When I teach classes or workshops in creative writing, I often bring with me an old Account Book, its seventies-style, 3D-geometric-patterned cover held in place with an elastic band. This tatty relic is West Australian writer Julie Lewis’s ‘Record of Material Sent to Publishers’, and it covers the years 1977 to 1989. (Julie was published by Westerly on many occasions, perhaps most movingly in Volume 48, November 2003, where ‘A Stationary Traveller’, which was compiled and edited by Joan London, appears.)
Near the end of her life, Julie and her husband, John, lived on the street in which I have since settled. Their home—a shacky but pretty kind of beach house once common here—was over the road from my parents’ house; Julie introduced my mother to writing and encouraged her efforts with the generous intelligence and vitality for which she is often remembered. Some years after Julie’s death, John asked if I wanted Julie’s books. For hours on successive weekends I loaded books and folders into boxes, and lugged them to my car. For a while these boxes and teetering stacks sat in the shed under the house. Then I moved them to an alcove inside the house, where they again sat. Eventually I passed most of the material on to the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre.
Julie’s ‘Record’ was one of the items I felt I had to keep.
When I first turned the pages of this journal, kneeling on the floor in the author’s home, I was astonished at the repetition of the word ‘Rejected’—on every single notated page, down each and every column. Occasionally an ‘Accepted’ would pop up, and Julie had ringed these in red, which had the paradoxical effect of celebrating each appearance yet accentuating its occasional status. As I read the names of familiar journals and literary periodicals, and as I turned pages into successive years, astonishment turned to a strange kind of relief.
Julie’s ledger taught me several valuable lessons: it is commonplace for writers to have their work repeatedly rejected; and, writers must often submit the same piece to numerous outlets before finding publication—tweaking or re-drafting where necessary. Of course I already knew this—as you probably do, too—through what I’ve been taught, and through conversations with other writers. But Julie’s record is the tangible proof I needed. Each time I bring it to a class or workshop I look again at the entries and read again Julie’s strong and steady hand. It tells me not to despair; it encourages me to persevere.
Through thinking through my reactions to this ledger I also understand myself as a writer more. It was, and is still, a relief to know that a writer as well respected and talented as Julie Lewis was so ‘rejected’; it meant that I could factor ‘rejection’ into my own career, and not be as devastated on each occasion as I might have been otherwise; being ‘rejected’ did not mean that I might not be successful overall. What I learned, and what I teach, is that writers must be talented and tough, resilient and stubborn. If they know—truly know—their writing to be good, they must believe in it. This, through years of effort, is one of the hardest but most important elements of being ‘a writer’.
Have I become a better person by having some of my work declined? Probably. Have I become a better writer? Absolutely!
Receiving a ‘rejection’ turns you back on yourself; it stimulates re-evaluation. The qualities needed to survive this, and to continue to grow as a writer, include a bloody-minded determination and, equally important, a desire to improve yourself as a writer.
It is easy to become focused on the end-point, the product, and natural to want to see your name ‘in print’. What is more difficult is to stay committed to the process. This means putting the writing itself first: being able to admit weaknesses and flaws; being open to improvement; above all, being humble. It means putting in the regular practice day after day, year after year. It means being patient; knowing when the time for a piece of writing has come.
Putting the writing first also means listening to it—knowing when it needs more work; hearing when it is ready. Contradicting slightly my earlier points—and isn’t this creativity business full of contradiction and paradox?—it also means resisting external influences, and staying true to the artistic vision of the work. Every era has a Zeitgeist—or ‘spirit of the times’ (Moore)—and this trend of ideas or beliefs, this cultural mood, has its effect on what readers seek in writing, and what publishers look for in submissions. What I have learned is that the Zeitgeist plays its part in whether a writer’s work will be accepted, but writing consciously to meet that Zeitgeist is not to be recommended. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, your writing will be in accord with the Zeitgeist, but often it won’t. Regardless, I believe it’s important to stay true to your own creative impulse and instincts.
