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Business of Writing, Fiction, The Writer's Life

Are Those Personal Rejections Writers Get Really Personal?

Recently my writers’ group had an email discussion about rejections. One of my friends said she’d been encouraged by a well-known journal, and she shared this email she’d received:

Dear __________:

Greetings! Thank you for sending your work to _____________. After careful deliberation, I’m sorry to report that we have decided not to accept it for publication. However, we wanted to let you know that we did read this submission with more than the casual amount of interest, that your work in some way distinguished itself from many of our other submissions.

We wish you luck in placing this particular submission in another venue. We also hope that you will consider sending more work our way in the future.

That note struck a chord with me, and I did a quick email search through deleted messages. Sure enough, I’d received the exact same message from the same journal a year before. The first-person approach and casual tone had fooled us both into believing an editor wrote the note just for us, and made us both want to resubmit. But now we both felt a little cheated. The personal rejection was not so personal. It became an oxymoron—a personalized form letter.

Granted, whether it was boilerplate text or not, the editors must have felt our work had merit enough to invite additional submissions.

Or did they? Could it be they just wanted more submissions? A writer has to wonder, especially in the case of a journal that charges a submission fee.

Read this one I got in the past week carefully:

Dear Mr. Ponepinto:

Sorry for the delay. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you personally for participating in the ________ Award. Although you were not the winner or one of the runner-ups, we appreciated the opportunity to read “Afterlife.” It is noteworthy that the final judge of this year’s competition, _________, declared he was very impressed with the variety and creativity of this year’s submissions overall. We screened hundreds of excellent manuscripts written by people throughout the U.S., Canada and around the world. The range, sophistication and diversity of expression were truly wonderful. This year, for the 3rd time, we were able to offer $100 dollars to each of the runners-up, in addition to the $1000 first prize. Our only regret is that we could not have more winners. If we had, you might have been one of them.

I love that line, “you might have been one of them.” Do the contest organizers moonlight for Publisher’s Clearinghouse? When I first received this, my unthinking reaction was that I had been close to placing in the contest. But it doesn’t say that. It’s merely more boilerplate text with some variables coded in so my name and story title appeared. That reduces the message to cleverly worded marketing crap. The organizers want the recipient to believe it, and submit to the contest again next time.

How many journals use this tactic? What kind of business are we in when even so-called personal communications are fake? Writing is supposed to be about truth and openness, but some of the publishers in the business seem to have forgotten that, and prefer to operate like sleazy hucksters.

I think I might take this issue public. Use social media to see if other writers feel as I do about phony personal rejections. If we can expose the practice, maybe we can convince some editors and publishers to make the personal, personal again.



About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


15 thoughts on “Are Those Personal Rejections Writers Get Really Personal?

  1. Dear Mr. Ponepinto,
    Thank you so much for the recent submission of your pointed and insightful examination of our hypocritical faux personalization of a large number of rejection letters. Your commentary was one of the best we have received and no doubt carefully considered by one of our staff, yet unfortunately not quite of the caliber of complaint or comment we need at this time to actually impinge upon our corporate consciousness. Thank you however for your time, effort, and undoubted concern. Please don’t hesitate to submit further commentaries in the future as we are really, truly, deeply interested in the opinions and feelings of authors/Mr. Ponepinto.

    sincerely, Ess “Lee” Z. Huckster, President Emeritus, Big Publishing, Inc.

    Posted by socalsoxman | March 22, 2014, 3:52 PM
  2. Honestly, I’d rather hear nothing until the answer is yes. Nothing is more dispiriting than a pep-talk.

    Posted by Averil Dean | March 22, 2014, 4:25 PM
    • Averil, I am on that page with you. I get no real encouragement from the “close but no cigar” response. It only makes me wonder where I’ve gone wrong.

      Posted by jpon | March 22, 2014, 4:35 PM
  3. Socal Soxman’s take-off of the letter is priceless. When I was still bothering to go through agents, I even had one set of agents, a husband and wife team, require the whole work plus enough SASE for the entire work to be mailed back in. When I supplied this, about 5 months later they returned one manuscript box full of writing (I had paid to have two returned), and never sent the second. My follow-up query only received the information that they were sorry, but they had misplaced the second half of the manuscript. At least now rejections can be online, and SASEs and boxes and stamps and etc. can be out of the picture. I think from your description, the form letter you received was sort of the online version of the telemarketer response.

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 22, 2014, 4:52 PM
    • The answer one always gets from agents and editors is something like, “the volume of submissions makes personal attention impossible.” I wonder, if TLR grows to that point, if we’ll be able to do anything differently.

      Posted by jpon | March 22, 2014, 5:18 PM
  4. Not to make light of the ‘impersonal/personal’ rejections, but how many writers send out blanket query letters – with the only difference in the content being the agent/editor/publishers name? Personally, I’m happier to get a rejection letter than no reply at all.

    Posted by Catharine Cooper | March 22, 2014, 4:59 PM
    • A good point, but I would say the difference lies in the purpose of each letter. Many editors don’t read or even want cover letters. They’re essentially a note of introduction. They are intended to be seen by many people, and the recipients understand that. The personal rejection, however, is supposed to be written to one specific writer.

      That being said, at Tahoma Literary Review, Kelly and I have made a point of encouraging personal cover letters. That means we’ll read ’em. And we will never send a form letter disguised as a personal rejection. In fact, while the number of submissions is still manageable, I try to personalize even some basic rejections.

      Posted by jpon | March 22, 2014, 5:15 PM
  5. Joe– I had a dream the other night– a real, vivid, wake-you-up-to-think-about-it dream in which I was a famous writer. Famous for rejection letters. In my dream, I partnered with agents and publishers to write rejection letters that mattered. I wrote beautiful letters, personal and frank, spare yet eloquent, so good that writers lined up to get a rejection from me.

    Posted by girl in the hat | March 24, 2014, 2:24 AM
    • I would love to see an example of that kind of rejection. Sounds like it might be along the lines of “It’s not you, it’s us.” Maybe you should approach a few journals with the idea.

      Posted by jpon | March 24, 2014, 2:16 PM
  6. yikes. that really is heinous — pretending you care and making the form letter seemingly personal. I’m with Avril on this one. All that empty verbiage is infuriating.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | March 24, 2014, 5:35 AM
    • Really. A yay or nay will suffice. I’d rather know what the real chances of being published in a particular journal are. As Kelly’s post on TLR noted, many journals say they are open to the slush pile, but then take most of their work from authors they’ve solicited.

      Posted by jpon | March 24, 2014, 2:19 PM
  7. Wow – I, too, have received a couple of rejections that I thought were more than form letters, and I had a similar emotional response. I’ve saved a couple; I think I’ll go back and have a look. In the comments above one reader noted a preference for hearing nothing at all unless it’s “yes.” Although I don’t agree with that, I like knowing one way or another so I can keep submitting, I may start taking the “personalized” ones a little less to heart. Thanks for opening my eyes to this, Joe.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | March 24, 2014, 10:23 AM
    • They make me feel cheated, like getting an email from a woman after a first date:
      Dear _______,
      Thanks for taking me out.
      While I had a good time and enjoyed the restaurant, the overall “date” experience didn’t convince me to see you again. Perhaps if you call me again, I’ll give you another shot, but until then, best of luck dating other women.

      Posted by jpon | March 24, 2014, 2:23 PM

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