Only A Writer Knows: Why Stories Get Rejected


This past week one of the members in my writing group expressed her frustration about having one of her pieces sent back to her ONCE AGAIN. The story is close to her heart and she has sent it to several literary journals, but for some reason it hasn’t quite found the perfect fit—yet.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. I know I have. Here’s a picture of the bulletin board in my office. The cork is filling in rather nicely, don’t you think?


In February 2019, I started volunteering as a reader over at Spry Literary Journal. It certainly has been an enlightening experience to be on the other side of the submission process. One thing I can say is for every piece of work a writer sends out into the world, there is a reader and/or editor who’d love nothing more than to give it a home because many are also active writers themselves and understand how deflating it is to be told your work hasn’t quite made the cut.

Since there’s such an overwhelming volume of submissions to weed through, many times the only communication an editor is able to send after declining a piece is an email saying thanks, but this just isn’t for us. I thought this week I’d share a few common reasons why stories do get rejected in hopes the information might shed some light on what it is editors and readers look for when reviewing a piece. Perhaps being aware of some of these pitfalls might help increase the odds of finding the perfect home for your next story.

The writer ignores the submission guidelines. Submission guidelines exist to protect both writers and the integrity of the reviewing process. Many journals request blind submissions or ask writers to not submit work outside of the reading period, so every writer receives an equal opportunity to have his/her work read based on its own merit. One thing I’ve noticed in the blind submission process is writers sometimes forget file names also should not include any identifying information. Failure to do this equals an automatic decline.

The genre doesn’t fit the journal’s aesthetic/tone. Take some time to read an issue or two of the journal before submission so you can get a feel for the type of work accepted in the past. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for something new or innovative. In fact, it’s encouraged, but if the journal you’re submitting to has never published a sci-fi story in its ten-year history, chances are if you send them one it isn’t going to be accepted.

The manuscript hasn’t been polished. At this point in the process it’s assumed the writer is knowledgeable enough to recognize typos and grammatical errors within the manuscript. Sloppy copy distracts the reader from the story and gives the impression the writer is either lazy or hasn’t yet mastered the craft.

Lack of narrative arc. All stories need the following elements: character, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. If any of these are missing or lack clarity, there is no story. Some of the stories I’ve read lately come across more as character sketches or incomplete scenes. Remember your character not only needs to be introduced, but also go on the journey.

There’s not enough movement or action in the piece. Make sure your characters don’t spend too much time in their own internal world. Sometimes when writing in the first person p.o.v. there’s a tendency to write a lot of commentary on how the character feels about the what is going on around her without having the character participate in the story. In other words, don’t report the story, but show how the character reacts to her environment and how she’s ultimately changed by that interaction.

Too much unnecessary exposition. Editors are looking for stories that are tight and focused. This means understanding the character’s journey well enough to know which details propel the story and which ones are insignificant. Say you write a story about a woman leaving her unfaithful husband, does one need to know she had eggs for breakfast on the morning of her departure or do you focus more on the Betty Boop clock hanging above the kitchen sink which her husband gave to her as a joke on their first anniversary? Also, by the end of the third paragraph the reader ought to be able to identify the protagonist and the conflict at hand. Remember editors sift through hundreds of submissions a week. If the story doesn’t pull one in within the first page, it’s often declined without bothering to read the rest.

The piece relies too heavily on vulgarity, violence, political rants, and/or kinky sex as a means to shock the reader rather than add significance. One of my writing instructors once put it this way: f*ck is a verb, not an adjective. Think you get the picture.

Lack of resonance. One of the most important responsibilities a writer has is to connect with the reader. There are times when a writer forgets the reader’s personal experience and tastes dictate how a story will or won’t be received. A subject may be deeply personal and meaningful to the writer, however one must give the reader a reason to care equally as much, if not more. It may be helpful to have someone you trust read your work before submission to see if the sentiment or emotion you are trying to convey translates clear enough to create empathy and understanding.

Finally, one last thing—only the writing gets rejected, not the writer. Every piece of writing has the potential to be fixed and sent out again. Rejection is an opportunity, not an end. Don’t lose faith.

Do you have any suggestions and/or experiences you’d like to share with your fellow writers about how you’ve handled rejection? Please feel free to weigh in by sharing your comments below.

Also, if you have any questions and/or topics you’d like to see addressed in future blog posts, please email me via my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.

Photo Credit: Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

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