A Million Reasons for Rejections

There are a lot of different reasons why editors (or agents) decide to pass on a written work. Often, writers can glean from insights offered in personal rejections that address the specific reasons why the editor decided to pass on their submission.

Providing personal rejections is time-consuming, however, and not all writers are receptive to feedback. As of August, we rejected approximately 80 stories for every Bee submission we accepted. Approximately 60 stories were rejected for every Twisted Love acceptance we sent out. 

Add in Illicit, novella and novel submissions. All have to be processed and accepted or rejected.

For the writer, the only concern is their story. For the editors and agents, there are numerous submissions to wade through, and the time it would take to respond personally to each one is time they often can’t afford.

In order to help writers assess their work and determine how to improve, let’s look at some common reasons for rejections.

Extensive Editing Requirements

Everyone ends up with a typo from time to time. We don’t expect submissions to be perfect; however, submissions that are riddled with mistakes are more likely to be rejected. Excessive technical errors and typos can indicate lack of knowledge at best, or sloppy indifference at worst. When there are a lot of mistakes present it can be an indication that the writer isn’t willing to make corrections. Editors and agents expect professionalism. Once they know that a writer won’t make required edits they’re far less likely to work with them.

Ignoring Submission Guidelines

No matter what a secondary site posts about submission guidelines, the submission guidelines on the publication’s website are always the ones you should follow. We have had issues with some secondary sources publishing incorrect word count limits or not publishing our full submission guidelines. As a result, writers have had works automatically rejected because they are well over the word count limit or because they sent multiple submissions to a project that does not accept them, or submitted after a submission call closed.

Another issue is underlined text or texts in italics. We specifically state in our guidelines no underlined text, yet people continue to send stories with large sections underlined. It’s straining to read, and we do not run text with underlining in our stories. Large sections of text in italics is also an issue. It is also harder for people to read. This is not just us being fussy: printers to website designers to publishers have strong opinions about italicized text and the common consensus is to use it sparingly.

Another reason for an automatic rejection is that we do not download files we’re reviewing. PDFs, RTFs and other types of documents may not be accessible through the reader, which is why we specifically ask for .doc and .docx files. We also don’t accept shared Google docs for fiction. 

The minute you think that you will be the exception to the rule, stop yourself. Unless you’ve sold millions of books worldwide (aka Stephen King, Ian Rankin) you are not the exception to the publication’s guidelines.

Sandra Ruttan

Comparable Theme

Sometimes, a news story inspires a number of writers and we receive several submissions dealing with the same basic topic. We aren’t going to publish them all. Sometimes, a writer has the misfortune of sending a story with a similar idea after we’ve read a dozen or more stories on that topic. At that point, their work isn’t strictly being evaluated on its own merits; it’s being compared to other similar stories. One way to ensure that your story rises above is to make sure it has some original elements that take it in a different direction than the reader might expect. Bring something new to the table. You’ll also need to ensure your writing is strong and that your submitted copy doesn’t have errors. The more common the theme/setting/trope used, the harder it is to distinguish your work.

Forgettable Characters

Without compelling characters all you have are cardboard cutouts that do and say what you need to serve the story. In great storytelling, well-rounded characters compel reader interest and the plot stems organically from believable actions. If the characters are not acting consistently or believably, readers will be frustrated. If the characters and dull and underdeveloped readers will abandon the story. This doesn’t mean all of their backstory needs to be on the page. It does mean that they should feel fleshed out. The reader should have a sense of who they are, what they want, what their goals are. They should have a sense of their values. 

Problematic Beliefs

Thorough, effective research is important. In crime fiction, writers may make the mistake of thinking that watching CSI is sufficient research to understand police procedure. It isn’t. Other writers will visit a gun range to have the experience of shooting a gun or go on a ride-along with police to learn about their job. Hours and even days can be spent researching crime scene procedures and different ways to kill a person. Whether or not your research was sufficient will show.

Many writers do not take enough time and care when presenting characters from different races, religions, genders or sexual orientations. Sometimes, writers betray their ignorance. Other times, writers convey racist, sexist or bigoted beliefs. For more insight, refer to this article on subtext

One way to ensure you’ve presented relevant information accurately and respectfully is to hire a sensitivity reader. One person’s opinion is not necessarily going to be shared by all people, which is why you may want more than one assessment. You also need to be prepared to listen to your sensitivity readers. If you ignore their input you will make mistakes. All writers are required to complete edits, and we may bring in a sensitivity reader if we have concerns. If you are not willing to make appropriate changes to be respectful you need to shop your story elsewhere.

