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How to say no to writers

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Eventually, I can’t put it off any longer. Unpleasant as it is, I have to reply to all those hopeful writers. The ones who pitched me their ideas hoping for a commission, an audience, a fee. I have to tell them that I do not want to accept their proposal, develop their draft, publish their article — give their writing the only thing that makes it meaningful: an audience. I have to say no.

So with a wince, and a squeeze of whatever internal muscle it is that stiffens resolve, I open up the mailbox. The emails have accumulated inside it like a collection of nasty little dead moths, each pinned with a poisonous purple flag, this being the colour I have chosen to denote ‘to be rejected’. And I begin. Dear Warlock-Williams: I’m afraid

I rarely reject a pitch straight away. (The Author is a quarterly magazine, entirely run by two people; our mills grind slowly — I wouldn’t say how small.) Replies to rejections tend to come back rather more rapidly. The gracious replies certainly do. One kind, which you might call the retort courteous, simply and briefly thanks me for considering the idea. If you listen hard you’ll almost hear the ticks going off in my head: polite, yes; professional, yes. Another kind adds that they hope or plan or intend to pitch another idea in future. The ticks get louder: eager, ambitious — yes, yes.

Trickier replies usually arrive more slowly. I might, for instance, have pointed out to a hopeful writer that we covered this subject in a previous issue. This is in fact the most common reason for rejecting a pitch: we just ran a piece. Sometimes the writer has specifically pitched an ‘in reply’ piece, sometimes they didn’t notice the similarity; either way pointing it out to them isn’t going to persuade them. What they have to say about the subject, they are sure, is new enough to make it necessary. I am almost never going to go for this. Once a subject is covered, it’s dead to the magazine, and it’ll stay dead until some kind of galvanic external shock makes it live again; and that shock is not going to be the surprise that someone out there has a different opinion about the issue than the original writer.

This kind of rejection risks inviting what you might call an ‘oh but’ response. (The quip modest, if we’re to continue following Touchstone’s theme from As You Like It). One of the things I try to do, as editor of The Author, is reply to contributors with some respect. (I edit the journal of the Society of Authors; if we don’t treat authors as they would want to be treated, who will?) This means giving a reason for rejecting a piece, I think, rather than offering flannel. All writers know how obvious it is when a rejection is off-the-peg, and how it feels to receive one. ‘Not what we’re looking for right now’ … ‘not quite right for us’ … ‘not something we feel we can publish successfully’. None of this means anything beyond ‘I don’t like it’ or possibly ‘I don’t like it enough’, except that it uses smooth language to avoid getting into specifics.

There is a good reason for not giving specific reasons for rejecting an idea, though, and that reason is the likely return of an ‘ah but’ reply, or, worse, the ‘but! but!’ reply. You might call these the reproof valiant and countercheck quarrelsome. The former argues with itself. ‘I didn’t mean that!’, it says, ‘I meant this’ — and you get a subtly or radically different pitch.

The ‘but! but!’ argues with you. Your rejection was wrong: for this reason, for that one, and probably for another one as well. Their idea was timely, it was important, it was relevant; they were the right person to write it. Occasionally, this is persuasive. Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe the contributor needed to refine and (more often) better define their pitch — and the pressure of defending it to me was exactly what was needed to help bring it to the boil.

Wise contributors know, however, that editors rarely change their minds, and trying to make them do it is less like flipping a parliamentary vote with a speech of devastating brilliance and more shouting at your ex-girlfriend through the letterbox. I learned this from an experienced journalist who, somewhat perversely, was trying to make me reconsider my decision to drop him. ‘Good editors never change their minds’, he said, ‘but you ought to because…’

The quite deliberate implication was that I was not a good editor. A good editor would have recognised his brilliance. And so, as Touchstone puts it, to the lie circumstantial and the lie direct. Once you’re at ‘but! but!’ the next stages follow with the inevitability of gear-changes on a racing car accelerating into the final straight. (As Shakespeare clearly knew; maybe he’d had some bad experiences with his collaborator John Fletcher.) Another contributor who did not like the reasons I gave for rejection passed rapidly from protest to insult to allegation. I was in the pay of the publishers he wanted to criticise, he insisted. This was the only credible explanation for my behaviour.

That kind of reaction from a contributor is rare — and interesting. Now, no one likes rejection. If it is fair, it forces us to confront our own errors or failures. If unfair, we confront our powerlessness, the frustration of trying to write within a publishing world whose gatekeepers are ignorant or prejudiced or otherwise inadequate. Rejection means work wasted; it means hope dashed. Including financial hope: for many writers, a single email from an editor accepting a piece might make the difference between being paying a bill or failing to; between happiness, following Micawber’s formulation, and misery.

Beyond the practical consequences, rejection can have powerful psychological effects. Evolutionary psychologists have speculated that our emotional reaction to rejection is an evolved behaviour: it is designed to stop us repeatedly doing things that might lead us to being ostracized from the tribe, or punished by losing social status, or worse. The word ‘rejection’ comes from the Latin iacere, ‘to throw’, after all. You might have your words thrown right back at you; you might be ejected (thrown out) or dejected (thrown down). Ostracism is something we fear at root. It is certainly something that writers fear. If you’re outside the tribe, you’re just talking to yourself in the wilderness. Which might be fine for prophets on a divine mission, but it’s not so good if you want to get paid. If you want people to hear.

Rejection – and ostracism is a generalised form of rejection – also hurts. Neuroscientific research has established that social rejection is experienced in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. (At least, it has re-established this: as so often, fMRI imaging has proved an expensive way of illustrating what we already knew – in this case from linguistic evidence: we use the word ‘pain’ to describe emotional distress as well as physical hurt – because they both feel so similar.)

Extraordinarily, there is some evidence that the pain of rejection can be treated, up to a point, with paracetamol. There is also evidence that it can be treated with revenge. Neuroscience confirms that one of the ‘self-regulatory processes’ we use to manage social pain is retaliatory rejection. The sensation of reward triggered by vengeance seems to act as a neural palliative. And ‘dispositionally aggressive individuals’, one study showed, have ‘greater aggressive responses to rejection.’ This might explain those rarest responses — when authors I’ve rejected have demanded that I be sacked. (It has happened twice. And, yes, both authors were men. If the alpha chimp is chucking you out of the troupe, is the only solution to dethrone him?)

I think there is another, writer-specific explanation for why rejection hurts so much. Writing is, or ought to be, like a flow. I don’t just mean the creative act or ‘flow state’, but the directional movement from mind to mind. If the flow builds up behind a dam of gatekeepers, the risk is of wash-back, which may cause turbulence. Writers have so few moments of feedback, typically, so those pitches and rejections become all the more weighted. The potential for turbulent flow, then, is amplified by the structure of the industry.

So I continue to write my rejection emails as honestly and as respectfully as I dare, without inviting too many quips and reproofs. (I’ll take the counterchecks and lies on the chin, as they come; my little emails aren’t going to defuse anyone who’s ‘dispositionally aggressive’.) And I try to reflect on what this means for me, as a writer. I know how to pitch better than I used to, for sure. I know better how to respond to a rejection, I think. (Or at least I know how to reply…) But am I any better armed against disappointment? I doubt it.

James McConnachie edits The Author, the quarterly of the Society of Authors. He is also a journalist, an agony uncle for the Metro, and a book critic for the Sunday Times. He is the author of various works of non-fiction and is currently writing a book about Kanchenjunga.

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