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How To Interpret Rejection Letters From Literary Agents And Editors

Rejection letters from literary agents and editors of literary journals can be discouraging—especially impersonal, one-line form letters. But rejection is a necessary part of the writing process, and creative writers should know how to interpret the information in rejection letters and then use this knowledge to improve their submissions.

First, let’s look at the different types of rejection letters:

The form letter rejection

A form letter rejection is easy to spot. This may be a short, generic note that reads something like, “Dear Writer—No thanks.” Or “Dear Writer—Please try again.”

There’s not much to be learned from a blanket rejection letter. But a few literary journals do have “tiered” rejection letters: one form for writers they don’t want to encourage; one for people who are good writers but who aren’t a good fit; one for writers who are invited to submit again.

Some literary agents or editors who do not use a form will simply send the work in question back with a handwritten note that says something like, “Not for us.”

Standard phrases used in rejection letters from literary agents and editors of literary journals:

Cannot use it/accept it at this time
Didn’t pique my interest
Didn’t strike a chord
Doesn’t meet our needs
Doesn’t fit our plans
Have to pass on this
Isn’t resonating with me/us
Isn’t something we’d like to pursue
No room for more clients (unless truly compelling)
Not a right fit
Not exactly what we’re looking for
Not for us
Not suitable for us
Not quite right for this list/publication
We are not enthusiastic enough about this work
We are not certain we could be effective in placing your work
We are not right for your work
We recommend you buy/subscribe/read our magazine
We do not have a place/room for this

and the list goes on!

If you receive a rejection letter with phrases like those above, be careful not to misinterpret it. A form letter doesn’t mean you targeted your writing to the wrong agent or editor. It doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake by sending your submission. A form letter, no matter what the exact phrasing, is a nice, generic way of saying no thanks.

The personal rejection letter
When a literary agent or editor has taken the time to include a comment about your submission, then you know it’s a personalized rejection.

Even if the comment is a critique of your work, we recommend you consider resubmitting to any literary agent or editor who cared enough about your work to offer a personal comment.

Send the agent or editor a thank-you note, and if/when you resubmit, reference the comments from the original rejection.

An invitation to resubmit
Some journals and literary agents always invite writers to submit again—it’s part of their form rejection. But others make such an offer more cautiously. At Writer’s Relief, we track our clients’ rejections and acceptances, so we know when these kinds of comments are “boilerplate” phrases in a form letter and when they are personalized.

We invite you to submit more in the future.

Do you have anything else we can consider? Please send.

Why, you may wonder, are you being rejected if the writing is so great?

A piece may be rejected simply because the timing is off. Or your project was too similar to something else already in the works. Or the editor or agent might believe you have talent and he/she is looking forward to seeing you develop it.

Either way, send a thank-you note and a new submission (when possible), and again, reference the original comments in your cover/query letter.

Close, but not quite
Often, writers will begin to get discouraged when they get too many “near misses.” But there’s a valuable lesson to be learned if you’re receiving rejections that imply “close but not quite.”

Take the time to analyze any comments you’ve received. Is there a common thread (i.e., tired theme, flat characters, weak ending)?

When choosing to make revisions based on feedback, think carefully before you begin to start taking every piece of advice thrown your way. Follow your heart and consider the comments thoughtfully—avoid knee-jerk reactions.

If one agent says “you should have written this in first person,” you may want to wait to hear if any other agents have the same comment before making such a drastic revision. It’s important to trust your instincts.

Keep in mind that what one agent dislikes, another agent might enjoy! That said, if you receive multiple comments that critique the same elements, it’s certainly time to revise.

Finally, if you’re getting many nice rejections, it may be time to reevaluate your submission strategy. Professional writers submit habitually and carefully—with proper etiquette and targeting. If you’re not sure of exactly what’s required by the industry, Writer’s Relief can help you with that.

Why do literary agents and magazine editors use form letters?
The fact is, editors and agents receive too many submissions to provide a personal comment on each piece. Hence, form letters.

Many of our clients find that working with Writer’s Relief allows them to take a more professional (and less emotional) approach to their rejection letters. (Of course, getting acceptances through Writer’s Relief helps too!)

Here’s an example of how one client changed her attitude about rejection letters—and changed her life!

