Written by A Guest Author May 23rd, 2024

5 Things Being an Editor Has Taught Me About Rejection

By Winifred Òdúnóku

Many writers have their unique rejection stories to tell. Some rejections can be so demoralising that they make a writer stop submitting to a particular magazine, and there are those – the encouraging ones – that push writers to move out of their comfort zones. Meanwhile, some writers enjoy celebrating milestones of the rejection cap they’ve reached like cutting a cake for their 100th rejection. Weird? To be fair, I’ll say I now belong to this group of writers. But I didn’t start out being that way.

In my early days as a writer, I used to be distraught getting rejections. Then, I moved to the stage of condoning them, so I dubbed the moniker “love letters” to describe the many rejections that flowed into my inbox intermittently. It was not until I joined a literary magazine first as an Editorial Intern, and then as an Assistant Editor, that I began to appreciate rejections. 

Having tested the editorial waters for nine months now, I have better understanding of what factors could lead to getting a rejection. From a writer’s perspective, my editing experience has also increased my respect for editors and I have forgiven that one magazine that keeps rejecting my work. Donning the shoes of an editor has enabled me to see things differently, and I want every writer to understand that a NO could mean different things at different times. 

A rejection does not always mean the writing is bad.

Most writers treat their works like babies and submitting these works to literary magazines is like sharing their vulnerability with the world. Perhaps, they were up all night beautifying a story the other day, or it took them one month to finally finish the first draft of another idea. These babies are precious to them. So how dare ABC Magazine say their work “is not the best fit at this time”? Just how could they? 

No matter how attached a writer is to their work, that doesn’t make it immune to rejection. Whenever a rejection does come, writers need to realise that this is not a personal attack on their work, skill, or person. Instead, they should take it as a learning curve and understand there could be several (other) reasons why their work was rejected that had nothing to do with the writing itself.

It may be that:

There’s no resonance between the story and the theme

Sometimes, a writer’s work may be rejected because it didn’t quite carry a definite semblance to the theme of the magazine. A call for submissions on the theme ‘transition’ for instance, would mean different things to different writers. From coming out as queer, to moving to a new city, to transitioning from womanhood to motherhood, a writer could explore this theme as they see fit.

More often than not, the editor or magazine would also have expectations on the kind of work they’re looking for, which is totally beyond a writer’s control. In the case where a writer’s submission doesn’t quite fit into the theme, or the editor’s vision of the theme, no matter how good the writing is, that’s an automatic rejection earned. 

The story needs further development

It is common for editors to consider questions like; “Is there a story here?” “Is the story working?” when deciding on accepting a piece. Hence, writers should know the rules about the elements of storytelling.

I’ve once received feedback on a story where the editor said, “I enjoyed the setting and while I found the protagonist fairly novel, I’m afraid it read a bit too after-school special to me.” What if I took this feedback and rewrote the story? Would it be better? Definitely! Likewise, its chances of being accepted would increase.

The editor is finding it hard to connect with the story

Picture this: two editors working at two different magazines read a writer’s work; the one says “Nah. This doesn’t work for us” and the other says “Whoah. Brilliant. We’re accepting this.” What could be the deciding factor? Well, one may never know.

However, a plausible reason why the work was rejected by Editor A could be because they couldn’t connect with the story. Or rather, they couldn’t connect with the writer’s intent for the story. Some editors would rather reject a piece because they don’t want to publish it according to what they think the story should be as opposed to what the writer intended it to be. 

“It’s not you, it’s us”

A good number of writers are already familiar with this phrase. When a magazine says “It’s not you, it’s us,” it can be one of two things: there may be too many great works to choose from and some submissions would have to suffer from the fall, or the budget of the magazine can’t accommodate any more stories for an issue, so tough decisions have to be made.

Personally, there are about three stories that I’ve had to reject but they still live rent-free in my head because they’re fantastic stories. I hope they find a home soon, and I wish the same for my rejected-one-too-many-times pieces as well. 

As engine oil eases the movement of vehicles, so does rejection for writers. The more the rejections flow in, the merrier. 

Winifred Òdúnóku (she/her) is a writer from Nigeria who loves to explore different narrative styles in her writing. She works as an Assistant Editor for Isele Magazine and as a Nonfiction Reader at Fiery Scribe Review. Her works have been published or forthcoming in Inked Gray Press, Ilford Review, IBADANarts, African Writer Magazine, Isele Magazine, The Moveee, Revista Periferias, Kalahari Review, Nnöko Stories, Ngiga Review, and Punocracy, among others.


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