Category Archives: Writing Advice

Writing Life: How to Deal with Rejection

Last semester one of my student’s poetry submissions was rejected by Young Arts (A literary contest for high school students.)
She’d spent a great deal of time on it. The work had been edited, memorized, and she even spent several hours recording a perfect performance of the poems by video. She’s tough on herself in several areas, an overachiever to be sure, so when she received the rejection she was devastated.
She cried in front of my desk for several minutes while I tried to talk her through it. “This is one place, one group of people who rejected your work.” I told her. “Rejection is part of being a writer.”
“But Young Arts is THE place, she said. I told her I knew how she felt and recounted a recent experience where my own work was rejected by a contest I respected. I told her how I cried, and I’m an adult who has been dealing with rejection for a while.
“But how do you deal with this all the time?” she said.
This question almost made me cry with her. It’s relevant to all of us. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

1) Accept that you will have your work rejected more often than not. On average, for about every 10 places I submit (individual poems) I’ll probably receive about 4 publications. My Submittable is pitiful. Submittable is a platform many literary journals and magazines use to compile written submissions. I have about 70% more “orange” (rejections) than I do “green” (acceptances.) About once a year I lead my students through the process of submitting to literary magazines. I only have them submit to five places and facetiously tell them to aspire to have 99 rejections before they are ever accepted for publication. One student walked in class one day and excitedly told me her work had been rejected and I gave her a high five. (This student was recently accepted to Yale but has never received a publication—this is a prime example of why one shouldn’t stop pursuing their craft in spite of rejection.) Rejection is part of being a writer.

2) Once you receive a rejection, make a practice of sending the work back out, immediately. Re-submit as tears of sadness are still drying on your cheeks. If you feel it needs editing, edit right away and get it back out into the world. Your work should always be under consideration somewhere. Since it takes so long to hear back, you don’t need to waste time to be depressed about it for a month before re-submitting. Google and find another literary journal/ press/contest and get it back out there. *Remember when submitting you can have the same work under consideration at one time. (I’d recommend having the same work at no more than five places.)

3) Make sure you sent the work to the right place. All literary journals, magazines and presses have an aesthetic, and publish work with certain themes, subject matter, etc. Use websites like Poets and Writers and New Pages to find places that match up with the type of work that you are submitting. When you find a literary journal or press, make sure that they actually publish the type of work you are submitting. You can do this by thoroughly reading their site, looking at previous work they’ve published, etc.

I took this photo of myself last summer, right after an ugly cry. MEND had been rejected for the Cave Canem Book Prize. As a fellow of Cave Canem, they are my jam. It was my toughest rejection of the year.


4) Realize that a rejection of your work is not always a rejection of you. There are so many reasons why work can be rejected. Here are some: your work wasn’t completely edited before sending, space in the publication (perhaps there’s a limit in page numbers, the press feels that your work doesn’t connect with their mission/vision, they received hundreds of submissions and yours was one of the last ones they considered, one person on staff was sick the day they reviewed your work and was in a bad mood…okay, I’m reaching here, but you get the point. Writers continue to the work after they are rejected because they love what writing does for them.

5) Keep it in perspective. Cry, be upset, do what you have to, but don’t stop. Don’t stop writing. Don’t stop submitting. Don’t stop improving your craft. One place– no matter how much you’ve built it up in your mind–should not decide the future of your writing career.

6) Know that someone, some literary staff, organization or press is going to see your work and love it. They are going to get it. They are going to say, “YAAAAASSSSS… this is what we’ve been waiting on!” If you’ve done the work of getting your submission in the best shape possible, it’s going to happen. Be patient.  And when it happens you will receive affirmation that your work is respected by your peers. You will be on cloud nine. You will glow with the warmth of success.

And sometime after, you’ll submit somewhere else, and you’ll face another rejection. Cause it is what it is, as they say.



How to Write or Finish Your Book in 2018

When I tell people I’m a writer, they usually respond with some version of, “I’ve been trying to write a book…” and then this trails off into infinity. But then I ask, “What’s it about?” Because I’m genuinely interested. Because I want to see everyone write what they have inside of them. I love talking about manuscripts and drafts with writers (it’s something I geek out over) and especially with people who don’t yet call themselves writers. So, since I’m often asked this question in person, by direct message, Facebook message, etc. I thought I’d make a list of things I’ve found helpful.
1) Compile what you already have. I’m hard pressed to write in a notebook. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’ve written on napkins, the backs of receipts, post it not336es, my hand, baby wipes, and yes, on good days, in a notebook. (I was kidding about the baby wipes.) Here’s what I’m saying: wherever you have written parts of your book, ideas, etc., find it all and type them into a Word document, in any order. Save the Word document as Manuscript. Don’t worry about a title now.
2) Stop thinking “masterpiece,” every time you sit down to write. You don’t need “the muse.” You don’t need for every sentence or line to be perfectly inspired at the moment of its conception. Just write. Just put your pencil/pen on to the paper and move it around to form letters. If you are afraid of writing something bad, you may never write. The way I’ve heard it—
you’ve got to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Stop being afraid to write something bad. The best writers do it all the time.
3) Stop editing while writing. You’ve decided to write two pages today. But after the first paragraph, you look up and see spelling errors, grammatical errors, etc. Then you spend 15 minutes correcting that one paragraph. By the time you are done, you may not feel like writing anymore. You may feel discouraged. My suggestion would be to finish writing what you’ve committed to write that day. There will be time for editing later. The important thing is that you follow your train of thought, uninterrupted, and get out what you want to write, first.
4) Read, read, read. This is crucial, especially for beginners. Read other books that are in the same genre as yours. Read books that are like the book you want to write. See what others have done so you can see where you fit in. And stop being afraid of reading other’s work. You have your own personal style and voice. Reading only enriches your own voice and sparks your imagination. I began writing a new manuscript last January and what I did for constant inspiration was to read one collection of poetry a week.
5) Set writing goals. Decide on a reasonable time (based on your schedule, personality, lifestyle, etc.) you’d like to be done with first draft of the book. Decide on a number of pages you’d like to write each week or month. In 2017 I decided I wanted to start working on my second book. I decided I wanted to write 60 poems by August 31. That meant that I’d need to write two poems a week. To keep the momentum going, I knew I needed to read so I set a goal of reading one book of poetry a week. I’d read; get an idea for what I could do, and then I’d write two poems. A lot of them were messy and bad, but when I got into the habit, some of them were good. In the process of writing the new book, my current manuscript MEND was accepted for publication. I had to put the new book on the back burner, but I accomplished over half of my goal.

6) Lastly, find a space that is conducive for you to write. As I type now, Eden, one of my twins, is braiding my hair, pulling it and tugging my head to one side. Seriously. Right now. Vivienne is asking me to replace the batteries in her toy. Unless I’m relentless, I usually don’t write at home. Finding time to write for me means writing at work, on lunch breaks, early morning or when my kids go to bed.

When is the best time and place for you to write?