Dear Ronnie,

I’ve been a Writer’s Relief client for nine months. Over that time, I’ve received one acceptance, one provisional acceptance (the editor asked me to resubmit with changes), and three encouraging rejections from editors at top-tier literary journals. The positive feedback from editors makes all the rejection slips I’ve been collecting worthwhile—and I should add that I never would have been able to stand the rejections without the support of your service and your staff. My confidence has grown, and along with it, I believe I’m producing higher-quality work. I never could have made this kind of progress without Writer’s Relief.

Alisa W., Writer

How should writers deal with rejection letters?
Writing is a business, and writers must remember that agents and editors have nothing against them personally.

Agents’/editors’ jobs depend on the choices they make, and if they don’t feel the work will sell—or they simply don’t feel any enthusiasm or passion for the piece—they don’t have time to argue or explain exactly why.

Literary agents and editors of literary journals have different tastes and interests, which is why writers should learn what they can from rejection letters and then keep submitting to find the agent or editor who will love their work. Writer’s Relief has been helping writers do just this since 1994. We have a team of industry-specific submission strategists who can increase your acceptance rate for book manuscripts, short prose, and poetry. Give us a call if rejections are getting you down!

40 Responses to How To Interpret Rejection Letters From Literary Agents And Editors

  1. I once got a rejection letter where they said they were shooting me down because they were simply too busy to read it.

  2. I was sent a rejection, the prime reason being spelling. I responded to the editor and stated that there was no spelling issue (I am not a terrible speller and did use spell check a few times). I suspected that the editor of the online journal didn’t like the story but didn’t have the guts to say it.
    He responded to me. He basically lost his patience and started ranting. Since that email, I have never submitted work to any online, ‘allegedly’ highbrow journals.

  3. Ana, We’re sorry to hear about your experience with this editor, but don’t let one bad apple sour you on all online journals! As this article proves, writers should not let rejections (even very rude ones) stop them from continuing a well-rounded submission strategy. Read our article about online journals for more information on how to determine if an online journal is reputable. Good luck and keep submitting!

  4. I decided a couple of years ago not to call them rejections but to call them responses. If I offer someone a plate of cookies and they say, “No thanks,” they have not rejected my cookies, they have responded to my offer. That is easier on the ego.

  5. I once received a rejection within 5 minutes of pressing the send button.

    The only thing I might disagree with in this article is the advice to thank an agent for a personalized rejection and resubmitting after taking their advice. Over the years I have read more than 1 agent blogging about this very issue and they say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” They say they are so busy with queries that if even 10% of the rejections sent thank yous or worse yet, resubmission of something they rejected, they’d be even more swamped. No is a no, regardless of how nice they said no. If they liked your idea but not your query, they’d ask for a partial. I guess if you’ve already been rejected, it couldn’t hurt, but I still wouldn’t want to annoy them. BTW, I’ve considered form thank you’s to all of the rejections. ;)

  6. I have received quiet a few form rejection letters over the years and do not mind them all that much. It is a business after all and the form letter serves an important purpose, it doesn’t burn any bridges. However there have been two letters that were nonsensical personal attacks. They rambled from one reason another none of it having anything to do with the story I submitted. They read like the editor was trying to convince him or her self and not me because I was convinced with the words we are sorry. The three paragraphs after that were well, overkill.

    But here is the thing spelling errors, grammar errors it is all bull nothing in this world is perfect especially not the printed word. What really is important is whether or not you tell a good story. All the rest is the delusional fantasy of people that believe they are guarding the gates against mediocrity when the truth is of the thousands of books I have read there were two that I would call great. Most authors telegraph their endings long before I get there and most plots are derivative. Greatness with regards to literature is a very over used word. One day, books will be published in a great on-line library and people not editors will decide what they want to read.

  7. I can’t help but find some of these ‘responses’ from literary agents to be downright hurtful. I’ve been trying to submit the first of my proposed three-piece novel for the last several months. Although I’ve had a few “close calls,” I’ve had the arbitrary two word “We’ll pass” statement, which I find to be rediculous considering I put far more work into meeting their individual submission guideline than their two word horrid response.

    Then there is the fact that I have yet to receive anything I could take away as constructive criticism. If literary agents are thriving off of others’ work being submitted to them, they should at least make a vain attempt at motivating those that are trying to make their first steps. Not shoot them in the foot before they could even get it off of the ground.

