Me vs. Fear of Rejection (with a happy ending)

crushed paper - writer´s block - crumpled paper with unfocused background

A couple years back, in quick succession, I submitted three essays to a well-respected website, all of which were snapped up.  My fourth attempt didn’t fare so well—Not for us, my editor said—and I haven’t sent her anything since.

I am the first to say that this is patently ridiculous—a fact of which I was reminded this week as I read writer and writing coach Linda Formichelli’s wise and practical reflections on the submission process.  Here is what she said in a Facebook post excerpted from her upcoming e-book:

I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty: Between 1996 and 2012 I sent out 200 queries—each one to multiple publications—and sold 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate—or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)

So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?

It’s because I was too stubborn to give up, even when I was failing most of the time. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.

So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing: Rejection isn’t about you. If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.

When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product itself?

No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.

The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.

It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”

If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from trying, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!

The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. Easier said than done, I know. But the ones who get rejected the most are the ones who succeed, because it means they’re putting their work out there.

Yes, easier said than done—and for some of us more so than others. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I have an absurdly heightened (and self-defeating) response to perceived rejection.  I really can’t say why. Temperament? Childhood experiences? Cultural messages? For whatever reason, I quail at the prospect of pushing myself—or my work—forward when I have even the faintest glimmer that interest may be lacking.     

But you know what? I’m getting better. The most helpful thing has simply been being aware that this is a thing I do and that the mere fact that I am thinking something doesn’t make it true. Sometimes it also helps to play with gamifying the process. So what if I send this here? I wonder what will happen?  I also try to focus on actions and measure success in those terms. Submitted the essay to three outlets? Excellent! I win. Whether it’s accepted or not has nothing to do with me.

I had a chance to deploy all of these strategies a couple weeks ago, when an essay I’d sent to two editors went into a media black hole. One editor never responded at all. The second, just back from vacation, said she didn’t know when she’d get to it and didn’t want to hold me up. I almost gave up then, but for some reason, I decided to first reach out to another writer, someone I’d met on Twitter who I thought (I’m still not quite sure why) might have another idea. And, as it happened, she did. The piece went to her editor at who got back to me super quickly. “I’m blown away. I love this piece, and I’d be happy to publish it as a guest post,” she wrote, before going on to offer me a paid blogging contract.

To say this email made my day would be putting it mildly. The piece went up this week. It’s called The Day Job Is Having Its Moment, and you can read it here.

So in the end, I was lucky that the first two editors passed on this piece. It doesn’t always end this way. But remember: It sometimes does.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

40 thoughts on “Me vs. Fear of Rejection (with a happy ending)

  1. I forgot how I stumbled across this post, but thanks so much for this post. You’ve got a new fan!

  2. This was so timely (even though I found it late!). I just got a rejection letter from someplace I really, really, really wanted to like me. Maybe they don’t ‘not like me’ – maybe they just didn’t have a place for what I wanted to write about :)

    • Awww, sorry about that! And glad the post came when you needed it. I found Linda’s message so helpful and hope you did too.

  3. A read that we can ALL relate to! Confidence and fear of rejection strangely often go hand in hand. Who knew it would be so tough?! These days I tend to look at fear in the eye and mutter “Is that all you’ve got?”. Yup, we’ve become good friends throughout the years. Thanks for sharing!

    • I love that idea of befriending fear — do you know that poem The Guesthouse? (If not, you might want to google it–reminds me of what you said) Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  4. Thanks! This is so good to hear. Right now, I’m still at the point of writing for free to hone my craft, but the message is applicable to so many areas of life. For instance, today I’m auditioning for a part in a play. I know that several women want the role, and if I don’t get it I shouldn’t take it personally. But still….

    I wrote a piece for my blog about rejection just a couple of weeks ago. I guess I’m still working on it.

    • Yes, it really is a metaphor for approaching life generally, isn’t it? Come to think of it, let go of results is, as I recall, pretty much the central message of the Bhagvad Gita. Thanks so much for reading & taking the time to comment!

  5. I needed this right now. I’m try not to get down when I get those “rejections” but like you said, it’s not always easy. It’s all about persistence.

  6. Thanks for writing this. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when my first piece got picked up for publication (and when I got paid!). I heard the news at work, via email, and let out such a whoop that my office mates heard me through the door! I’ve had a lot of rejections in the years since, but this was a good reminder that there are a lot of factors involved and taking it personally just slows you down. I was stunned when one of the teachers in my MFA program shared her list of submissions, complete with acceptances and rejections for each piece. A published author, and still, so many rejections! I keep a file on my submissions now, and it’s still up and down, but your piece is a good reminder about how persistence is the key!

