Tag Archives: writers

Eight Tips for Coping with Writing Rejections

SheepWriting is hard. I know you already know that.

Reading is hard too, especially if you have to read bad writers, which is why I hope you haven’t already started thinking, “Reading this blog is hard. . .”

My point is that putting words on a page and hoping they pile up and turn into clear, coherent, and meaningful prose (or poetry) is so difficult that it creates self-consciousness and worry and other neurotic thoughts and emotions linked to being judged and rejected. And just in case you feel tempted, you don’t have to tell me that good writers never write, “My point is. . .” because my other point is that I’ve been getting lots of rejections lately.

I’d rather not admit anything about my writing rejection rate; I’d rather have you think that everything I write gets published. There have been thousands of pages, eight books, and 100+ professional articles—all published, but that’s NOT the point (I also know that using ALL CAPS is bad form, like shouting while writing, and that no one but Dave Barry, former humor columnist, GETS AWAY WITH ALL CAPS).

This summer, not unlike last summer and the summer before that, and other ad nauseam summers of my life, was a summer of writing rejections. I like to say, “There were a plethora of rejections” because I like the word plethora. But let’s not go into the details because one year I tried to count up all my rejections and it was like counting cloudy days and I got depressed and I vowed to never count rejections and instead to only count acceptances and publications and successes and smiles and sunshine, and I also vowed to write long sentences if I feel like writing long sentences, because as far as I can tell, that’s what Sigmund Freud did, and he got a couple things published.

Instead of numbering the rejections, let me share just one.

This summer I wrote a proposal for a trade book on Suicide in American. It was supposed to be a proposal for a trade book on Suicide in America. But the first version of the proposal managed to include an extra “n.” How that typo slipped in there after 43 readings, including my traditional oral reading before submitting—I cannot say.

Anyway, just remember this, Suicide in America is not the most fun topic, but it’s even a worse topic when you make a typo in the first line. After experiencing the horror of seeing the typo and correcting it, I sent the proposal out to a dozen or so agents and got a dozen or so rejections. Not the most fun outcome. However, not to be deterred, I stole some of my sample chapter material and used it in a continuing education course that I DID GET PUBLISHED (notice the ALL CAPS, BECAUSE, YES, I AM YELLING).

I thought about sending all the agents who rejected my book proposal a copy of my first check from the CE company, along with a photo of my finger, but that belongs on this list of tips and sage advice for all you writers who will inevitably need to cope with rejection.

  1. Even though you want to, don’t write a snarky email or letter back to the person who rejected your wonderful work. No doubt, the snarky email will feel good in the moment, but you could regret it later. I speak from experience. Being at conferences with people who have received photos of my finger is awkward. Instead, vent to your friends and colleagues, and thank the person who rejected you for considering your work.
  2. Listen—sometimes. Lots of trade book agents and publishers tell you in advance that they plan to ghost you, so sometimes there’s nothing to hear. But on occasion, there’s this thing that happens called feedback. You can take it or leave it, but if you want to develop your writing skills, take it—or at least take some of it sometimes. The corollary to this is that reviewers can be nasty. This is especially true of academic reviewers, many of whom have come to believe that it’s their responsibility to shame fledgling writers. My advice on that is simple: Ignore the reviewer’s tone because he/she/they likely have poor social skills and are compensating for their loneliness by trying to make you feel bad, or something like that. Ignore the tone, but listen to the content.
  3. Go Big or Go Home. Being that you’re an amazing person with fantastic ideas, don’t, as former President George W. Bush might say, misunderestimate yourself. Feel free to submit pieces to the New Yorker or the New England Journal of Medicine or other fancy publications that begin with the word New. Then, get ready to be ghosted, rejected, and humiliated. If—odds are low here—you get something accepted, you’ll be like Rocket Man.
  4. Find a Small Pond. Going big or going home is a broken philosophy, unless you finish the guidance with go home and find a small pond where you can submit your work, become a big fish, and find the positive reinforcement you crave. Publishing a short comment in your neighborhood newsletter is better than having nothing published. Look at me. I’ve got a blog. I publish here all the time. The best part of the deal is my publisher loves my work.
  5. Turn it Around. Rita and I have an academic friend who says we academics should live by the turn it around in 24 hours rule. He says that as soon as he receives a rejection letter/email from a professional journal, he starts his timer and submits the manuscript to a different journal in 24 hours or less. Never having achieved that, Rita and I try to live by something more like a 24 day rule. Either way, push yourself to revise and resubmit to someone, like my blog publisher, who’s likely to love your work and publish you yesterday.
  6. Mingle. If you’re sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, you need to get out more because, duh, you’re not alone. If you find them, you’ll discover that most writers are mostly sitting around feeling sorry for themselves most of the time. So mingle. Share your sorrows. Maybe form a writing group or a book club or a knitting clutch. Embrace the Hegelian dialectic that, although you’re plenty special, you’re also simultaneously not really all that special.
  7. Write More. There comes a time when you need to get right back on that bus that bucked you off. Nobody becomes a better writer without writing. Visualization is good for golf and relaxation, but not so much for writing. Reading is good for writing, but only if you’re also putting fingers to keyboards and digits on screens. Somebody said this already: Read, write, repeat.
  8. Practice CBT on Your Neurotic Writer-Self. Albert Ellis liked to say, “Don’t be a love slob.” What he meant was to not be too needy. He would ask his clients things like, “What the holy Hell are you thinking?” He drove home the idea that you can perform badly at lots of things, get rejected, fail, and still have, what he called, “Unconditional Self-Acceptance.” In other words (which is another phrase my editor hates), Ellis is saying you shouldn’t confuse your performance with your SELF. Let’s say you get rejected. You’ll likely feel sad and disappointed. That’s normal and healthy. But don’t use your Vita to measure your SELF.

