You've Been Rejected by a Journal. Should You Submit to Them Again?
By Nathaniel Tower
If you’re a writer, you don’t like rejection. You also know it’s part of the game. However, it’s not the soul-crushing experience a lot of writers pretend it is. Rather, every rejection is a learning experience.
Every rejection should make you ask yourself at least two questions:
Should I revisit this piece before submitting it elsewhere?
Should I submit to this publication again?
If you lack self-confidence, you may ask a third question: Should I keep writing at all?
The answer to that third question, of course, should always be yes. Unless, of course, you don’t actually enjoy writing. If that’s the case, then you should’ve quit before you bothered submitting. Assuming you like writing and want to be a writer, let’s throw that question out the window.
So back to the top. The first question. Should you revisit a rejected piece before submitting elsewhere? At the very least, you should always think about your story or poem before sending it out to any lit mag. That doesn’t mean every rejection is cause for a rewrite or even a reread. That form rejection from Glimmer Train? Yeah, I’m not sure you need to re-evaluate the merit of your story. But that personal rejection from Word Riot with three sentences of constructive criticism? Hmm...maybe we’re on to something.
A more interesting question to ask post-rejection is whether or not you should send something else to that publication. And it’s far from a simple question.
As managing editor of Bartleby Snopes for eight years, I saw a lot of repeat submitters. At least 25% of submissions came from writers we had rejected before. For us, that was close to a thousand submissions a year from previously rejected writers.
So how did these repeat submitters fare? Keep in mind that we only accepted about 2% of submissions, so the odds were never in your favor whether you’d been rejected before or not.
That being said, here’s an interesting stat for you:
Over a third of the stories we published were from writers we had previously rejected.
In other words, writers who submitted to us more than once were more likely to be published than writers who submitted only once. Sort of.
It’s not quite that easy. It’s certainly not a matter of blindly sending work again and again until a publisher gives into your demands. Submitting after rejection is an art. It requires patience, skill, and maybe even a little bit of luck. But so does submitting in the first place. You need to pick the right story for the right publication. Sometimes it takes more than one try to develop that relationship.
So how many times do you have to send your work to a particular venue before your chances of publication go up? There's no easy answer here. Submitting more doesn’t exactly make your chances go up at all. Most writers give up before they ever get an acceptance. In most cases, the “rejected” writers we accepted had submitted to us two or three times. Once you get much beyond that, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should always stop submitting to a venue after three rejections. This whole publishing thing is an uphill battle. Here’s the good news for the writers who don’t give up easily: one writer in particular had 22 stories rejected by us before we finally accepted one of his stories. Persistence pays off, perhaps.
As a writer, I’ve never had that much persistence, at least not when it comes to trying so hard to crack one particular publication. I’ve never submitted to the same venue more than a half-dozen or so times. After six rejections, I’m pretty confident my work isn’t a good fit for that magazine. Or maybe I just hate them by that point.
No worries though. It’s not time to despair, even if you hold a particular venue in high regard. The good news is that there are thousands of other quality venues that might publish your work. Why waste all your time getting rejected by the same place over and over? No venue is worth that much agony.
Another personal stat: I’ve never had a story accepted by a venue that’s rejected my work more than four times. And that only happened once. There have only been a couple times when I’ve had a piece accepted by a publication that previously said no to me. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough, or maybe I haven’t sent the right things, but it simply doesn’t happen to me. I’ve never received that magical letter saying, “Hey, glad you submitted for the 47th time. This one is finally the one! We can’t wait to publish your work!”
From a practical standpoint, it seems like you shouldn't send your work to the same venue again and again and again. Remember, most of this is about taste. You probably wouldn’t keep applying for jobs at a company that’s rejected you several times. And you probably wouldn’t keep asking someone out on a date when they’ve already said they wouldn’t go out with you if you were the last person on Earth.
Submitting to a lit mag again isn’t quite the same though. During the process of re-submitting, you may learn something new about the publication that might increase your chances. A rejection is a great opportunity to learn more about your piece and more about the place that rejected you. This requires you to take the time to understand the rejection and get to know the magazine a little better.
It's also important to consider that magazines generally accept stories and poems, not writers. So getting rejected isn't necessarily a strike against you so much as it is a strike against whatever you sent. Unless you make some sort of egregious submission mistake, it's unlikely a publication will even remember that you submitted before.
Your decision to submit again should be based on several factors, including:
How much does it mean to you to be published by this venue?
How likely are you to be published by this venue?
If it doesn’t mean much to you, why put yourself through the pain of repeated rejection? Or why even submit there to begin with? Don’t play the “I need another publication credit” game. Submit to the venues that mean something to you, but don’t put a particular publication on some unattainable pedestal either. As a writer, you needn’t worship any publication to the point of such desperation.
Of course, how much a publication means to you is insignificant if you have no chance of getting an acceptance from them. How can you possibly know if a publication is likely to publish your work? Here are a few telling factors:
The more times they’ve rejected your work, the less likely you are to get an acceptance. This isn’t a situation where if you keep trying, eventually a miracle will happen. Rather, it’s usually a sign your writing is not compatible.
The more encouraging the rejection, the more likely they are to accept your work in the future.
Let’s look deeper at that “encouragement” factor. Encouragement doesn’t mean the rejection letter tacks on a canned line that says, “Please send us something else in the future.” There needs to be something more than that. In itself, that isn’t a very encouraging statement. That’s a “Hey, we need to keep receiving submissions so we can keep publishing stuff” statement. Or maybe it’s a “Hey, we don’t like your story but want to soften the blow” statement. It doesn’t literally mean they want you to send more work. But it doesn’t mean they don’t want you to either.
An encouraging rejection letter is one that contains one of these ideas:
This one was close for us, but...
We like your style, but...
We admire you as a writer, but…
These are just some of the ways a publication can reject you while also showing you they actually want you to submit again. Just make sure you are reasonable in the process. If you receive 13 rejections that all say “we like your style, but…” then maybe they don’t really like your style. Or maybe they like your style but don’t think it belongs in their magazine.
One surefire way to tell you should stop submitting is if your rejection letters suddenly go from personal and encouraging to quick form rejections. That’s usually the magazine’s way of politely uninviting you to submit.
A form rejection doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to call it quits. With as many publications as there are and as little time you have as a writer, playing those cryptic games might not be worth your time. Don’t spend hours trying to decipher the meaning of the rejection letter. At the end of the day, a rejection letter means one thing: they don’t want to publish that particular piece.
Bottom line: send your best work to the venues you want to publish your work. If you have any other submission strategy, then you’re just wasting your time--and everyone else’s. And that’s true whether you submit to a publication one time or 100 times.
Nathaniel Tower founded Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine in 2008. As an up-and-coming writer, he was frustrated with the slow response times and impersonal responses of most literary magazines. Since then, Nathaniel has had over 200 short stories published in print and around the web. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, and a story of his was named a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story in 2009. After teaching high school English for nine years, Nathaniel moved to Minneapolis with his wife and daughter where he began a new career in internet marketing. He has three published books to his credit, including the acclaimed short story collectionNagging Wives, Foolish Husband. Find out more about Nathaniel's publications and his thoughts on writing and juggling here:Nathaniel's Blog