Locked inside my head are multiple famous stories of writers who got rejected, only to become famous and make it big. J.K. Rowling, Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Jack Canfield, John Grisham, Stephen King are just a few people, for example, who heard “no” from publishers and agents. Their tales remind me not to give up and should offer the same encouragement to you. But is there any way to strategically cope with constant rejection and make it bearable until you join their ranks?
Why is rejection so agonizing in the first place?
Rejection as a writer is can be hard on a logistical level. You have to figure out which publisher/agent to target next, for example, and find the time to try again. That alone can be stressful. But what makes rejection truly so gut-wrenching as a writer is that it feels so personal, as though because you poured your heart into the work, they’re rejecting you instead of a manuscript. It makes you question not just your talent, but your entire sense of self-worth. And it’s these kinds of overwhelming feelings you need a plan for.
Strategies to dull the hurt
Real truth moment here: You’ll probably never eliminate the pain of rejection totally. But you can manage it in a few ways.
1. Focus on process, not numbers.
It’s tempting when you’re submitting to quantify how many submissions are out and how many times publishers/agents have rejected each one. And part of the reason for this is that writers often want to know when to pivot and perhaps self-publish. But too often, instead of seeing the number as a way to draw a line, writers see their rejections add up and take it as collective proof that they’re not cut out for the job.
So if you truly believe in the work and understand just how subjective the publishing industry is, then don’t numerically keep track. Instead, develop a sequence you can immediately engage once a rejection hits your inbox.
For example, the first thing I do when a rejection comes in is update my spreadsheet to avoid accidentally resubmitting to the same house twice.
When you know exactly what comes next, you can shift your thinking toward a task and actually do something, rather than ruminating. You can get a better sense that you’re taking control of what will happen, because you’re taking action to move forward. Because most people like familiarity, the predictability of a sequence can offer even more comfort, too. Clear sequencing also smooths out many of the logistical issues you might run into, which can mean you end up submitting more. And at the end of the day, you end up with a verifiable list of things you can look back at and say you accomplished.
Process thinking in your writing is critical when you view your writing as your career or business. No entrepreneur goes to work without a game plan. And if you are serious about your writing, then you shouldn’t, either. Know what to do and just execute, tweaking as necessary as you learn.
2. Limit social media.
Social media can be an amazing way to find beta readers, connect with others in the industry and get everyday support and empathy. It’s also a great venue in which market when you do it right. So I’m certainly not going to say don’t get online.
But researchers also know that people tend to compare themselves to others, and that browsing social media sometimes can leave you feeling “less than”.
My personal experience is that, every time I saw someone online announcing that they found representation or launched something, my heart just tanked. I was happy for them because I know the struggle of the work, of course, but underneath all that, the overwhelming thought in my head was, “How come they’re having success and I’m not? I must not be any good.” It all just shoved all the rejections I’d gotten back in my face.
So now, if I get onto Twitter or other platforms, I do so with a specific purpose, such as intentionally responding to others to develop new relationships, or to share something interesting related to writing I’ve come across.
Instead of aimlessly scrolling through your feeds, know what you’re looking for or can offer to others. Once you’ve taken care of that or spent a designated number of daily minutes on a platform, log off.
3. Work on something else.
The point here isn’t to distract yourself, although that kind of is a natural consequence. Rather, by having multiple projects going at once, you know you’re not putting all of your eggs in one basket. If you get a rejection on something, then you know you’ve still got a lot of work in play or that you can offer later, and that the rejection isn’t the whole or final story for you.
Another big reason to do other writing when you’re submitting is that it’s additional practice. Even if you never see the work you sent out in print, you can be more confident knowing that your honing your skills over time so that future work does get a yes. This relates to point #1 above — if you take real action in a reliable sequence, then you’re more likely to feel like you’re still in the driver’s seat.
Additionally, writing more helps remind you that publication/representation isn’t really the main goal. Enjoying and expressing yourself is. You must write first and foremost because you love to do so. If you don’t stay in touch with that, then it’s all too easy to lose motivation and quit.
Now, can your “something else” be work or a hobby other than writing? Of course. Stepping back and taking a break can give you a bigger perspective of who you are and what you can do so that when a rejection comes in, you understand that it’s not a mark against everything you are.
Building your rejection tolerance starts now
What separates successful writers from the ones that don’t make it is that the successful writers intentionally build rejection tolerance. They find techniques that make rejection seem more like getting poked by a thorn, rather than like a vicious stab to the heart from a knife. That’s what allows them to keep submitting day after day, over and over, and that eventually gets them noticed or working with the right people.
The tips above are just three rejection-tolerance techniques that could work for you. If you focus on the task at hand with a business oriented way of thinking, and if you make sure that your interactions have clear purpose, rejections can lose their teeth and draw less blood. Weave the above strategies into your personal approach in a customized way, be patient, and don’t give up.