How (not) to count rejections.

Someone — perhaps a professor or classmate in my MFA program, I can no longer remember — said that you have to get at least 100 rejections before you have any chance of getting an acceptance.
At the time I heard that advice/statistic I was in awe. And I was discouraged by it, since I had only a handful of rejections in my file.

These days I see a kind of truth to it, although the truth has less to do with the number 100 than it does with experience. It has been years since I heard the 100-rejection mantra, and since then I have written many new pieces, some that I actively send out, an some that I still deem Not Ready for Publication.

Last spring I created a document in which I listed all of the lit mags I would like to be published in. They are magazines I respect, that have good reputations. They are of the top-tier variety. Perhaps everyone else just goes immediately for these elite mags, but I had not. Did not.

However, I had started to feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of lit mags detailed on Duotrope and New Pages. I wanted to narrow the field. Also, I felt it was time to bring some self-confidence to the process: Instead of sending to mags that might publish me, I decided to go after mags in which I’d like to be published. I had been published in a couple of smaller, lesser-known mags, and I felt that it was time to go for it. Obviously, I knew there was greater potential for rejection with my new method, but I chose to ignore that voice in the back of my head that said failure was imminent. Instead, I sent out a few batches of targeted submissions in greater numbers than I ever have before.

And then the rejections began to roll in. At first this was (and still is, sometimes) extremely discouraging. It was easy, on days in which the rejections hit me hardest, to question my work, my burst of self-confidence that had led to me submitting to these mags in the first place, and, sometimes, the whole literary endeavor. But here’s the thing: I have received a lot of “nice” rejections. By “nice rejections” I mean, not your standard form letter. I mean a letter/email addressed to me, with personalized comments, some even with specific references to things they liked in my submission.  The other day I received the nicest, longest, most personal such letter in the mail that I have ever received, from a well-known magazine I highly respect, and it simultaneously gave me hope that I am so, so close and broke my heart with disappointment, because I was so, so close.

Things I have learned in the past year:

-It is not about how many rejections you receive, it is about how many submissions you send out. (Of course of your best, complete work, and of course to the appropriate magazine. Those are givens, in my mind.)

-The number 100 means little. Experience in the form of repeated action with new and different work that is improving all the time means a lot.

-Nice rejections, while they can be disappointing, can also buoy your confidence. They mean that someone, maybe even multiple people, read your work and liked it enough to personalize a response to you when it didn’t make the cut for publication. They mean that you need to keep sending that piece out. (Maybe you need to tweak it, maybe not.) Nice rejections sometimes include invitations to send other work to the same magazine, and that is an opportunity that should not be ignored.

In the future, when I have published extensively and am teaching some writing workshop somewhere, I do not plan to tell my students that they need to get 100 rejections. I am going to tell them to send out 100 submissions.*  Of their best, best piece that has been revised and put away and revised again and again and again. And to see how long it takes before the rejection streak is broken by an acceptance. I suspect well before 100, if you’re doing things right. I see it this way: If you have received 100 rejections FOR ONE PIECE OF WRITING, and not one of them is anything beyond a form letter, there’s something wrong with your piece or your judgment about the appropriate magazines for your piece.

If you google 100 rejections, you’ll see that a lot of people are subscribing to this philosophy (Who started this? Who came up with the number 100?) I’ve read a number of blog posts about attempts to garner 100 rejections and all seem to be fairly positive about the experience. They are, in general, referring to multiple pieces of writing being submitted to multiple magazines simultaneously. It’s not inconceivable or even unusual, I don’t think, to rack up 100 rejections while sending out 5 different pieces of writing — that’s 20 per story or essay. After the above blog post was making the rounds on Twitter, someone at the Hayden’s Ferry Review asked how many rejections most people get in a year, and the answers ranged from 50 to 250. I don’t think that’s the salient question, though.

I have been submitting both fiction and nonfiction pieces to literary magazines off and on since 2006. If I am counting anything, I’m counting rejections per piece, rather than how many rejections I’ve received in total. If I send out 20 submissions of the same essay or story and I don’t get a “nice” rejection (or an acceptance) from one of them, I suspect the piece of writing in question needs more work. And I tweak it before sending it out again, or I put it away until I am able to see its flaws more clearly. I think in many ways this is a numbers game, but I don’t think submitting a piece that needs work to more magazines makes it more likely to be published.

The numbers game should be your own, that is, how many rejections do you feel a single piece of writing can withstand before you feel need to revise it again? How many nice rejections should you rack up before you try to figure out what it is you need to tweak in that piece of writing to gain its publication somewhere? The answers may be different for different people, and probably, most successfully, are about each author’s intuitions about a piece of writing, where she’s sent it, and the results she’s gotten, more than any particular number.


*And I don’t mean 100 submissions at once. I think submitting in batches of 10-15 is a manageable and helpful way to go. When you’ve had responses from those, then send out the next batch, if necessary.


5 thoughts on “How (not) to count rejections.

  1. Hey, I took that same approach! I made a list of the 15-25 or so magazines that I’d like to see my work in, and that’s the list I run down any time I have a short piece to send out. (Which, lately, is not very often… Lol.)

    That said, I also subscribe to the Creative Writers Opportunity List, and sometimes there are specific callings (for types of writers, or themed stories, or whatever) and I will make note of those places that fit what I like to write or an idea I have. Whether they’re on my List or not.

    I’m glad you’ve started receiving nice rejections! It’s weird for most people to think about, but they really DO make a difference vs. form rejections.

  2. This is very wise. I really like: “Instead of sending to mags that might publish me, I decided to go after mags in which I’d like to be published.”

    I had a piece that, deep down, I knew wasn’t ready get several nice rejections. Then one day I saw the problem and fixed it with great new material. It’s great! It has, so far, been rejected by I think three places . . . Of course, those were contests, and maybe that’s a little different? But I am discouraged that I didn’t get placed or even accepted as a runner up. It’s with a magazine now I really like, and they have had it a while. But I am not fantasizing (much) because that hasn’t helped so far. I know it’s solid and I believe in it, so I just have to find an editor who agrees . . .

    • Contests are a whole different ball game, I think. I do a lot of research on the judges and what kinds of pieces have won in past years before I will enter something. If I think that my piece and a judge’s sensibility are along the same lines (of course you can never know…) then I will do it.
      Sometimes, though of course not always, when a magazine has a piece for a long time it means they are considering it (and it is getting passed from editor to editor while they make a decision). I hope that’s the case for you! Keep at it… I am sure you will find a home for your work!

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