 5,000 words to a short column?” “Starting with ‘When I was six in 1994’ is the opposite of timely,” and “You’ve never taken a writing class before in your life and you’re surprised The New Yorker editor said no to your first submission?”
2. Keep trying new ideas with new people.
While it’s very disappointing to get negative responses, just because a few people say no doesn’t mean you won’t sell what you’ve written. I once sold an essay on my fourteenth try that led to a Random House book. My former student Teresa Fazio published her story—about an affair she had while serving as a U.S. Marine—in The New York Times’ At War blog, after getting rejected by eight other New York Times editors from different sections. Sometimes it’s a numbers game, so remember the adage: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
3. Get tougher criticism.
Often if ten editors don’t like something I’ve written, I bring it back into my writing group to try and figure out what can be improved. If my usual critics can’t tell me what’s wrong with it, I’ll hire a tougher ghost editor. I can’t tell you how many times a student has told me, “My other teacher loved this,” or “My weekly workshop said this was my most brilliant piece,” and I find it still needs tons of work.
4. Revise and update.
If I love a piece, I will often listen carefully to criticism then give it an overhaul. That could mean a much timelier lede, a different focus, a younger angle, additional research, or a more dramatic ending. Before resubmitting, I first change the lede and rework the piece in the voice of each publication I’m trying.
5. Develop a wiser work strategy.
Many freelancers sit alone at their computer, revise their work a few times, then send it in. If that’s not working for you, take a class. If bringing in your piece and getting it critiqued by a teacher once a week isn’t leading to success, try other methods. My favorite advice for writing and love: “You can do anything as long as it works.” Even after six years of writing classes, I still needed a weekly writing workshop and ghost editors I hired to kill my “darlings” again, along with a smart shrink to talk out my career frustrations and help me recover from rejections faster.
6. Put it away for a while.
If you can’t make a specific piece sing, taking a break from it might do the trick. Sometimes I go away, work on something else, and six months or a year later, reread it from a different perspective. Then revise.
7. Try switching Genres.
Often a student will show me a personal essay that I’ll suggest turning into an op-ed, humor, or service piece. I’m open to rethinking my own work, too. What I once saw as a first- person op-ed on the lack of professional instruction in writing programs became the third-person reported story I linked for Atlantic .com. This flexibility and willingness to compromise extends to my longer projects as well. I once wrote an entire nonfiction book that didn’t sell—until I fictionalized it to make it my comic novel Speed Shrinking. A co-authored memoir turned into the best-selling self-help book Unhooked. In fact, all of my published books started out as something else. I asked for criticism, reshrunk, rethought, revised, rewrote, and had much more success with the reinvention. And if I can redraft an entire book, you can certainly redo three pages.
Susan Shapiro, an award-winning writing professor, freelances for the NY Times, NY Magazine, WSJ, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Elle & Oprah.com. She’s the bestselling author/coauthor of 12 books her family hates including Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up, Unhooked & the new inspiring writing guide The Byline Bible. She and her husband, a scriptwriter, live in Greenwich Village, where she teaches her popular “instant gratification takes too long” classes at The New School, NYU and in private workshops & seminars.