    My only wish is that there was a place that existed outside of conventions which could offer some unobjected, yet motivating constructive criticism. I’ve scoured the net for such a place, but none exists. Relying on your family and friends doesn’t help to critique your work. A simple, neutral “hey, this part looks good, but how about (insert revision here)” would go a long way for prospective writers.

    With my experience with literary agents, its almost as if they are musing themselves as the doorkeeper to a person’s ability to get their word out. I don’t care about it being a business. So what if it should be considered one? My novel is not solely meant for personal gain, despite their obvious belief. I just feel that it’s a story that needed to be told. See what I’m getting at?

  8. I have a question about form rejections. A few months ago I received what I thought was a personal rejection from a journal–they said they were “very impressed” with my writing and hoped I would submit again. Yesterday I got a form rejection from a different magazine that said the exact same thing. Would this be considered a tiered personal rejection letter, or do these magazines tell everyone they are impressed with the writing?

    Thanks for the help!

  9. Amy, Generally, a journal won’t tell you that they’re impressed unless they are. Editors don’t have enough staff time to encourage submissions from writers who are submitting work that is inappropriate. Probably, you’re receiving a tiered rejection. It’s a very good thing that you’re getting nice rejections.

  10. Hello,

    I just received my first rejection letter and it said “At this time we are not interested in publishing your story. We would, however, welcome another submission from you in the future.”

    Is this a form response?

    Anisa

  11. Anisa,

    Although this does look like a form letter, it is very possible that this is a positive “tiered response.” Often journals have more than one form letter response that they send to writers. For example, one that invites the writer to submit again and one that thanks them for their submission but without the invitation to resubmit.

    We hope you’ll take this journal up on their offer to submit again and that an acceptance is in your future!

  12. I started sending submissions a month ago, so far I have received two rejections. I received the first, a day after I emailed the query and synopsis. It was a form rejection, the title of my novel was not mentioned and they addressed me by my full name. The rejection was quite brief, only two sentences. Just that they could not offer their services and that they wished me luck.
    Today I received the second rejection. I was addressed by my first name, the agent mentioned the title of the novel(she wrote the title in capitals) but she told me that it is not the right book for the agency at this time and explained to me that she needs to fell in love with my work instantly. She encouraged me to submit to her in the future.She was very kind and told me that this is just her opinion and there are other agents out there more suitable.
    I believe that both letters were form rejections, although I admit that I cannot understand why would someone ask to resubmit. I thought that no means no, no?

  13. Dear tzoyia,

    Although we can’t see the rejections, it does sound like they are form letters. Some agencies have a standard letter that interns or assistants will modify by plugging in a writer’s name or book title. Many form letters are very encouraging and warm (as many agents are encouraging and warm, even when they have to say no).

    Some agents or editors will see something they like in a given work, even if that piece is not exactly “right.” Hence, writers will often get invitations to resubmit.

    Hope this helps!

  14. I have sent out several query letters and have received a few rejections. I understand that the agency has a form rejection letter they use, but it is very frustrating and discouraging when they tell you that your work doesn’t fit their agency and you know it does.
    I am writing in a sub-genre and one of the agencies I queried was started by an author who writes under the same sub-genre and I’ve read several of their authors (also in the same sub-genre) that they represent so I know my work “fits”. I would rather hear that they are not interested in my work rather than making something up.
    It’s hard when many agents say they are interested in my sub-genre, but they don’t represent many authors that actually write in that category. So when I find an agency that does and they say they are not a good fit, it can make it difficult to go on with confidence.

  15. As a literary agent, former magazine editor, and writer myself, I’ve been on all sides of the submission process and found your article spot-on. An aside: Most rejections fall into this category: It’s like the blind date your mother sets up for you with a nice guy or gal. Midway in the date you look up from your plate of spaghetti and you realize, “Wow, they’re terrific, they’d make someone a great spouse. JUST NOT ME.”

  16. I sent my manuscript to an agent whose website said to expect three months to get a reply. Ten days later I got a form rejection letter with neither my name nor the date on it. I suspect no one at the agency even glanced at the manuscript, or even read my cover letter.

    If they’re that busy, they should say they’re closed to any new submissions.

