What Is the Best Way to Handle Rejection As a Writer? Learn How to Handle Literary Rejection With Tips From Author Neil Gaiman

Written by MasterClass

Jun 5, 2019 • 4 min read

The stinging feeling of rejection is pervasive. Whether it is a spurn of affection, exclusion from a social group, or the dismissal of an idea or creative project, rejection is difficult to receive and process. Writers are subject to rejection on a regular basis. The ability to accept constructive feedback and bounce back from rejection is an integral part of the writing process. Neil Gaiman, the author of The Sandman, American God, and many others, offers this assurance: “As a writer, you’re always going to be rejected, and that’s basically healthy.”


What Is A Literary Rejection?

A literary rejection is the repudiation of a writing project for publication. Rejections take different forms—a generic letter, a rejection slip in the mail, a personalized response with feedback, and sometimes an invitation to resubmit work.

The process of submitting work for publication varies by genre and publication type.

  • For non-fiction books, literary agents submit book proposals, along with chapter synopses and three sample chapters, to larger publishing houses. Fiction writers must complete a manuscript before it is submittable. Unsolicited query letters, proposals, and rejected manuscripts often end up in what is called a “slush pile.”
  • Editors of digital publications, online magazines, and literary journals generally accept pitches for stories and sometimes completed pieces “on spec.”
  • Freelance writers, journalists, and creative writers submit ideas for articles, flash fiction, and creative writing directly without a liaison—and are on the frontlines of rejection.

5 Famous Literary Rejections

It is hard to imagine that some of the world’s greatest authors have experienced literary rejection and that some of literature’s bestsellers were once relegated to the slush pile. Here are a few famous examples of literary rejections.

  1. Herman Melville. Moby-Dick was rejected by multiple publishers before being published by Bentley & Son Publishing House in 1851. Prior to being accepted for publication, Peter J. Bentley of Bentley & Son Publishing House wrote: “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?”
  2. J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was famously rejected by 12 publishing houses. Rowling’s submission letter for her first novel ultimately caught the attention of the editorial team at Bloomsbury. It was an editor’s eight-year-old daughter who expressed interest in the manuscript about the Boy Who Lived. In 2018, Rowling’s query letter and synopsis of the book were displayed as part of the “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” exhibit at the British Library in London.
  3. Stephen King. The horror novel Carrie, King’s first published book, was rejected more than 30 times before being published in 1974 by Doubleday. One rejection letter read: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King kept rejection letters in his bedroom as a form of motivation to continue writing and submitting. After publishing a few novels, King submitted a number of short stories under the nom de plume Richard Bauchman to see if his success could be replicated without his famous name.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald received drastic revision suggestions for his novel The Great Gatsby, including this note from an editor: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” The novel was published by Scribner’s in 1925, with Jay Gatsby intact. While The Great Gatsby was criticized and sold poorly during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, it is now regarded as the Great American Novel and is a staple in high school curricula.
  5. Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar was rejected by an editor at Alfred A. Knopf not once, but twice. Plath initially submitted a proposal for her first novel under a pseudonym, and again with her name attached. The second rejection letter, which glaringly misspelled Plath’s name, reads: “I have now re-read—or rather read more thoroughly—The Bell Jar with the knowledge that it is by Sylva Plath which has added considerably to its interest for it is obviously flagrantly autobiographical. But it still is not much of a novel.”

4 Tips for Dealing With Rejection From Neil Gaiman

The pain of rejection is part of life, whether you’re passed over for a promotion at work or rejected by a love interest. The feeling of rejection is a cyclical pattern of a writer’s career; even after work is published, reviews and criticisms can lower self-esteem and bear negative thoughts.

It is important to know how to handle rejection and stay motivated to effectively revise work and keep writing. Here are some tips for dealing with rejection as a writer from author Neil Gaiman.

  1. Share your feelings with a friend, and remember not to take the blow personally.
  2. It’s ok to be sad. You can even stop writing for a while if you need to. Concentrate on something else and then come back.
  3. Alternatively, you can take a different attitude and, in Gaiman’s words, “write something so brilliant that nobody could ever reject it.”
  4. Establish and maintain a writing ritual in order to promote self-worth after the sting of rejection. This includes creating and sticking to a project timeline, managing productivity with goals, and rewarding yourself when daily goals are met.

Find more writing tips in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.