Finally, and this is painful to communicate, being repeatedly ‘rejected’ might mean that you aren’t writing at a standard of publication. If you are having no success in competitions, no submissions accepted, and this continues over a long period of time—only you can know how long ‘long’ is—you might wish to determine if it benefits you to continue writing. One test includes asking for the starkly honest opinion of people who are ‘good’ readers and/or writers. (A nice side-benefit, if the writing is given an overall tick but weaknesses are identified, is correcting writing tics and blind-spots.) On the other hand, if you love writing for its own sake, if the practice of bringing a world and its people to life brings you joy, then, does it matter? Write away!
For those of us who seek publication, who continue to write and submit but need a gentle word of encouragement every now and then, I look to the words of authors pasted around my study, including local author Joan London, who has appeared in Westerly on several occasions (e.g. Westerly 34.3). She says: ‘I think any creative endeavour has a magical element, but you have to earn the good moments: they come after a lot of trials and despair’ (Wiltshire 33).
But isn’t it worth it?
Most editors are writers too. We’ve had our work rejected on multiple occasions, and know well the instant of heart-sink on reading THE EMAIL and the feelings of inadequacy and sense of despondency that can follow. What I have learned since taking up the position of Associate Editor at Westerly is that ‘rejecting’ has its own difficulties, and can generate its own uncomfortable emotions of uncertainty, reluctance and guilt, as well as empathetic distress. I write this not to garner sympathy—woe is me being in a position to read and assess so many fine pieces of writing!—but for another reason: so you, the reader, know that we do not take rejecting submissions or the disappointment this might produce lightly, and we do not decline submissions easily. The process involves considerable agonising and numerous conversations, sometimes with other independent experts beyond our usual advisors. I hope that by outlining some of the many factors that enter into the process of assessment the pain of rejection might be eased, even if only a little.
A simple fact to begin, and to provide context: Westerly generally receives anywhere between 500 and 700 submissions for each issue, of which we are able to publish only around 10%. Some issues have received over 1,000 submissions…
So, what happens to your piece after it is submitted to Westerly? First, the submission is logged via Submittable. It is given an initial assessment by one of the Westerly editors, ensuring it is de-identified and then sent to the relevant external editor (Poetry, Prose or First Nations Writing) as part of a single-blind peer-review process. (If it is an academic article, submitted through our scholarly portal, it is de-identified and sent to two reviewers as part of a double-blind peer-review process.) After recommendation by the external editor/reviewers, the piece is assessed again on its own merits, as well as being evaluated as part of the upcoming issue. In all these levels of assessment, time is taken by each editor to enter into the creative world of the piece; to be open to feeling its effects; and to understanding or wondering about the intent of its author. Note too that each editor inevitably has their own likes and dislikes; we balance this out as much as we can by having each piece assessed by at least two independent people.
Whether or not a piece of writing is accepted is at least partially determined by the anticipated content of the upcoming issue and by the nature of other submissions. If the upcoming issue is themed, then the submitted piece needs to fit this theme. If the issue is not themed, other elements come into play, including the quantity and quality of submissions, and the balance of pieces overall. Such considerations vary from issue to issue, with each issue developing its own feel and its own preoccupations. Each issue also attracts submissions that may be markedly similar in content, style or form. For the sake of issue balance and variety, choices must be made: even if the similar pieces are all of exceptional quality, all cannot be accepted; even excellent writing may not ‘fit’ the volume of work that is developing. So while we are thrilled to report that the standard of submissions to Westerly is generally very high and highly competitive, this means that often we must decline to publish very deserving work.
Finally: when your piece is rejected, we are not rejecting you, even if it feels that way. If you continue to submit your work to Westerly, a future piece may well be accepted. Or you might find that the piece ‘rejected’ by us is taken up by another publication. So please remember the simple equation: your piece ≠ you. And please keep submitting to us: we truly value your dedication and heart, and hope to publish you in the future!
Moore, Bruce, ed. Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary. Fifth ed. Australia & New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Wiltshire, Trea. ‘Graduate Wins Cream of Literary Awards’, Uniview, 36 (Winter 2016): 32–33
Josephine Taylor is a writer, editor and educator living in Perth, Western Australia. Her debut novel, Eye of a Rook, was published by Fremantle Press in February 2021 and shortlisted for the Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer in the 2021 WA Premier’s Book Awards. She is currently working on her second novel and further personal essays. Josephine is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Writing at Edith Cowan University and an Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre for 2022. She was Associate Editor for Westerly from 2017 – 2022.