  17. I got my first rejection letter today. It said ‘we read your work with interest,’ and ‘while we enjoyed your material it is not a good fit.’ It also said, ‘Please do not be discouraged by our response’, and that they hope I find an agent who can represent me. I felt encouraged. I thought, people don’t say they enjoy something if they don’t mean it, especially not these people. Then my partner said it was just a form letter and that all the rejects get that. He said ‘it’s just a polite ‘no.’ Is it?

  18. I have had a couple of polite rejections of my submission. I think my book is fantastic. When I see the plethora of rubbish on the bookshelves in town I know mine is better than these but how on earth do most of them make it to the shops? Also, the first three chapters is usually requested and no doubt agents can gauge if they like a style but in countless books I have read you have to hang in there to get the gist of what’s coming later. I think first fifty pages is a better way to judge. Still got rejected tho. Boo hoo.
    Good luck all

  19. Emma, great question! It really depends on the agency in question. You mentioned representation, which leads me to believe you are talking about a book submission, so there’s a good chance the letter was, in fact, a personal response.

    Keep in mind, however, that whether it is a personal response or not shouldn’t discourage you from submitting your work elsewhere. Sometimes agencies do have to send out form letters due to the amount of submissions they receive, but that should never make you think your work was glossed over in any way! Every rejection brings you closer to an acceptance and, at the very least, gets your name out into the writing world. Good luck and keep writing!

    P.S. Might we suggest doing something fun with that rejection letter?

  20. I received an email reply (re: a book submission) from an agent a day after I sent it that read:

    “Thank you for your submission. While I did enjoy this I felt the concept and tone was a bit too quiet and I think it would be a struggle to place it with a publisher at this time. Therefore regretfully I am going to have to pass on this but I wish you the best of luck in finding another agent for this project”.

    While my initial reaction was to think ‘well, it’s obviously boring and I need to spend some time spicing it up’, since reading your article and these comments I’m feeling less rejected and less inclined to edit the book until I see what the next few agents have to say.

    I hate this part of writing! It really takes away the passion in our work, doesn’t it…?

  21. Jayne,

    It’s great that a literary agent took the time to personally respond to you, especially when most lit agents don’t these days. See if any other feedback comes to you, and then consider revising. It can’t hurt!

    Rejections are always tough; but the more you submit, the easier the process can become and the more likely an agent will ask for more pages.

    Keep at it!

  22. I received the following response today from a reputable literary mag:
    “Thank you for submitting “Flight” to — contest. We appreciated the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the judges felt that the piece was ultimately not the winner.

    Best of luck with this. Thanks again, and we look forward to seeing more of your work. ”

    Form letter, yes? It was signed, “The Editors”. The website says that finalists were forwarded on to the judges in mid-November, but if I were among that group they would have specified this, right?

  23. Hi Sara, unfortunately, unless the letter includes the name of a specific editor or editors, it’s most likely a form letter. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you weren’t among the finalists; in fact, the line, “the judges felt that the piece was ultimately not the winner” suggests that you work was among the group be considered for first place.

    “We look forward to seeing more work” may be part of the form letter, but it’s possible that it was only included for those who made it past the November finalists section. More likely than not, those who were not included in this group were sent rejection e-mails before mid-November, giving them more time to resubmit their work elsewhere and allowing the journal in question to focus on the finalists.

    Regardless, you shouldn’t let rejections get you down. Every rejection puts you closer to acceptance, so revise your work (or create a new piece) and send it back to them the next time they’re reading! You can even include in your letter that they asked to see more of your work; having them remember you and your quality work is just one of the many ways to boost your chance of acceptance.

  24. I just got this response to my first query ever:

    Hey there Desiree,

    Thanks so much for giving me a shot at your picture book. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t connecting wholeheartedly with your writing, despite its poise and polish, so I ought to step aside, but I truly appreciate the look, and I wish you the best of luck!

    Sincerely,

    Stephen

    I felt encouraged that he called my writing “poised and polished.” Do agents ever say things like that just to be nice, or can I let myself bask in the glow of a sincere compliment??

  25. Desiree, go ahead and bask! Some agents don’t even reply at all unless they’re interested in a book; you should be proud to have received such a personal, positive response.

