Rejection is an inevitable part of writing – an inevitable part of life, actually – so developing strategies for coping with repeated rejections without letting them drag you down psychologically is an important step for professional and personal development. I have some experience with this. Academic publishing is a very effective crucible for smelting the raw material of keen young scientists into a rejection-proof amalgam of cynicism and stoicism.
For those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of academic life, the lifecycle of a scientific paper is this: 1) Scientific team discovers something new, 2) The discovery is written up as a paper that contains all the evidence to justify the conclusion reached, 3) The paper is sent to a scientific journal, 4) The journal sends the paper out for “peer review” to other scientists in the same field, 5) On the basis of the peer review evaluations, the journal decides whether or not to publish the paper.
When things work well, this is a good way of keeping the scientific community informed about new discoveries. But – human nature being what it is – there are many ways that the system instead becomes an engine of rejection.
First, there is a prestige hierarchy for the journals, with those at the top being highly selective, and priding themselves on publishing only the “most important” discoveries. To advance their careers, scientists must try as hard as they can to publish in these top journals. The journal Nature is widely regarded as the most prestigious destination. It rejects 93% of the papers it receives (and unless you are delusional, there is no point in sending anything but your best discoveries to Nature, so that’s 93% of the best work being done). The second issue is peer review: in principle this is an essential check against false or poorly-supported claims being published, but oftentimes the critique received is… not entirely constructive.
As a consequence, rejection is a daily part of academic life. It often requires years of effort to keep a programme of research alive through the labyrinth of journal editors, peer reviewers and grant funding panels. The only way to stay sane in the face of what can seem to be a relentless tide of negativity and scepticism, is to find the right “mental pose” to adopt when confronted by another No.
Here are a few of the fundamental principles:
1) Your work is being rejected, not you.
Any creative individual who sends their work out into the world is inviting rejection. That’s hard, because we invest so much of ourselves into the work we create, but a really key idea to internalize is that the work is being rejected, not you. Rejection of your paper, or short story, or novel, is not a judgement on your value as a person, or the creative potential of your spirit. It is only a measure of how much the publisher wanted to publish the work. It may be that your work is not good enough quality – but you can improve that. However, it’s also highly probable that it was rejected for reasons of taste, fashion, commerce, bad timing, or any of the dozens of other random variables that influence the decision-making of busy editors.
2) Successful people have more rejections than unsuccessful people.
A very good rule of thumb in any enterprise is to find out what the successful people are doing, and do the same thing. One thing I’ve learned from talking to the academics who publish the most papers is that they have lots of rejection stories. They just keep submitting regardless. Persistence is a key determinant in any branch of writing – those people that have lots of successes have built them on a foundation of even more failures. The definitive example of this is the massive success of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, which was rejected by 144 publishers, before drowning the 145th in money and launching a new genre.
3) Success is an epiphenomenon.
A curious feature of many of the origin stories of famous writers, artists and entrepreneurs is the way that success (artistic, financial, or social) seemed to either take them by surprise, or almost happen accidentally. Writers that publish bestsellers were not trying to write a bestseller – they were trying to write the best story they could. Enterpreneurs tell the same tale: when they shifted from trying to make money, to trying to make a product that their customers really need, the money came automatically. It’s a subtle shift of mindset, but powerful: try to produce something remarkable, not something that you think will be popular. Success emerges from achievement; it is not an achievement in itself. You can target quality, but you can’t target success.
4) Focus on the craft.
The culmination of all of these ideas is simple: focus on the craft, not on the end goal. Rejection is inevitable, acceptance is unpredictable, and the only sensible way to respond to this is to focus unerringly on improving your writing. Constructive criticism can help you gauge your progress, and rejections can often evolve in terms of politeness and feedback (which is a useful barometer of the quality of your work), but if your goal is to get better, then all of the back and forth with publishers and agents is peripheral business activity, not your main driving force.
One of my favourite examples of this principle is Lucian Freud. He doggedly persisted in his realist figurative art through an era that was more impressed by surrealist and expressionist movements, because that was his vision, that was his focus, that was his craft. And he got so good at it that by the time the art world moved back to appreciating his kind of work, they finally noticed he had become one of the foremost artists of his generation.
In summary: the best way to cope with rejection is to focus on what you can influence (the quality of your work) and let capricious success come as and when it may.
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