Sometimes Rejection Is Your Fault

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Yesterday’s post was about how rejection isn’t always your fault. Sometimes you get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with you or the work you’re submitting. That’s a comforting thought because it may mean that your work is actually good. However, it’s also possible that the rejection was entirely your fault. (Harsh, but true.) Here are some things that can and will result in rejection, but the good news is that you can fix them and prevent them from happening in the first place. 

  • You wrote a bad query letter/synopsis/proposal. This doesn’t mean that your actual story, book or article is bad, it just means that you haven’t mastered the art of querying or condensing your project down into something that makes sense, yet is still exciting. Querying is as much about marketing as it is about writing and marketing isn’t a native skill for many writers. Fortunately, you can learn through practice and study.
  • Your writing isn’t quite there. Maybe you haven’t mastered exciting dialogue or strong characterization. Maybe you haven’t mastered viewpoint or your middle section sags (the book, not your tummy). Maybe your plot is weak, your story is kind of boring, has been done before, or has too much showing and not enough telling. Whatever the problem, your writing just isn’t quite up to publishable standards. Yet. You can get there. Critique groups and beta readers can help, as can more practice and revision.
  • You’re unprofessional. You use slang or curse words in your communication. Your query letter is full of errors or weirdly formatted. You know nothing about the business side of publishing and you expect the agent or editor to walk you through everything. You demand instead of asking politely. Publishing is a business and gatekeepers expect you to act like a businessperson. Know the norms for the industry and adhere to them.
  • You’re arrogant/delusional. No one wants to see, “I’m the next J.K. Rowling” in a query letter. Nor do they want to read, “I plan to sell a million copies of this book and make us both rich” or, “I want Hugh Jackman to play the main character in the movie.” While it’s fine to have pride in your work, you also need to show that you are realistic about publishing and where your work falls along the spectrum. If you’re arrogant and ridiculous in your expectations/demands, expect rejection.
  • You’re crazy. No one wants to deal with the crazy person who calls at odd hours (and screams and cusses, “Why haven’t you read my #$^$@’ing book, yet?!”), exhibits stalker tendencies, sends odd things through the mail, sends an email every hour, makes threats (“Publish me or I’ll get you!”), or shows up at the office unannounced with a submission and a singing telegram. Don’t be a nut. Be professional, send only what is asked for and be polite in any communication.
  • Your submission is full of mistakes. A submission package riddled with typos, bad grammar, and punctuation and capitalization problems isn’t going to inspire confidence in the full manuscript. Typos happen, but do your best to make sure that your submission is error-free. Also, make sure that you’ve spelled the recipient’s name correctly. It can help to have a friend or colleague check over your materials before you send them out.
  • You didn’t follow directions. Agents and editors usually have very specific submission guidelines posted on their websites. This is for their convenience so that they receive materials in the formats/packages that are easiest for them to deal with. It’s also a test: Can you follow directions? No one wants to deal with someone long term who can’t even follow simple directions in the early stages. And, yes, the requirements will differ from person to person, meaning that you will have to constantly tailor your submissions to their requirements. No matter how annoying this seems, do it. You don’t want to inconvenience your recipient and you want to demonstrate that you can do what is asked of you.




  • You sent out a mass email. No one wants to get an email addressed to “Dear Agent,” with sixty other names in the recipient or c.c. fields. This shows that you haven’t done any research to determine who should receive your work and you’re lazy. Personalize your emails and communications so that each recipient feels like you really care whether they choose you or not.
  • You didn’t do your research. Thanks to the internet and all of the available guides, it’s pretty easy to find out if an agent/editor is open to submissions, whether or not they represent/publish your type of work, and what their submission guidelines are. Yes, there are times where you will do your research and still get burned by a gatekeeper who hasn’t updated their website or profiles in ages, but basic research will give you a better chance of connecting your work with someone who can help you. It wastes both your time and the editor’s time if you send them something that they clearly do not handle.
  • You don’t have a platform (non-fiction). These days, writers of non-fiction are expected to have a significant presence in their field. Large social media followings, previous books, work experience, magazine articles, scholarly publication, TV shows, radio shows, etc. are examples of things that publishers are seeking. If you don’t have a significant platform, expect rejection. Platform also helps in fiction, although the story is more important.
  • You need an editor. Sometimes a book or story is almost there and, with competent editing, could be made into something great. The problem is that most publishers have cut their editing staff to the bone and agents don’t have time to shape your manuscript. It’s not a bad idea to hire an independent editor to help you with your work prior to sending it out on submission.
  • Your project isn’t finished. Most agents and editors will not consider a novel that isn’t complete, particularly a first novel. Non-fiction usually needs a proposal as well as a few sample chapters. Sending in a query letter with, “I have this great idea for a story/book” will get you rejected. Also, and this should go without saying, never send in a first draft. Revise your work until it is as polished as you can make it.
  • Wrong length. Many magazines and publishers specify the word counts that they are seeking. Even if they don’t specify, there are general industry guidelines for length. While some people can get away with writing something that’s too long or too short, your best bet is to adhere to the usual or specified lengths.
  • Wrong time. There are some times that are better than others to submit your work. Submitting at an off time doesn’t guarantee rejection, but if you’re sending when the agent/editor is overloaded or trying to catch up from vacation, you’d better knock their socks off. Late November/early December are usually bad because all the inexperienced NaNoWriMo writers who are still high on caffeine and lack of sleep send in their rough drafts, swamping publishing offices under an avalanche of crap. Holidays and summer vacation aren’t thought to be great, either (although this may be an old wives tale), as agents and editors take time off and then have to hustle to catch up and may not have the time to be as thorough as tolerant as they might otherwise be.
  • You have a rap sheet. No, I don’t mean criminal activity (although being incarcerated can work against you, as well). As a writer, your rap sheet may include prior crazy behavior toward that agent or editor, a prior project that didn’t sell, a reputation that’s been damaged by a poor prior project, or a reputation as a “problem” within the industry. A bad reputation can be almost impossible to clean up so the best advice is to not screw it up in the first place. Act professional in public, never badmouth anyone in publishing because you never know who is listening, don’t act like a nut, and don’t rush to publish projects that aren’t ready or salable because their failure might bite you later.

Don’t let these things derail your submission. You’re likely to get rejected for plenty of reasons that you cannot control so it only makes sense to control what you can. Make sure that your submission and professional persona are the best that they can be. While you may still get rejected, you can at least take comfort in the knowledge that you did everything you could to put your best foot forward.


(Photo courtesy of geralt)


3 thoughts on “Sometimes Rejection Is Your Fault

  1. Deanne Charlton

    Thank you for your NO and YES posts about the reasons stories are rejected. I am sharing them on my Facebook DCharltonEdits page (specified here only to separate it from my personal FB page), along with other blogs for writers/illustrators/editors.

    I have only recently discovered your blog. Do you have a post on timid writers, the ones who are shy about submitting manuscripts, don’t know that “This is not right for us at this time, but we would like to see more from you” means to keep submitting? While it can feel devastating to any author, my understanding is that women writers, in particular, are prone to take a rejection slip far too much to heart.

    I’m now a subscriber!

    1. Jennifer Derrick Post author

      Thank you so much for subbing and sharing! I don’t have a post about timid writers currently written, but I do have something similar on my idea list. I’ll try to move it up and prioritize getting it written. Thanks again.

  2. Pingback: 16 Things NOT to Include in a Query Letter | Jennifer Derrick

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