    • Absolutely! Farther down on this thread I posted a similar list compiled by the wildly successful Cheryl Strayed. Same lesson, different teachers. : )

  7. This was a shot in the arm (in a good way) thanks so much for putting things into perspective for us wannabes.

  8. Interesting points about not personalizing rejection – easy to know but tough to learn. Essential though, since we pretty much close the door in our own faces if we can’t. I write fiction and non-fiction and hands down, the two things that I grappled with most were: deal with rejection professionally, and develop voice; two things I thought I knew – until I learned them. Nice post.

    • Thanks Susan! Also, I find these (& so many other) things I need to learn over and over again. Sometimes it seems like that’s what life is–the same lessons presented repeatedly in slightly different (& hopefully interesting) permutations. : )

    • “…easy to know, but tough to learn.” SO true! I can’t tell you how badly I needed to read this post of yours, Amy, as well as the comments. Brilliant women in Generation Fabulous whom I’ve come to admire (and aspire to be like), yet who struggle with many of the same feelings I’m having–and simply do it anyway. This is such a great example of the good that can be found on the Internet when you seek the right inspiration and ask the right questions. Thanks for contributing to that.


  9. I quit pitching to magazines for two reasons.
    First, I got tired of pitching stories, getting rejected and then seeing the same story in the magazine a few months later (stolen ideas… cannot copyright ideas)
    The final blow was when I wrote up a requested story for a magazine, re-wrote it as requested and then they pulled the story at the last minute with no payment (kill fee) at all to me.
    That’s when I started writing my blog and selling my own books… and I’m much happier doing my own thing!

    • Excellent! Sometimes the best thing to do is come up with a new strategy, not keep pounding away at the same old thing. Sounds like that’s exactly what you did. More power to you!

  10. I actually found this post AFTER reading your great article in Forbes and then seeing that you’d posted on Making a Living Writing.

    I just got a few rejections (and a couple book submissions have been out for more than 6 months — I haven’t heard, and probably won’t even get a rejection). I was pretty much ready to give up on a couple pieces, but your quote from Linda Formicelli is inspiring me to soldier on.

    • I’m so happy to hear that! In a similar vein, you might appreciate this from the wildly successful Cheryl Strayed, which made the Facebook rounds a few weeks back: “Going through a drawer I found the submissions/applications log I’ve kept off and on over the years. Just in case you think it’s all been roses I’d like to report that Yaddo rejected me (as recently as 2011). McDowell rejected me. Hedgebrook rejected me twice. The Georgia Review rejected me and Ploughshares rejected me and Tin House rejected me, as did about twenty other journals and magazines. Both The Sun and The Missouri Review rejected me before I appeared in their pages. Literary Arts declined to give me a fellowship three times before I won one. I’ve applied for an NEA five times and it’s always been a no. Harper’s magazine never even bothered to reply. I say it all the time but I’ll say it again: keep on writing. Never give up. Rejection is part of a writer’s life. Then, now, always.”

  11. Cheers, Amy! I struggle with this one a lot myself. It’s hard to know when to hold ’em or fold ’em. I find maintaining my own confidence around the quality of what I’m doing is the key to being able to push through the rejections long enough to find that “lucky break.”

    • Whatever works, right!? Glad you’ve found what works for you–and thanks for taking the time to read & comment. : )

  12. Thank you for such an encouraging and practical article. It’s nice to hear some happy endings and a great reminder that those who are published have most often, faced more than their share of rejection. Thick skin recommendation noted. Stopping in from a link Lisa @ grown and flown left in my reading list.

  13. Love this. Precisely the words I needed to hear. Thanks and I am looking forward to Linda’s book. I am gong to share this post in some writers groups, I very much hope it gets a massive audience. Lisa.

    • Thank you so much, Lisa! As I just said elsewhere, I am delighted to know that my inner lunatic may be of use to others. ; )

  14. I can’t express how much I hate the media black hole. To be completely ignored feels so cold and condescending. Anyway, I hope you **accepted** the paid blogging contract. That sounds like a nice offer.

    • Yep, it is no fun. That’s for sure! As for the blogging contract, sadly I’m just too busy right now to take on a weekly commitment (and it wasn’t THAT much $$), but they’re kindly leaving the door open so I’ll hope to revisit in a couple of months when that day job has calmed down a bit. (We’re up against a big end of October deadline.)

        • Well, not a rejection as much as a deferral. But yes, still sorta funny–clearly my rejection hypersensitivity is limited to MYSELF.

  15. Amy, thanks for including my e-book excerpt! I’m glad it resonated with you so much. I hope you keep pushing forward despite rejection. Remember: You’re just selling pita chips! :)

    • Thanks, Linda! And yes, I seem to have my rejection-phobia more or less in hand for the time being, thank goodness.

  16. Very inspiring essay! I wish someone would do average acceptance/rejection metrics for literary fiction. 1in 1000 would make me feel better!

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