I have used Duotrope for years now. The site is an incredible resource for writers: most of my peers use it, and those who don’t are always thrilled to be turned onto it. Despite being both a fan and user of the site, though, I never investigated its features. I used the site solely for researching literary journals that I might want to submit to or read.
That changed today. I began using their submission tracker to organize where my stories are and where they’ve been. This was partly for my sanity, and partly to help others: I have data that is valuable to the site and its users. I finally realized I should share it. (I also learned a bit more about how the site operates. In short, it needs our help, and I hope my fellow Duotrope users will join me in donating.)
The most interesting part of this data input, though, was revisiting all of the rejection letters I’ve received in the past few years. I began looking them up for the dates: I needed to know when I submitted a story and when I heard back from the publication. But as I began opening these responses, I started reading them. And what struck me first was how good they were. And what struck me next is how terrible that is.
When logging submission data in Duotrope, the user has the option to catalog the type of response he or she received. This ranges from acceptance to pending to rejection. Most every option has several variations. Rejection, for instance, breaks down as follows: Rejection; Rejection, Form; Rejection, Personal. At first, I thought I had several responses that could qualify as Rejection, Personal. But as I read deeper into my miserable little archive of rejection, I found too much in common between these seemingly kind and personal notes. They were aping the language and structure of intimate communication, but their similarities exposed them for what they were: form letters.
Personal rejection letters hold a special place amongst writers. It is, in essence, an honorable mention — an indication that the story is close, that there might be other factors preventing it from being published, that the author should try again with a revised or new story. I’ve been in countless conversations where I talk with friends about submissions and someone eventually asks, after all of the bad news, “Well, any personal rejections?”
Reading these letters reminded me of my work in fundraising, when the goal of a mass mailing was to find ways to connect with each recipient, no matter how fleeting or seemingly inconsequential such contact was. The intent was simple: “We have to do it this way, but we found a sliver of time just for you. Hope you can continue to support us.”
I don’t see what the intent is when it comes to such moments in rejection letters. I suppose it could be similar — that these publications don’t want to alienate potential subscribers/donors, or simply don’t want their submitters creating negative associations with the publication itself. But I wonder if the opposite is occurring: if rejected writers like myself are becoming frustrated not with rejection, but with a publication’s inability to plainly and flatly reject us when needed.
Such letters might not be as welcome as an acceptance letter, but they are just as clear in their messaging. What more could a writer want?