Bad Writing

Sometimes, the reason for a rejection is bad writing. There are people submitting stories who do not know how to structure a story, how to develop characters, or how to write a grammatically correct sentence. 

Editing and Cohesion: Because Publishing Is About More Than Writing

There are times it’s apparent that the writer didn’t take any time to review their story and self edit or even use a spellchecker. There are also submissions that have details presented in a confusing way. A weak opening that fails to engage interest is far more likely to be rejected. Everything from video games to TV shows to other books to social media competes for the same audience you seek. You have to get their interest and hold it. If you haven’t done that in a few paragraphs they will abandon the story.

Other stories lack cohesion. They fail to deliver a clear and concise resolution. People feel so strongly about bad endings there are lists of them. I was in a book club discussion just last week where readers were talking about throwing a book against the wall because it didn’t have an ending. 

Pet Peeves

Editors all have their pet peeves. One of mine is POV ping pong. Jumping from character to character in the same scene with no clear orientation. Or lack of POV establishment. I don’t know who to attribute information and characteristics to because I don’t know whose head I’m in.

Another is unusual dialogue tags and improper punctuation with dialogue. I strongly prefer said/say. 

Finally, cliffhanger endings are problematic and grounds for an automatic rejection. Readers need some sense of closure, even if there is a potential for a series. A great example of how to resolve a story while laying the foundation for a series is Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World series. The first book does exactly what a first book needs to do. Cliffhangers are for subsequent books with an established series. Again, you aren’t the exception to the rules. 

Not Following the Specific Open Call Guidelines

When the submission call is for a very specific project, there will be thematic guidelines posted. Often, submissions do not fit those guidelines. After rejections go out for one anthology call, many writers make the mistake of simply flinging the story at any other anthology call they see. At the very least, if you do this you will waste your time and the time of the editors involved in processing subs. At worst, you might develop a reputation with editors if you do this more than once, and those editors may not prioritize review of your work in the future.

Fizzling

Some stories begin strong, with a great hook and tone. They reel the reader in, but then fizzle at the end or partway through. A strong opening is needed to hook the reader, and for a short story you need to do that job within the first page. You also need to maintain and hold them to a strong ending. The ending can make or break the story; there are several stories I’ve rejected because they dropped the ball at the end.

The “Why Don’t You Just Tell Me How To Fix It?” Rejections

There are times that clear flaws are present. In some cases, they are easy fixes. You might wonder why we don’t send a story back when it’s been great until the ending and give the writer a chance to fix it. 

Occasionally, we invite writers to revise; however, the volume of submissions we receive mean that we are often choosing between several excellent stories already. At a professional pay rate, edits should be minimal. 

We have also found that some writers refuse edits, argue over them or use the notes and place the story elsewhere. This is part of the reason why we are no longer providing specific information about the reason for a rejection. It’s also part of the reason why we are unlikely to issue revise/resubmit opportunities in the future. I realize it’s unfortunate that all writers are impacted by one writer who steals edits or wastes our time. However, I have a job to do, and a set number of hours to do it in. 

Tough Decisions

Sometimes, we have to reject stories simply because we’re out of space in the collection. Every open call I reject stories that I genuinely like and would have loved to publish, but there are a number of factors to consider when finalizing a collection. If a theme or tone emerge in the works under serious consideration, stories that fit the theme or tone best are more likely to be accepted. Sometimes, the budget impacts choices. If you can honestly assess your work and determine–based on reading our writing articles and other works we’ve published–that none of the other reasons for a rejection apply to you, there’s a good chance your work was one of the ones we seriously considered. 

If you want to be certain, purchase the collection you submitted to. There is no better way to gauge the editor’s interests and style preferences, and to honestly evaluate your own work by comparison.

Sandra Ruttan

Remember:

When you’re sending your submission it’s like going for an interview. Presentation matters. If you show that you haven’t paid attention to our submission guidelines and have sent material with a lot of mistakes in it, you’re telling us you don’t take your work seriously.

Our Rejection Policy:

We have decided not to provide further personal rejections. One reason is the time involved and our volume of submissions. We also regularly provide writing insights here on the Bee, which can help writers know what we’re looking for and assess whether or not our editorial style fits with their writing.

We have also had too many writers who have argued over rejections. Some complain to us and some complain on social media. When a writer makes a choice to handle a rejection poorly, it takes time out of our day. At the very least, emailed replies require a click and file. 

You get one chance to make a good impression. Make sure you make it count.