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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dear Sir or Madame: What Merits a Personalized Rejection?

Following our last roundtable discussion series, we once again asked what questions you might have about publishing, submitting, writing, literary magazines in general, and anything else that came to mind. Through Twitter, we heard from readers and submitters across the globe, and with the help of several editors from various and international literary magazines, we've discussed and answered those questions. Here is the first of those! Keep the questions coming, and we'll be answering them periodically. For those who've already asked, we'll be posting more answers soon!

Photo by: William Arthur
@LexJusti asks:
What merits a personalized rejection? I know time constraints and submissions volume factor in, but how about the story? 

Paper Darts, Holly Harrison     We’re so fortunate to be in a position to love a writer’s style but determine that their story isn’t a perfect fit. If a given piece sparks a lot of conversation on our editorial team, we decide to send a personalized rejection with a very real, very genuine call to submit again.

Gulf Coast, Zachary Martin and Karyna McGlynn     In an ideal world, every submission merits a personalized rejection, because we know that every person who submits has worked diligently to craft their work in the best way they know how and deserves encouragement to keep going—it isn’t easy being a writer, and positive reinforcement can be hard to find! In the real world of literary journals, where we’re deluged with submissions, a personalized rejection is warranted when a piece has called out to us from the pile, made us stop, forget whatever else we were thinking about, and pulled us into the author’s world, however briefly. It may be that the piece simply doesn’t fit with the other pieces we’ve chosen for the next issue, or that the piece contains a flaw in plotting, character development, or language that simply can’t be overlooked, but we’re confident that we want to see more from that author and want to make sure that we’re the first journal on their mind when they have another piece to send out.

The Stinging Fly, Declan Meade     I'll send one when I can see that the writer has come close to writing the story he or she wanted to write—but it's not fully there yet. Sometimes I'll ask them for another draft. Sometimes I'll feel that this particular story is never really going to amount to much but I can see that the person can write—so I'll ask them to send me something else.

Indiana Review, Katie Moulton     It depends on the editor, of course. And then, still, it’s impossible to qualify what “merits” a personal reaction—let alone a personal rejection. Indiana Review sends out various kinds of personal rejections: 1. We want to encourage the writer because we were impressed by the work, but we disagreed with some significant choice the writer made in the piece. 2. While the piece submitted was not the right fit for the journal, we are impressed enough with the writer’s work that we would like to see more, so we ask for it. 3. Occasionally, we will contact a writer expressing interest in publishing the work on the condition that they revise one or two small points, at the discretion of the writer.

Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sam Martone     A personalized rejection of a general submission, for us, is usually dependent on the readers. If readers or editors vote no but ultimately have great things to say about the piece or want to encourage the writer to send more work, then we send a personalized rejection. We also make sure to send personal rejections to people who have contributed to the magazine before; due to the ever-changing nature of our editorial board, it's quite likely that the editors won't always share the same taste, but it's important for us to maintain personal relationships with people who support (and continue to support) our magazine. It should be noted, though, that just because a submitter didn't receive a personal rejection, it doesn't mean she should assume no one reading liked her work. Unfortunately, a lot of it does come down to time constraints and, more than that, the massive amounts of submissions we receive. Rejections are an unfortunate part of the business we (writers and editors) are in, but I, as a writer, always like receiving rejection letters—they feel like an accomplishment, something tangible—I save all of them. It's the waiting for a response that's the really hard part, I think.

Gulf Coast, Zachary Martin     Sam makes a really good point, which is that most editors at literary journals are also writers. We know what it’s like to be rejected, too, so it pleases us to be able to accept great work or to encourage a writer to send more work.

Gulf Coast, Karyna McGlynn     Like Sam, I enjoy getting rejections, and I lament the fact that those little paper slips are such a rarity these days. So much for tangibility! There was something extremely personal about seeing an editor’s actual handwriting and signature. That said, I think personalized rejections in the digital age mean more since online submission systems are, themselves, so depersonalized and yield higher numbers of submissions. Most of the personal notes I send these days arise from situations where I’m championing a particular piece but can’t get the other editors on board. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, for whatever it’s worth, if it was completely up to me, you’d be in.”

Paper Darts, Courtney Algeo     We’ve received such amazing feedback from our rejections and personal rejection letters. Writers really, really do appreciate getting some kind words in the face of a piece that didn’t quite work.

Check out past discussions for Tweeted Questions

If you have a question about writing topics, publishing, the ins and outs of literary magazines, or anything else you might wonder about (how many editors does it take to figure out how to turn on a perfectly functioning, new coffee pot?), let us know! Tweet us, message us on Facebook, or email us at


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, in the digital age, it's hard to tell a truly personalized rejection from a form letter. In the absence of some specific feedback about the story (which I LOVE to get), is the fact that they say, "We enjoyed your work and please submit again" in what otherwise appears to be a form letter a genuine compliment, or just a polite way to sign off?

Sam Martone said...

Thanks for the comment! That's a good observation, and a good question, and I suspect it varies from magazine to magazine. At Hayden's Ferry Review, when I say personalized rejection letter, I mean a letter that explicitly addresses the work found in the submission.

There are, of course, those extra-encouraging form letters, and they are not to be written off just because they're form letters--after all, any encouragement is a good sign and should make you feel good. But again, I think this discussion is mainly talking about rejection letters that directly address the work--and we at HFR try to send as many of those as humanly possible!

Unknown said...

Prior to reading this blog post I considered rejection letters to be almost always written in form. It's nice to come to the realization that many literary magazines do take the time to write personalized letters addressing the specific work submitted with suggestions and encouragement to re-submit. Of course, I would never submit something with the expectation to get a personalized rejection letter back (if the submission was rejected) but I'd be greatly appreciative of the comments and suggestions if someone took the time to write me back personally!