Hollow Victories

A few days ago a member of the writing communities I follow posted a blistering attack on the idea that receiving rejection letters from publishers makes writers stronger. While I do not ascribe to pop-Nietzsche idea that everything that does not destroy you is automatically beneficial, I can see benefits in certain types of rejection.

The case for a personalised rejection benefiting an author is clear enough that I do not intend to spend time on it. However, the case for form rejections or even silence bringing a benefit also becomes clearer if it is viewed not as whether it is good to be rejected, but rather whether it is always good to be accepted.

When we are learning a skill we expect to start with little ability and gain skill until we are competent. Although some people continue to train themselves in search of a theoretical perfection, most of us grow up accepting external validation as a target for competence: from gold stars, through exams, to performance reviews. Therefore, it is easy to fall into the mindset of treating success in a competition or a publishing deal as proof of competence. Receiving rejections early in one’s career can help create the belief that writing requires an ongoing drive to improve rather than resting on one’s laurels.

Not Approved Stamp

Is not approved the same as rejected?
Daniel*1977CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Once we have written for a while we are less at risk of forgetting our maintenance. However, that does not mean our work will all run smoothly from then on. We can still reach beyond our ability, or even just have a bad month, and create a work that is not representative of our skill. Here rejection protects us both from first seeing the flaws after publication when it is much harder to fix them, and from having someone’s first experience of our work be mediocre.

It is unfortunate that these instances of beneficial rejection do not come with a label to distinguish them from those that merely grind away at our desire to be published. However, by remembering that acceptance can be a mixed blessing we might start the journey from disbelief we were rejected to considering why this particular work was rejected much faster, reducing the chance that we are merely re-submitting poor work.

Do you think acceptance is always positive? Do you have other examples of how rejection benefits writers?

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Hollow Victories

  1. Rejection teaches you to accept the fact that there are people who will never like your work–that’s life and no reason to let a negative response derail you.

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  2. When I was sending Catskinner to agents, the most common response was nothing at all–no reply. Those who did reply said nothing about my manuscript, just that they weren’t accepting new manuscripts at this time.

    So, I don’t think my rejections did me any good at all–they just convinced me that trying to find an agent was a waste of time.

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  3. Very timely, I just received my first rejection letter this week. I don’t know if it makes one stronger or weaker, for me rejection just IS. Sometimes you get accepted to or for things, other times you don’t. Learning to handle rejection well WILL make you a more balanced person, because it’s going to happen if one likes it or not.

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    • Several writers I know have had their work rejected recently; maybe there is something in the air.

      Being old enough to have started dating before it became normal for girls to ask boys out, I got my lessons in handling rejection early on. However, if someone was lucky enough (or lazy enough) to not fail earlier then rejection letters would help you grow as a person.

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  4. Honestly, if someone’s trying to get an agent or a publisher, I feel like they’re going to emotionally exhaust themselves if they try to think of rejection as good or bad.

    It’s definitely dangerous to take rejection personally. And while it’s good to use rejection as a reason to get better, it’d get exhausting to have to pep-talk yourself up after every rejection, too/

    I don’t know. Publication seems like a numbers game. It doesn’t seem like the system is designed so good ideas get published and bad ideas don’t, and the best approach is to just pitch often, pitch aggressively, and keep writing. And if you net that much rejection, it seems best to just divorce yourself emotionally from it. (Even though that’s very hard sometimes.)

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    • Excellent points.

      Any one rejection letter on it’s own is neither good nor bad; the combination of that letter with the writer’s state of mind when they read it produces a new state that is better, worse, or the same as before.

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