What Wasn’t Written on the Rejection Slip: The Editors’ Diagnosis

By Marisol Ramirez, Assistant Editor

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. That rejection slip may have you thinking, “Well, I must be a bad writer,” and the truth is you very well may be if you are not avoiding these common writing pitfalls that lead to rejection. Let’s not pity ourselves now or be satisfied with the nonspecific, condemning title of “bad writer.” It’s time to diagnose and remedy. Does your writing suffer from any of the common ailments below?

1) Anemia. No, it’s not a lack of red blood cells, but rather a total absence of entertainment for the reader. This happens for several reasons.

  • The story or poem does not create a world. The setting, characters or speaker are underdeveloped. These pieces read only at the surface. Please consider that if your story’s main character spends too much time by himself or in his head, there is something wrong.
  • There is no point, nothing notable to take away after reading. Always leave the reader with an interesting answer to the infamous “So what?” question. At the same time, don’t hit us over the head with that answer. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Trust your reader to follow. (See 7, Paranoia.)
  • There are no stakes. If there are no stakes for the characters or the speaker, then why should the reader care? It is not enough to paint a picture. Get to the emotional core of what really matters.

2) The common cold. Everyone has had one, the sniffles, the cough. Is your writing doing all the same things as the other stories and poems? Is it cliché and/or derivative? We are looking for fresh ideas, fresh images, and fresh language. Relying on subject matter, however personally meaningful (cancer, miscarriage) rarely makes for interesting literature. It’s the author’s treatment of the subject that makes it interesting.

3) The seizure. Your writing lacks control. Images, metaphors and scenes are left dangling or plopped in where they don’t belong. Turning points misdirect and lead stories and poems into frivolous or unnecessary directions. Every move and word must not only be purposeful, but affective.

4) The heart attack. Going for shock value? Throwing in an extreme blood bath or outrageous sex scene gets you negative attention, especially when shock value seems to be the only point to the story or poem. Unless you are Tarantino, skip this or downplay it. If you want to shock us, do it with the quality of your prose, not the vividness of your main character’s dismemberment.

5) Manipulative Behavior. Obviously if you are getting rejected, your manipulations aren’t working. Quit writing poems or stories that purposefully try to trick readers. This is irritating. We want to be in the moment with the speaker, not battling him. Likewise, it is equally distracting (but not as irritating) when we can sense the writer stage-managing, meaning that a certain line or scene is only there in order to bring about a particular ending. When this is painfully obvious, the reader is ejected from the story and distracted by the writing itself.

6) Bipolar Disorder. This isn’t about sudden angry rants and blissful glee. Rather, your writing fluctuates drastically in quality. It suffers from moments of brilliance followed by moments of carelessness. Usually this means a fresh image or idea is followed by a cliché one. Nothing is more disappointing than having to reject a piece of writing that captures us but then loses us. Oh how we want to love your work and accept it, but we just can’t when its weak moments drag it down. As a writer, you know when you write filler lines. They only hold the place of a better line that more accurately portrays what you want. While it is hard to live up to the best lines, it must be done, and your brilliant moments prove to us that you are capable of it.

7) Paranoia. Will they see the connection? What if they don’t? I don’t want them to miss it. What if they miss it? Will they get? YES, we get it, so stop over explaining your image. We are picking up the hints, we promise. When we read about thunderous skies, we know a symbolic storm is brewing. No need to write, “And problems are coming.” Trust in your images; they get the job done just fine.

8) Dementia. Your writing suffers from a bit of the crazies. Mostly it is absolutely, mind-twistingly confusing. If you can barely make sense of your own poem or story, you can’t expect your reader to be able to follow it. Or maybe your writing makes sense to you, but this is only because you know the intentions behind what you wrote. For this reason it is always good to have an outside reader to share your work with. Confusion can happen when a writer tries to be too mysterious. There is nothing to be gained from trying to make your reader work harder to understand exactly what you are talking about. Of course there is some puzzle solving to be done when reading poems, but this involves relating a clear metaphor to an object. When descriptions are cryptic, the relationship of metaphor to object is lost on the reader.

Writing suffering from the above ailments is NOT ready for submission, but rather for workshop. Workshop will not only set your writing on the road to excellent health but also teach you how to better self-diagnose when you are on your own. So please, if your writing is ill, seek professional help. Whatever you do, don’t trash your work. Symptoms will persist unless treated.

As Augusten Burrough’s said, “When you have your health, you have everything.” He may or may not have been referring to the increased likelihood of publication.