hen asked, I tell people I have been writing my whole life—which is true. As evidence, I have a couple decades worth of diaries I’ve lugged around during each of the seven times I moved. That said, even though I’ve been writing my entire life, it actually wasn’t until 2011 that I realized some vital facts and aspects of my writing practice: that my memoir wouldn’t write itself, that if I wanted to be a writer then I would have to actually write, that getting published would mean I’d have to submit my work somewhere (where?!?), and that sharing my story could be an act of compassion for a reader, as well as for myself. In other words, 2011 is the year that I started to take myself seriously as a writer.
- Commit myself to doing something I love and then actually doing it.
- Make writing my top priority in every aspect of my life.
- Don’t stop writing no matter how discouraged I might feel after getting one rejection, after another, after another, after another, after another, after...
I could go on.
In fact, I could go on 1,278 more times, because that’s the number of rejections I’ve received since January 2011. Yes, 1,278. That’s a lot of nos. You would think that after my 1200th rejection, I would a) get some sort of trophy or b) reconsider if writing is really my “thing.” But alas, nope—no need to reconsider anything. I love writing too much to quit it. Plus, I’m resilient and persistent. I’m the manifestation of that can-do attitude. I got this!
Or I’m just absurdly stubborn—which is true.
I have 1,278 rejection letters to prove this to you.
I’m about to give you a pep talk on some fundamental aspects of the submission process. I have a lot to say on this matter because regardless of, or perhaps because of, my four-figure rejection rate, I’m thoroughly skilled at successfully navigating the vast and abundant (if not overpopulated) land of literary journals.
I have over 150 publications (all within the past five years) to prove this to you.
Although 2011—my first year of Serious Writerdom—was spent collecting rejections like a tomboy and her rocks, I started to see that my acceptance rate was going up. So I kept going, kept submitting. This is where the word tenacity fits in, and this is where I realized that publication was really just a simple act of mathematics: The more submissions I made, the more rejections I received. The more rejections I received, the more acceptances I (ironically, eventually) received. Each rejection cleared the way for a different route through the maze towards publication. Each rejection just meant that I was at least one more submission closer to finding the right home for my writing.
“Each rejection cleared the way for a different route through the maze towards publication. Each rejection just meant that I was at least one more submission closer to finding the right home for my writing.”
From teaching writing courses, editing professionally, participating in an MFA program, and knowing a ton of writers, I have discovered there are four main reasons why writers don’t submit their work for publication:
- Their writing isn’t “good enough.”
- They don’t have anything “interesting” to say that other people will want to read.
- It’s overwhelming.
- They have a fear of rejection.
After having conversations with a variety of writers working in different genres, plus my own experience with writing, submitting, and editing/reading for numerous literary journals, I have discovered that there is really only one reason why you shouldn’t submit your work for publication:
- You don’t want to be published.
Aside from that, I can’t figure out why someone wouldn’t want to submit her writing for publication. For me, submitting is a blast. It’s a chance to share my work with at least one other human being. Because regardless of the outcome, when you submit your writing to a journal or magazine, what you’re doing is giving someone else the opportunity to read what you have written. Being a writer, I’m fairly certain that you, like me, enjoy reading and that there are some stories, essays, and poems that have completely amazed you—perhaps even changed the way you look at life. Therefore, one way to look at submitting is it’s your chance to share your awesome words with someone else.
But my writing is terrible! You might think. Maybe you are right; but being the maker of those thoughts, you aren’t really in an objective position to assess their validity. So, here is where I combat the four main reasons why writers don’t submit their work for publication:
- Their writing isn’t “good enough.”
- Notice the scare quotes! What’s “good enough” is debatable. As a writer, you probably think most of your writing is not “good enough.” Every writer thinks her writing is terrible. It’s some sort of rite of passage to publication—not believing in your work but submitting it anyway and BAM! Acceptance. Self-assumptions proved wrong. “Good enough” eliminated from vocabulary.
- They don’t have anything “interesting” to say that other people will want to read about.
- Those damn scare-quoted words! Think of some of your favorite books or shorter pieces of writing. A good chunk of them are probably about relatively banal and/or everyday subjects: relationships, family, objects in our lives, work, death (to name a few). You don’t have to have almost died while climbing a mountain, but thankfully a band of magical penguins found you and helped to guide you back to safety, in order for people to enjoy your writing. All you have to do is write your heart out. That, in itself, is interesting enough.
- It’s overwhelming.
- Perhaps. But once you start submitting, you get the hang of it, and you’ll feel silly for thinking it was hard or overwhelming. Remember learning how to ride a bike? How at first it seemed slightly impossible (There are only TWO wheels on this bike?), if not just totally scary (TWO WHEELS!); but then you learn what to do and it’s like, well, it’s like riding a bike.
- They have a fear of rejection.
- Think of the lottery: you can’t win if you don’t play.
- You won’t get your dream job if you don’t apply.
- You won’t get a raise from your boss if you don’t ask for it.
Being rejected is just a part of getting published; and if you don’t submit, you won’t ever get published. Also, if you only submit once and then that one submission gets rejected, don’t get down on yourself! You aren’t a failure. No one marries the kid they were dared to have their first kiss with under the slide during kindergarten recess. You have to keep going. A rejection isn’t a “hell no” but a “not quite.” A rejection isn’t that someone didn’t “like” your writing. In fact, there are a number of reasons why your piece might get rejected. The editor could have already accepted a piece that was very similar. The style of your piece doesn’t quite fit what the journal is looking for. I’ve declined a number of submissions not because they weren’t good, but because they just weren’t what I was looking for—which sounds vague, but is true.
So here are some things to remember about what a rejection actually means:
- Someone read your work and possibly thought, “Not quite what I’m looking for.”
- Someone read what you wrote.
- Now you can have a better sense of if you need to revise further.
- You are now one submission closer to an acceptance (because it’s not if, but when).
- You’ve now grown as a writer.
What #5 means is that just by submitting, you’re already becoming a stronger writer. Why? Because each time you submit, you’re telling the world that yes, you believe in yourself as a writer, and you believe in your work enough that you offered it to a complete stranger to read.
And if you don’t believe in yourself? Fake it ‘til you make it.
“Each time you submit, you’re telling the world that yes, you believe in yourself as a writer, and you believe in your work enough that you offered it to a complete stranger to read.”
All of that said, know that the point in writing is not to get published. The point in writing is you do it because you love it. Getting published is a bonus. And in my experience, it’s the bonuses that give me a surge of energy and inspiration to see what else I can do with ink and dead trees. (Or digitized ink and pixels.) So if you want that writing bonus, if you want to share your hard work with readers, then you have to submit. You have to accept the rejections as “not quites,” revise, submit again, wait some more, work on other things, and essentially just keep going. Like I said, submitting is the ultimate act of believing in yourself, believing that, regardless of response, you have something to say.
Now say it.
In my next column, I will be looking at different ways you can organize and keep track of your submissions. You will learn some of the literary journals out there, as well as how with organization and upkeep, the submission process can be a breeze.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome and won the 2016 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s, and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She’s the essays editor for The Nervous Breakdown. @ChelseyClammer www.chelseyclammer.com.
Chelsey is also an instructor for WOW! Women On Writing. Check out her upcoming course, Face Your Fears: Women Writers Anonymous.