Why ‘Soft’ Rejections Hurt So Much

The hurt is real.

My chest tightened when I saw the tweet come across my feed.

“We’ve chosen our newest round of contributors! Check your email — if we didn’t pick you this round, we’ll keep your proposals on file!” [Or something very close to that effect.]

I held my breath. It had been a while since I sent in my proposal, but that was to be expected. There were going to be a lot of people reaching out to those editors sharing their ideas and trying to prove they were worth choosing. There was a chance I could be among the lucky handful who were chosen.

There was also a chance I would be in the much larger group of writers whose proposals would be “kept on file” meaning they would likely never see the light of day again.

I opened my email and finally allowed my breathing to continue on as normal.

There was no email waiting there for me.

Holding on to one final ounce of hope that the message simply hadn’t gotten to me yet — let’s call this stubborn optimism — I continued refreshing my inbox over the next few hours just in case an email finally came in from the editor.

But an email never came.

This was, in all senses of the term, a rejection. I had submitted a proposal hoping it would lead to a writing gig — one I was cautiously hopeful about. My philosophy is that I will usually not submit a proposal for an opportunity I come across unless seeing it excites me. There are exceptions, but no matter how much experience in writing you have, you should always jump at any opportunities that come up that could benefit your career even in the smallest of ways.

You just have to do this knowing you have a pretty high chance of being disappointed.

I don’t like rejections. No one does. But if we never experience them, we start to lose the motivation to keep trying. Every rejection is, in its own way, a chance to revisit your “why.”

That doesn’t mean rejections don’t hurt. Especially the ones where you aren’t even directly contacted about not being chosen to write or publish something.

I call these types of indirect declines “soft rejections.” And they almost hurt more than those “thank you for your submission” email templates we’ve all read so many times throughout our careers. Possibly even more than not hearing anything at all.

Let me start by clarifying that I have been on the other end of this process many times. As the former managing editor of a magazine that no longer exists, I spent a lot of time reviewing and responding to writers’ proposals and applications. I’ve seen it all — both the good (follows all the directions, has the right experience, can write an entertaining yet informative article) and the awful (is probably submitting the same cover letter to every publication with an easily accessible email address).

I know why editors reject writers. And it’s not always because the writer isn’t good at writing — which sounds like nonsense, but trust me, there are many reasons you can be turned down.

When you’re reviewing large volumes of proposals, it’s very difficult to justify making the time to respond to everyone individually. From a business and productivity standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to send everyone their own personal rejection. Because regardless of the reason, the bottom line is always the same: Your proposal didn’t meet our qualifications and we’re moving on.

This is frustrating on both sides. I would love to one day be in a position where my only job for eight to 10 hours a day is to give writers personalized feedback explaining why their submission didn’t get picked and what they could have done differently to increase their odds of being selected.

But for most publications, there is not time for this. Which is why some places just send out mass tweets saying “hey check your email otherwise better luck next time!”

I completely support this strategy. It probably saved those editors so much time. I’m serious. The reason I was disappointed had nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t get a cookie-cutter rejection email.

I was disappointed because feeling like you’ve failed, knowing you’re not going to get an explanation as to why, stings. It’s not fair. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is.

The reason we’re so hurt by not directly being told no runs a lot deeper than you might realize. It’s probably along the lines of, oh I don’t know, all the things you generally don’t like thinking about whenever the topic of self-reflection comes up.

But here’s the truth anyway — because that’s what I’m here for, I guess. To tell you all the truths about being a writer that other people aren’t saying out loud.

Soft rejections hurt because we are afraid to look deep inside ourselves to acknowledge the reasons for those rejections we keep refusing to admit.

I know exactly why I didn’t get chosen as a contributor for that publication. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I knew at first, but I did, and I still do. The truth is that I spent almost no time on that proposal. It was generic, I didn’t include relevant pitches, and I didn’t give the editors any good reason to remember me.

In other words, I was lazy and kind of messed up and, in a rare moment of total arrogance, thought it wouldn’t matter because, like, I’m a good writer and whatever man.

Ugh. I hated typing that. But it’s true. I was not at my best that day and the consequences were real.

I got rejected because I deserved it. And that’s why I’m not mad about it. It hurts, but it hurts because I know I could have done so much better. I’m almost glad the rejection was so indirect, because it forced me to rely on myself to be honest about the possible reason(s) I got left behind.

In some ways, I taught myself an important lesson. See? Even after all these years, even I’m still learning things about writing, and publishing, and most importantly, about myself.

Never, ever dismiss the hidden values of rejection as a writer. Whether it’s a soft rejection or an email template or more individualized criticism, take a second to wallow, and then look for the silver lining. I hate having to use that cliche, but it’s 4pm on a Thursday and I just edited 25,000 (ish) articles about the Kardashians and my brain hurts. Deal with it.

Rejection always has something to teach you.

But it’s up to you to remember and apply what you have learned.

I’ll never write another lazy proposal again. If for no other reason than to avoid having to be mad at myself for writing one.

Tell me. What has rejection taught YOU recently? I shared my truth. You’re safe and welcome to share yours.

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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2 thoughts on “Why ‘Soft’ Rejections Hurt So Much

  1. I’ve learned a simple fact. Rejection can be the result of not following instructions. If I submit fiction to a magazine that wants non-fiction, whose fault is it when the piece is rejected? The perfect horror story is submitted to a company that wants comedy. 3 months later, no response. Who’s at fault here? I’ve found it works best to follow submission guidelines and the time given for a response.

  2. It’s short story submission (and rejection) season around here. The funny thing is how subjective it all is. I was very happy to receive a personalized rejection with a request to submit another story soon (of course, I’d sent them my best story!) by one of my dream journals. At the same time, that same story was rejected by far less “dreamy” journals. It reminded me how much this game is a numbers game. But you’re right in that if you submit your best, you’ll always feel good about it–even when the answer is “no.”

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