September 14, 2011

Versal's rejection letters, or a close look at our process of enthusiasm

Have you seen this great new wiki of rejection letters?

What a resource, for writers and editors alike.

How so for editors? Because this provides an overview of what we're all saying. How we're talking to our communities. And I don't think any of us take the rejection letter lightly, but some ways we have languaged rejections may become outdated over time. Speaking as a writer who has been receiving rejection letters since 1997, I haven't noticed a significant change in the way they read. That's almost 15 years. Certainly something could change by now? With this resource, we can start to share what works and what doesn't, start to identify "best practice" letters, start a dialogue about how we communicate with each other.

But that's a big project. For now, I've just been using the resource to help us here at Versal to improve our practices. So in the run-up to Versal 10's reading period, a few of our editors and I read through all of them and made a list of the ones we like.

["Like" being a big bucket obviously. It might be that one letter has a respectful, kind closing note, but the rest of it is dismissive. Or another has a nice way of thanking the submitter. Often it just comes down to tone, I think. And of course personal preference. In general, our team seems drawn to those letters that assume that the submitter is a three-dimensional human being who knows what they're doing. Unfortunately I felt that a lot of the letters had a demeaning or patronizing undertone, harking back to a now (I would argue) outdated perception of the relationship between writer and editor. Anyway.]

So we rewrote our letters. I assume at some point these will get posted up on the Wiki (an old one is there now), but in the interest of all things holy here they are in all their glory.

We have three "template" letters and one blank one that we can write from scratch.

The first "tier" (to use the language of the wiki) letter is sent to folks whose work is read by 1-2 editors. This letter indicates that we feel the work is not yet strong enough for continued consideration. Clearly this judgment is subjective, but all such judgments are, and like all journals we must make a distinction between what work is really "ready" for serious consideration for our journal and what work has too many weaknesses.

The second and third tier letters are sent to folks whose work is read by 2-3 editors (at our "second read" level). The letters encourage the writer/artist to submit again next time because there's something about the work we are drawn to, or strengths in the writing or artistic style we see developing over more time. It can thus include a personal message to elaborate on our reading of it (essentially this could be considered the "third tier"). This work is discussed between editors at length, via our system and possibly over drinks in a bar in Amsterdam or elsewhere.

The fourth tier letter is sent to folks whose work made it to our editorial round table. This means that it was "escalated" up to everyone in a particular editorial team (poetry, prose or art), considered by each team member individually, then discussed during a team meeting. Sometimes it takes us two meetings to come to a decision about a piece. In any case, we read the piece or parts of it aloud (or, in the case of the art team, beam it onto a big or high-res screen), those who "sent it up" talk about their reading of the piece, and Robert, Shayna or I lead a discussion around it until we come to a decision.

I'm not the final round. I don't have veto power, nor does Robert or Shayna. But it's not consensus we aim for, either. And we don't see our editorial table as jury duty. Rather, we work to listen to each others' enthusiasm or frustrations, we seek to educate ourselves on a piece's inner workings, we try to impart whatever knowledge we have about the piece to our fellow editors. It's a giving, thoughtful, excited process.

And though most intently seen during our round tables, it is one that filters through every level of our reading.

We look forward to seeing your work.


  1. Impressed by this :D

  2. This is the best I've seen in terms of honesty from editors about rejection letters, and I think it is particularly useful to learn just how far a piece went before it was rejected. It's usually so difficult to tell if I really should submit again, or if they decided early on that my writing simply doesn't fit.

    Nice work!

  3. Hi Chelsea, thanks muchly! That's exactly why we wanted to post this. We thought about it a long time, probably two years! I'm glad you find it useful.

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