from the editor's desk


So Your Piece Has Been Rejected

Josephine Taylor

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!

Works Cited

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.

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  1. Kristian Patruno says:

    Thank you so much – this is the warmest, most human, rejection I’ve ever received.

    Thanks again!

  2. Rafiq Ebrahim says:

    A very informative piece to encourage writers, beautifully written.

  3. Thank you, Jo: a clear-sighted, empathetic and beautifully written reflection on the potential value of rejections. Westerly readers might also be interested in the website of Melbourne writer Robert Lukins, who had twenty years’ worth of rejections before having his debut novel published by UQP. And in contemplating the rejections I’ve received over the years, I try to keep in mind the words of the American novelist Jane Smiley: “No one asked you to write this book.” A little barbed, yes, but also, alas, unarguably true (unless you’re lucky enough to get a big fat commission…)

  4. deva punito fairborn says:

    Aaaaaaaaaaah !

  5. David Shapiro del Sole says:

    Really appreciate your empathic and encouraging words for those of us who have known rejection. Reading your piece almost made “failure” a pleasure.

    Thank you.

  6. Mike Ekunno says:

    I appreciate the extra length you had to go in this. True we’re of differing emotional strengths but I’ve never had to feel bad with a rejection. The Zeitgeist is really a huge part of many acceptances but I guess only editors know what they mean about ‘fit’. My two pence:upcoming writers should target more online publications, themed issues, and non-paying markets – these are less competitive.

  7. Philton says:

    Dear Jo

    I admire your commitment and empathy demonstrated by the very considerable effort you have put into this detailed advice. No other journal does this – rejections are despatched with either no further comment or a ‘standard-letter’ statement that it doesn’t necessarily mean your work isn’t good and you’re encouraged to submit again (possibly true/sincere and may be morale-boosting for novices, but otherwise of no help). In my ‘behind the scenes’ experience (if I can put it way) not all lit journal editors do care as you’ve described – though there’s others who do (sans anything like your advice). In all respects, FULL MARKS for Westerly and yourself!

  8. Margaret Ferrell says:

    Thank you for your understanding care and empathy in a wonderful piece of writing which encompasses all that a rejection means to the writer. But what is special is the advice you give and the optimism which comes through as well as facing up to hard facts about how the writer has to deal with the aftermath of rejection. Sincere thanks for your generosity of time in producing such a useful statement.

  9. Roger Knight says:

    A compelling conversion of discouragement to encouragement. Many famous writers have endured repeated rejections. Robert Frost in particular. I think that there is an element of congruence and connection at play here as well. Overall an appreciated attempt to dispel any despair.

  10. James G. Piatt says:

    Dear Jo:

    Well done! When I first started sending out my poetry, years ago, I was devastated when I was rejected! Now, It is a common occurrence (ha ha ) which is something which keeps me humble. I have had over 1,450 poems accepted in over 200 journals, and probably 5 times that many rejections, and all of the rejections were eventually accepted. One must understand that each journal, magazine, etc. has its own ethic, is own likes and dislikes, usually based on an editor’s background, educational institutions, etc. It rarely has to do with the quality of a poem. Rejections cause us to exam rejected poems, and edit or even rewrite them. It is sort of a nudge to make the poem better. Your advice is precious!

  11. fiona black says:

    Thankyou for such a kind rejection and the care you have given to the topic, so beautifully written. As a novice writer, yet to be accepted, I was more prepared for and ‘hardened’ to the rejection than these actual words which have moved me to tears!

  12. Ndina says:

    Here, here. Same thoughts as above comments. I will treasure these for ever. I have printed out. It will remained on my corkboard for many years to come. This is no doubt bring years to any person who loves writing. Published or no Published. Many thanks

  13. Tarla says:

    I like how there’s a blank space next to Canberra Times… not much has changed! Rejection is definitely better than being left in limbo

  14. Habib Korede says:

    Thank you for making us perceive rejection from another optic.

  15. Ernie Brill says:

    I’m grateful for ths importance piece. But one added point is needed. Many magazines have college students in their twenties, usualy white and privileged to certain extents, often in MFA programs. How can they have the experience to unnerstand storis or poems sent in by writers of color? Many great stories are lost to the reading public because the leaders do not have the experience or savvy to get the story.or appreciate it. For example, if college students do not read much African American literature, which in fiction and poetry is hands down the best literature being written today – Tyehimba Jess’Olio, Perceval Everetts Trees. Doug Kearney’s Buck Studies, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Blacks, if they dont read the literature and lack real life experience how can they read a story aboutrace? Same goes forclass and gender.

    • Catherine says:

      Hi Ernie,
      I appreciate this concern, and it is a central part of our remit. Our external editors, who lead in our selection of work through a blind reading process, are all established industry professionals with a broad awareness of literary form and the importance of diverse voices. (None of us are college students, except our interns, who are with us to learn.) We also have a specific Editorship for First Nations Writing, which is acknowledging this very problem of bias and attempting to make space for representation and equitable assessment within the context of colonisation in Australia. We do not publish much African American literature, it is true, because we are based in Australia and our publication tends to centre on our cultural context here. I hope that helps, though?
      All my best,
      Catherine, editor.

  16. ERNIE BRILL says:

    I recently noticed your reply. So I have another comments. I understand that, yes, being in Australia, you might want to publish more indigenous writers from there at the same time, have you never published South American or South African poets, or British or Irish poets? If Yeats was alive and send you a poem would you not take it or would you take it? Neruda? Sterling A. Brown?

  17. Chris Arnold says:

    Hi Ernie,
    Westerly regularly publishes poetry from international poets. Issue 62.2 is a particularly good example, in the digital archive. There’s poetry, scholarship, and fiction from writers in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia. And recently, UK poet Helen Ivory’s work appeared on the cover of our issue 62.2! We certainly wouldn’t reject Yeats, Neruda, Brown, or anyone else on the basis of their nationality.
    All the best, Chris.

  18. Thanks for your reply. I sent you Flash x2

    I have my own doubts about my Flash writings. Winging my way through my own imaginings.
    Congratulations on your Issue.

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