Sunday, January 17, 2010

Notes from Beneath the Covers: Why Poems/Stories/Essays are Rejected from Literary Journals

Good Morning, friends of words.

Here are some highlights from one of the classes I taught at the Whidbey Island Writers Workshop...

The first class I taught was called: Beneath the Covers - An Editor's Insights to Literary Journals -

One thing I did was make a list of why we (at Crab Creek Review or other literary journals) might reject writers.

Here are some reasons your work might be rejected from a literary journal (or our literary journal) --

You sent at the wrong time or didn't follow submissions guidelines.

Your story/poem/essay is too long.

Your story/poem/essay is too short.

We have realized our issue has a theme to it and your story/poem/essay doesn't fit it.

We have everything we need for the next issue.

I am tired or cranky.

Your story/poem/essay made it to the final part of the process where we talk about it, but no one stood up for it and said "I love this."

We became frustrated in choosing and decided no.

I have read your story/poem/essay right before bed and just wanted to get through my batch of work and didn't go back in the morning to give it another good read.

Your story/poem/essay is pretty wonderful, but there is one weak part.

Your story/poem/essay is very well-written, but it's just not to our taste.

Your story/poem/essay is wonderful, but we don't like it.

Your story/poem/essay is not very well written or feels as if it could use some revision.

*** As you can see, there are a lot of reasons on this list that you cannot control.

What I think is interesting about this list is that only the last 1, (Your story/poem/essay is not well written...) is really, the only thing you can control and only one reason out of many for something to be rejected, and yet, as writers when we get a rejection we might think we're rejected because 1) we're not good enough or 2) our writing is not good enough.

I tried to remind the writers/students that when your work is rejected to think "not now" instead of "not good enough."

If you have worked on writing, revised in and sent in the best possible draft you can, at some point we have to realize that editors (myself included) are human and that your work may have been rejected because of other reasons.

I know that sometimes if I read submissions at night, I reject more than I do when I read them in the morning. Knowing this about myself, I make a point to reread submissions the next day in the morning if I felt I've rejected too many the night before or didn't give the work a fair reading. I know when I am tired and want to get to bed, I am more likely to pass on a piece just for the sake of getting all my reading done and getting to go to sleep, where as if I read your work in the morning, you have a much better chance of being selected, because I am fresh and not cranky.

I hate to say this, but it's true. You may have sent me an incredible story/poem/essay and I may have passed on it because I had just had an argument with my husband, or was annoyed because something in my house just broke. I try my best not to read during these crazy times of emotions, but sometimes deadlines are approaching and we read when we're not at our best.

The positive of this is that there many other editors who will stand up for your work when one of us being a crankster.

And here's something you may not know, in Crab Creek Review, we will publish your story/poem/essay even if one of us hates it.


Yes, we do not believe in consensus between our editors. We want to publish the poems/stories/essays that any one of us love. We do not have to agree on a piece for it to be published. We decided early on that if we go that way, then we'll have a lot of bland work in our journal. So if I love a poem and another editor hates it, but I say, "This poem needs to be in our journal," we will publish it. And vice versa. I have agreed to publish poems I did not like, but another editor was in love with and fought for.

I guess in the end, this is what we want-- work we will stand up for. Work that makes us fight for you.

So this is a little bit of what happens beneath the covers of a literary journal. My first class...

I'll give you some notes from class two (generating new work) and class 3 (your life as a writer) in the next few posts.


  1. I have three things to say. Usefull, insightful and honest.

    Thank you!

    I guess that makes four. :)

  2. love your honesty ;) and that you think of rejection as-not now. That is so true!

  3. Another very common reason for editors to say no, in my experience, is that the poem (or other writing) just isn't the kind of thing the editors want to publish.

    This could be something pretty basic -- a poet sends a half dozen highly polished sonnets to a magazine that mostly publishes surrealist free verse kind of stuff, or a poet sends sentimental religious/spiritual verse to a magazine that mostly publishes militantly public/political work. That kind of thing.

    Good list. Thanks for posting this.


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