My first rejection as a writer came in the form of public humiliation. I was sixteen years old. As a member of Harbinger, my high school literary arts magazine, I’d submitted a poem for publication consideration. My teacher—our sponsor—liked it so much that she thought it a shoo-in for the magazine. It might have been, I suppose, if she hadn’t decided (without my permission) to use my poem as the demonstration text for the editorial team to practice the art of critique. She wrote my words on the board in nice, large, easy-to-read letters: “What is a love, should love, should be?” We then embarked on a journey through the review process with my work as her extended example. Unfortunately, my poem wasn’t being anonymously reviewed as my teacher supposed. Weeks earlier I’d written it on the wall in social studies, proving the maxim: authors should be careful what they post to social media.
Like all other writing and editing coaches I’ve encountered in the intervening years, she stopped at Accept, Reject, Revise-and-Resubmit. After that, the author (me) was on her own. No helpful depth was offered for explicating the post-rejection editing process, nor for recovering the sense of agency I lost during the harsh public discussion of my work. In graduate school and as a professor, the guidance remained the same. Publication is the goal. Pursue it relentlessly. Rejected? Send it out again (and again). Perseverance is key. Revise and resubmit? Do what the reviewers say, make the changes, get published. Do what you must to get the essay in the journal, the book on the shelves, the poem in the magazine. If reviewers say something useful, great! Use their comments. If not, write them off as crazy or simply not-your-kind-of-reader and move on with thick-skin intact. Sage advice repeated over and over to generations of writers—from scholars to novelists and everyone in between.
But the advice presupposes both that good works will find an outlet (eventually) and that by dropping negative commentary into two categories—crazy or irrelevant—authors are somehow doing themselves a favor. Don’t get me wrong, some reviewers provide legitimately terrible comments. As a budding writer I’d asked the question, “What is a love, should love, should be?” The answer I received: “Maybe change the rhyme scheme.” The whole poem was dependent upon the rhyme. Without the scheme, the poem would cease to exist. This was quite possibly the least helpful commentary of all time!
Or was it? I shouldn’t have cried. Like Archimedes—albeit fully clothed—I should have leaped from my desk shouting, “Eureka!” I didn’t know it then, but I’d found the litmus test that would forever allow me to differentiate between meaningless remarks and reviewer comments that pointed to something more, something worth considering. If a reviewer’s comments resemble, “maybe change the rhyme scheme”—meaning nothing can be done to improve the work without starting from scratch or otherwise removing the author’s voice and soul—laugh and move on. Such ridiculous commentary indicates that the distance between the text and the reviewer is likely insurmountable. “Maybe change the rhyme scheme” tells us more about the reviewer than the text and, importantly, should not be taken to heart by the author.
Fortunately, not all commentary that seems ridiculous at first glance is irrelevant. Some helpful insights can be found in comments that initially appear absurd or offensive. Usually, however, those insights are not well-understood or articulated by the reviewer. They may not even be in line with the reviewer’s stated intent. Post-rejection editors can help authors navigate the review process by locating in reviewer commentary the wizard behind the curtain.
Step 1: Connect
Take the time to find and join with the soul of the text. Rejection is as much a feeling as an outcome of the professional review process. Most authors, even those still in high school, have the good sense to avoid pre-publication whiteboard graffiti. Many, however, will feel disheartened and rejected as a result of prematurely sharing their work in writer’s groups or online forums. Post-rejection editors can help return both the author and the work to center through authentic engagement with the text. Editors who locate the central voice of the text are better able to connect with both the intent of the author and the perspective of the reviewer.
Step 2: Collect
Don’t settle quietly for the author’s report about what the ‘problems’ with the text are or what the reviewer’s comments were. Ask for a full copy of written reviews or, if those are not available, request the author’s original notes on reviewer feedback with as much detail as possible. Editors benefit from reading the reviewer’s actual words to get a feel for where the author’s intent was lost or misunderstood or the reviewer simply lost interest.
Step 3: Transform
Read beyond specifics. Reviewers often point to what they see as identifiable problems or changes that ‘need’ to be made. Don’t automatically accept the reviewer’s word for what the problems might be. If reviewer suggestions are out of line with the author’s intent or seem to make little sense, they likely point to a problem with the text that the reviewers have not successfully identified. Thus, failure to uncover the underlying issue often results in failure to satisfy the reviewer’s concerns even if the requested changes are made. An effective strategy is to turn incongruous commentary into useful insights and then translate those insights into actionable author tasks. Likely points of disconnect include:
Avoid the impulse to ignore absurd comments, they frequently point to important challenges to overcome. If the reviewer failed to follow the author’s language or intended progression, chances are other readers will too. Locating hidden obstacles within the text helps the author strengthen the core of the end-product to move the manuscript closer to publication.
Post-rejection editing requires an approach that is at once analytic and goal oriented. More importantly, it requires an empathy for both author and text that moves a bit differently than other forms of developmental editing. I use connect—collect—transform to help restore author agency as well as to guide improvements to the text. I guess in the end, I did change the rhyme scheme after all—not of the poem, but of my approach to editing . . . and chalkboards.
Header photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash.