Short Fiction Rejection Letters: Best practices and expectations
by Benjamin C. Kinney
Rejection letters are an inescapable part of the writing life, especially for authors of short fiction. The internet is full of advice to build persistence in the face of rejection – which is good advice, but it’s only one side of the coin. It takes two to reject, after all. If you’re new to the field, it’s hard to know what a rejection letter should look like.
Here’s what you should expect, and hope for, in a market’s responses to your submissions.
Markets should post an estimated response time, and inform you if your piece will be held substantially longer than the posted response time.
Markets should post a way to contact them with submission-related queries, and should respond to serious queries within a reasonable time frame (e.g. a week).
Markets do not need to respond if you reply to a rejection letter. Most markets discourage replying to a rejection letter, even with a simple “thanks.”
Markets should, ideally, send rejection letters that include your name and/or the name of your submission. However, to accomplish this efficiently, the market must have a submission management system (e.g. Moksha, Submittable). Those aren’t free, so small markets and one-off anthologies may be unable to do this.
Short story selection is an act of art criticism. There are no objective metrics. Professional markets receive far more excellent submissions than they can publish, and must make cuts accordingly.
- Editors’ choices may depend on factors outside your story (e.g. budget constraints, other stories recently bought), all of which are legitimate editorial needs.
- Editors should strive to ensure their needs & tastes aren’t tied to a narrow cultural background.
Most markets send form-letter rejections. These are typical and acceptable; other options take work, and more work per submission means slower responses. Vague rejection language like “it didn’t work for us” is common, and means exactly what it says. Form rejections can be brief, but the market’s staff should be aware of the emotional impact of words, and write a letter that feels supportive rather than dismissive.
Some markets use “tiered forms,” which means they have a handful of different form letters, and the choice reflects something about the staff’s reaction to your submission.
- These are useful, because they provide you with additional information and transparency while requiring minimal extra work for the market.
- These may be “cryptic,” where the form text has a specific meaning that may not be obvious. This creates extra challenges for writers outside the community of in-the-know published authors.
- An example of clear and encoded form responses for the same editorial path:
- Editorial path: first reader passed the story up to the editor, who got two pages in and decided it wasn’t a good fit.
- Cryptic high-tier form: “This was well-written, but it didn’t grab me.”
- Clear high-tier form: “Our first readers enjoyed this, and sent it to me for a second read.”
- If a market uses tiered forms, they are under no obligation to delineate every step in their submission pipeline. You wouldn’t want every last detail anyway. In the example above, it benefits nobody to add “…but I didn’t finish it.”
A few markets personalize their rejection letters with feedback about your story. These can provide invaluable feedback, but can sometimes prove frustrating when the feedback critiques an aspect that you loved. The best personal feedback:
- Provides some positive feedback in addition to the negative.
- Uses subjective language to describe what element of the story elicits the staff’s reaction. For example, “the worldbuilding didn’t make sense” might be better put as, “the story didn’t sell us on its worldbuilding.”
- Uses relative language to keep its critiques opinion-centered. For example, “the character didn’t have an arc” might be better put as, “we wanted more from the character arc.”
- Touches on one or two important issues. Don’t expect it to cover all of the staff’s concerns.
- Is distilled from, not a copy of, the staff’s internal notes. Internal notes can (and should) be more brusque because communication depends on the intended audience.
Personal feedback can still be helpful even if it doesn’t meet all these criteria. As with all feedback, it is your responsibility to decide whether to incorporate it. Remember that unless the editor has specifically requested a resubmission, your revised story will go to a different market, with an editor who has different needs.
Different markets have different standards for how often they send personal rejections (e.g. never, rarely, often, always, for top-level rejections only). For “sometimes” markets, don’t read too much into the feedback’s presence/absence. Personal feedback requires that your story has an issue the staff can identify easily and describe concisely – criteria which have little relationship to the issue’s severity.
You and the market have different priorities and different constraints. Markets may not have the time to provide detailed or elegant rejection letters, but they should still strive to treat you with respect and professionalism.
These guidelines reflect the opinion of one editor and author. As in so many other parts of writing, there are no objective metrics!
Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, editor, and neuroscientist. His fiction has been published in Fantasy Magazine, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. In his editorial role as Assistant Editor of Escape Pod, he’s responsible for managing a team of first readers, selecting stories to send to the Co-Editors, and writing rejection letters for over 2400 stories per year. You can learn more about him and his work at https://benjaminckinney.com