Kim Liao makes the case for racking up literary rejections in “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections This Year,” an essay that is near and dear to my own rejected little heart. Liao writes: “I don’t flinch (much) when I receive inevitable form rejection emails. Instead of tucking my story or essay apologetically into a bottle and desperately casting it out to sea, I launch determined air raids of submission grenades, five or ten at a time.”
This couldn’t resonate with me more. I’m on such close terms with rejection that I teach a workshop devoted specifically to the topic. I’ve written personal essays about rejection for Poets & Writers and The Writer magazines. And during the MFA, I launched a rejection contest for my cohort—and even won it one year.
I knew, when I read Liao’s article, that I had surely met and exceeded the suggested goal of receiving 100 rejections within a year. But I didn’t realize just how much I’d surpassed that number. As it turns out, I more than doubled it: In 2015, I received 215 rejections.
That’s right. Two hundred fifteen. Even I was surprised by this number, and I’m the one constantly receiving all those “We regret to inform you…” emails. So how did this happen? Follow along, reader, on my long and winding road of rejection.
What I Sent Out
Maybe you’re thinking that I carpet-bombed every literary journal out there to get to 215 rejections, but that’s not the case. I’m selective about where I send my work, and I generally aim high. Mostly, I racked up so many rejections because I had a lot of work to submit.
I tend to go through periods of writing and stockpiling work followed by ambitious submission frenzies. In 2015, I wasn’t sending one story to fifty places—I was sending, say, ten different stories to five places each. While the majority of my submissions were individual short stories sent to literary journals (fifteen separate stories, to be exact), my rejections also included essays, pitches, grant and residency applications, and even a packet of greeting card poems (yikes).
When you’re submitting that much work, when you’re committed to sending a story out to additional journals after it’s rejected yet again, and when you keep at it all year long, it’s not that hard to get rejected hundreds of times. And of my many rejections, I received a healthy amount of personal and higher tiered rejections, which told me I was on the right track even when I was striking out. Which brings us to acceptances.
In her essay, Liao shares some advice from one of her friends:
Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.
I don’t hold exactly the same view—no matter how many submissions I send out, I never consider any acceptance a foregone conclusion—but I did receive acceptances during this rejected blitz. Not as many as you might expect, however.
In 2015, I received twelve acceptances. That means my acceptance rate was roughly 5%. While that number might look discouraging—so many rejections for so few acceptances!—the reality is that I think I did pretty well.
In 2015, my short stories were accepted by nine publications: Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, Washington Square Review, Puerto del Sol, Beloit Fiction Journal, South Carolina Review, and the Among Animals anthology. Other acceptances included a list in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a personal essay in Equus magazine, and a spot at a fully funded writing residency. (If you’re wondering about my greeting card poems, they were mercifully rejected. If you’re curious what kind of greeting card copy I wrote, watch this. That about sums it up.)
So yes, my work was accepted by all those excellent publications . . . and also rejected another 215 times.
I’m not sharing my numbers as some sort of perverse “I get rejected more than you!” competition. Instead, I’ve noticed how many writers seem to crave these kind of statistics. Maybe we all need confirmation that this writing business is hard, that rejection is a reality, and that even writers who seem well published or lucky get repeatedly rejected, too. Sometimes, after I shamelessly share the news about a new publication on Facebook, I reveal how many times the story was rejected before it was accepted. (I think the leader has to be my Rumpelstiltskin retelling, “Little Rattle Ghost,” which was rejected thirty-six times before Puerto del Sol took it.)
So far in 2016, I’ve received sixty-seven rejections. I’ve also received two acceptances so far this year: a short story was named a finalist in the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Awards and will be published in Printers Row, and another story was accepted for publication by Ninth Letter. If I need to face sixty-seven rejections to get into those two publications, I’ll take it.
As of this writing, I still have twenty-three active submissions out for consideration, a number that frankly seems low after my previous submission bonanza. How many of those twenty-three submissions will be rejected? If I had to guess, at least 95%. Possibly 100%. That’s just how it goes.
That’s also why I appreciated Liao’s essay—it highlights the fact that rejection is the norm rather than something to be ashamed of.
I’ve noticed some interesting reactions from a few writers once Liao’s essay started to make the rounds. Some questioned whether the process is broken, or even rigged so only writers with connections get published. Another writer pointed out the privilege inherent in being able to take the time to write and submit at all (especially in the way that allows one to accumulate rejections in the triple digits). Another thought this article might make writers who are unable to submit in such large numbers feel guilty.
But I didn’t see any conspiracies or guilt trips in Liao’s essay. Rather, I read it as encouragement for writers who secretly feel something is wrong with them for getting rejected. It points out that the best way to overcome the shame of rejection is to submit a lot, get rejected a lot, and understand that this rejection is an unavoidable part of the process.
“Since I’ve started aiming for rejections, not acceptances, I no longer dread submitting,” Liao writes. “I wait for the rejections, line up my next tier of journals, and submit again.”
Submit again, submit again, submit again. It’s the only way I’ve made any progress in my career. It’s the only way I can see ahead, through all the inevitable future rejections to come, and arrive on the other side—preferably with an acceptance in hand.