Why They Told You ‘No’: Finding the Constructive Criticism in Every Rejection

Some rejections have substance. Here’s how to find it.

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Rejection is extremely difficult to deal with, whether you’re new to writing or you’ve been doing it for years. No one likes to feel as though they did something wrong or could have done better but didn’t. It’s happening to everyone, but it’s hard to remember that when you’re stuck in your own head.

Many people get one or two rejections and give up because they aren’t sure what they did or didn’t do to get their work passed over. Every editor has their reasons for saying no, but as a former magazine editor, I may be able to offer some much-needed direction.

For starters, let’s be clear on one very important truth: Most of the time, the reason your work did not get accepted has nothing to do with its quality (or lack thereof).

I’ve been an editor in charge of vetting unsolicited article submissions for an online magazine. It’s been my job to read through these submissions and decide whether or not our publication should edit them and post them on our website for all our readers to see.

A lot of the time, the articles themselves weren’t unpublishable. There were some submissions that were great, but shouldn’t have been sent to us — they would have fit better somewhere else. Or — and I’m being completely honest here — the submissions were fine, but the sender was extremely unprofessional in their introduction email to me and I lost interest in working with them right away. It happens. BE PROFESSIONAL.

To be fair, there were plenty of “bad” articles I had to turn down. Some were poorly written. Some had nothing new or interesting to say about a topic (example: healthy holiday recipes. We got dozens of those in our inbox. Most of them didn’t get published because they weren’t unique and just repeated things hundreds of other articles had already said).

I worked for a very small publication, and there weren’t enough resources to go around to heavily edit and rework disastrous articles (those with poor spelling/grammar, that weren’t formatted or organized the way our articles usually were, etc). If it couldn’t easily be converted into an article on our site, chances were high I would say no.

But having been in the “please accept my work” position plenty of times before, I knew how frustrating it was to either never hear back from a publication or get a standard automated “due to the high volume of submissions” response. So I legitimately worked overtime to make sure every submission I rejected got a personalized response straight from me.

It’s not easy being honest, and it’s not easy to hear from a stranger that something about your work didn’t quite cut it. But once you get past the initial sting of “they didn’t think I was good enough,” you realize it has nothing to do with you. They’re doing their best to tell you, maybe not in the most positive way (but hopefully!), what you can do better in the future to increase your chances of getting published.

In my experience, a few common phrases might be decoded like this:

This article didn’t really fit the criteria for what we’re looking for = it was too similar to something we already have/it didn’t fit in with the content we generally accept (see our site) = pay closer attention to what’s already there. Do your research.

It was a well-written article, but doesn’t quite fit into our content strategy = your article was good but why are you sending it to us = you clearly didn’t look at our website to see what we publish and just submitted something for the sake of submitting something.

Keep writing and consider submitting to us again = in various ways I’ve used this to kindly tell people they need to improve their work before submitting again. I wasn’t really allowed to tell people “your grammar is atrocious” or give them line-by-line feedback. But

Most of the time, people either aren’t submitting to the right places or their work isn’t quite ready to be submitted yet. I personally used to try to be as clear about the difference, as much as I could be.

And for the record, I’ve never used the phrase “we’re not accepting submissions at this time” to mean anything other than we’re not accepting submissions at this time. I don’t know why anyone would tell you that if it weren’t true. It’s extremely unhelpful.

Unfortunately, you’re not going to get that kind of feedback from most editors. Most “no”s are going to be generic and unhelpful, and most editors don’t have any other choice. Most of the time, you’re not going to have any clue what you might have done wrong — if anything.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself depending on the “type” of rejection you get after submitting/publishing your work.

The silent NO:

  • Are thousands of other people also submitting work to this publication?
  • Does your work have something new to say or present old information in a new way?
  • What is the size of the publication’s staff? Do they have time to send you a personalized feedback email?

The template NO:

  • Are thousands of other people also submitting work to this publication?
  • Does your work have something new to say or present old information in a new way?
  • What is the size of the publication’s staff? Do they have time to send you a personalized feedback email?

The more personalized “I’m sorry, but NO”:

  • Did they sort of tell you your writing isn’t great without actually saying so?
  • Did they encourage you to submit again at a later time?
  • Is your work in line with the content the publication has printed recently?
  • Did you work your absolute hardest on it?
  • Are you proud of it?

Sometimes publications just can’t publish everything they get, and it has nothing to do with you or your skill level or how capable you are of getting published. This is why you can never try getting published too many times. Keep writing, keep submitting (usually not to the same place over and over again though), and you’ll increase your chances of someone saying “yes.”

Always aim to write something that’s a little better than the last thing.

Take your own constructive criticism seriously, but don’t talk yourself out of trying again.

It’s OK to ask for feedback, but only once — and don’t lose hope if you don’t get a response.

Everyone wants to know why their work didn’t make it. Everyone. That’s because EVERYONE is trying to get published. Everyone is getting rejected in one way or another. It’s those who keep writing and submitting anyway that will eventually write their way to success.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.


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