I’m hoping you find this list of tips for handling rejection helpful. If it’s not, feel free to let me know. I’ll be sad and disappointed But I’ll get over it. I plan to keep writing anyway. I hope you do too.

What Brain Science Says about Becoming a Better Professional Writer

This piece on professional writing is in anticipation of our upcoming John Wiley & Sons sponsored ACA presentation on April 1 in Montreal titled: Writing for Publication: Insights and Strategies

The “Decade of the Brain” started way back in 1990. It’s been over for more than 15 years. So you would think everyone could get over it and move on. But obviously that’s not how things pertaining to the brain work. Too many neuroscientists, journalists, and other people are happily riding along on the brain science bandwagon to just let it go. Most things would be perfectly satisfied with their own decade and the attention that goes with that, but the brain is a selfish organ and obviously interested in hogging all the decades. And so the brain discoveries just keep rolling in and eager journalists keep on writing and talking about the brain, which is why the popularity of neuroscience is now officially off the map. Neuroscience’s reach has far exceeded its grasp, but such is the nature of popular things. Just think about bell-bottoms.

We still know very little about the brain. That’s partly why neuroscience excites people. The excitement is more related to our collective brains collective imagination of what neuroscience might be than neuroscience reality. This has turned neuroscience into a projective test (think of the Rorschach Inkblots). There’s some vague information or structure out there and so everyone takes some of it in, blends it with their unique personality and past experiences, and then projects hypothetical possibilities about brain science onto the blank canvass of reality. Then voila, people start talking about ridiculous things like male brains and female brains and teen brains.

I say all this as a balancing introduction that will help me not sound completely trite and ridiculous when I write,

Coming up next: What brain science says about how you can become a better writer.

Let’s pause and self-reflect here. This statement is both bad writing and bad science. It’s bad writing because I’ve transformed (through grammatical magic) the inanimate field of brain science into an entity that has something to say. It’s bad science because the first rule of becoming a better writer, although supported by neuroscience, is such numbingly basic common sense that it’s inappropriate to gift it the charade of scientific authority.

Put another way, brain science can’t talk; people talk. But if brain science could talk, and you asked it, “What can I do to become a better writer?” it would likely respond with something like:

The first rule to good writing is WRITER’S WRITE. This is what literary and professional writers have said over and over for centuries and you didn’t need me, brain science, to tell you something you already knew. (see also: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/09/04/professional-writing-for-us-professionals-who-may-not-quite-be-writers-yet/)

If there’s one thing we know from brain science (and common sense), it’s that practice leads to improvement. Neuroscientists might say it this way, “Your behavior directly influences your brain structure and chemistry; when you repeatedly practice something, you’re actually creating specific neurons and neural pathways to make that something easier.” Common sense (if it could talk) might say, “Repeated practice generally leads to skill development.” Speaking (apparently) on behalf of common sense, the renowned science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

The take home message here is simple. If your goal is writing success, then you must make time to write.

There is, of course, a caveat to this general brain-based common sense rule. Yes, practice leads to improvement, but there are always exceptions.

Sometimes, even when you practice with great effort, consistency, and sincerity, you don’t improve much. The good news about this exception is that in the world of writing there are usually fascinating reasons for why diligent writers aren’t improving . . . and I’ll get to that important content at some point in the future. For now, remember this: The first step to becoming a successful professional writer involves taking Bradbury’s advice—which I repeat and elaborate on below:

  • Write every day
  • Read intensely
  • Get feedback
  • Engage in self-editing—produce a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th draft
  • Schedule more time to write
  • Identify your target audience and then learn more about them
  • Deal with multiple distractions
  • Reward yourself
  • Get more feedback so that you can be certain that you’re not rewarding yourself when you should be engaging in more self-reflection and scrutiny
  • Read your 4th draft aloud to yourself, then read it aloud to someone you trust to get even more feedback
  • Find somewhere to submit your precious manuscript
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection
  • When you get your rejection, stay calm and integrate the feedback into your writer-identity
  • Revise your manuscript again, read it aloud again, get feedback again
  • After dealing with your neuroses, improving your manuscript, and gnashing your teeth, find the courage and strength to face your fears and resubmit your precious manuscript to somewhere that will recognize its greatness
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection—again
  • Repetitively do all these things to help your brain structure and chemistry develop itself and you into a better writer who has a better chance of writing success

Before moving on I should say that I realize Bradbury was advising fiction writers and fiction writers fall within the literary writing domain. This is an important distinction. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably busy juggling numerous professional activities. These activities might include a combination of teaching, research, service, attending classes, clinical practice, supervision, and more. Traditionally, writers with literary ambitions only juggle their daily writing and reading with a job delivering pizza or waiting tables. It’s likely that you have a more rigorous and full professional life. This is one good reason why your immediate goal shouldn’t be to publish your first novel or personal memoir. You probably don’t have time for those more ambitious goals; most human services professionals who write novels and memoirs do so during sabbatical or after retirement. For now, our goal for you and your goal for yourself should be to begin taking small steps toward becoming a professional writer. The best-selling novel will have to wait.

John hanging out with Robert Wubbolding

With Wubbolding