  26. Hi
    I just got this, after submitting the required elements of my novel to an agency, which was recommended to me by friend, who is also an existing client of the agent:

    “… unfortunately we did not think that we would be the best agent to represent your interests.

    However, we would like to thank you for letting us consider your work and would like to wish you all the best in the future.”

    It is similar to the standard rejection ‘we are not right for your work’ but it does go on to thank me, and wish me luck. Problem is, I wonder if it would have been more dismissive if it hadn’t been for the friend recommending me? Or do you think the agent is genuinely saying I have simply submmitted it to the wrong one?

    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated – this is my first rejection, and trickier to interpret, perhaps, because of my having referenced a recommendation by our mutual acquaintance in making my submission?

  27. I just got my first response to a query also. It reads;

    My name,
    Thanks so much for letting me read (book name)! I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, but unfortunately, I’m going to have to pass. I’m in a transition period where I’m not able to take on clients and I’m not sure when I’m going to be at that point again – soon, I hope! I’ve left (Agency name) and I’m waiting until I get settled in at another agency to begin accepting queries and taking on new clients.

    I wish you the best of luck in finding the perfect agent for you!

    I thought this was a personal rejection but I am questioning if it is a form letter rejection that is sent to everyone that had queried this agent, since she is no longer at this agency. Please let me know what you think!

    Thanks!!

  28. Hi Gina, interestingly enough, this one could go either way. If she was able to read your work despite the “transition period” she’s experiencing, this most likely is a personal rejection. She sounds genuine, and if she’s giving you this information, it’s also an invitation to send your work to her again (or send a different piece) in the future, once she’s more settled. Even if she is sending it out to multiple submitters as a form letter, she may be only sending it to those with work she is interested in reading again once she gets her career back on track.

    At the same time, she may be sending this out to anyone she’s read, since she is currently between agencies. It certainly doesn’t mean she dismissed your work without looking at it, but there’s a good chance she may be using this email to avoid “ignoring” submitters while she is moving.

    Both are possible, but keep her archived just in case! If you submit to her again when she’s in a more stable work environment and write, “You previously expressed interest in another of my stories, Xxxx…” in your query letter to jog her memory, you’ll have a better chance of garnering some attention. Good luck!

  29. Hi Karla, unfortunately, this appears to be a form letter. Agencies and editors alike use similar language at the end of rejections to put a more positive spin on the idea, so rejections will often have positive language on the end to “soften the blow,” so to speak.

    Receiving a rejection is still a good note, however, as many agents do respond at all unless they are interested. Also, this is only your first rejection, so don’t fret! You may receive many more as time goes by, but sending out your work and getting your name into the writing world is important. Heck, you can even have some fun with those rejections while you’re at it!

  30. Thanks for the great advice!! Since it could be a personal rejection, I was going to reply with a quick thank you, etc. Do you think this is a good idea?

  31. We wouldn’t recommend responding with anything too personal, but a quick, “Thank you” may be appropriate. Unlike editors, most agents aren’t prone to staying in touch if they weren’t distinctly interested in your work, so it’s best to keep any response short and professional.

  32. I just received my first rejection letter today after submitting the query three days ago. I am surprisingly okay with it, and I think it is because I knew what I was getting into when I decided I wanted to write as a career. This is a fabulous article, though, and I appreciate reading the responses. The one I got was pretty nice but also generic, which I guess is the way it’s done. I am looking forward to the other responses I get as well.

  33. Hi
    Thanks so much for the reply – it is as I feared, but I am inspired by the ‘paper games’ suggested in your link and I love the encouraging and positive tone of this blog – thanks again – I’ll keep you posted as to whether I end up making a lifesize papier mache mouse – or an elephant!

  34. My first rejection letter ever and I am confused as to how to interpret it. It addressed both me and my story by name, was several paragraphs long, and was signed by an individual editor. The part that confuses me is: “…we further encourage you to share more work with us in the not too distant future.” Could this be a “tiered” letter? It would seem counterproductive to me to encourage writers whose work you didn’t like to submit more stories, as it would waste both the author and magazine’s time, but stranger things have happened.

  35. This one could go either way, Matt. If the paragraphs are about your work and how you could make it better, you could consider this a positive AND personal response; however, journals do have a tendency to advertise contests and submission dates in their emails. It is important to check exactly what is in the body of the letter.

    Still, the editor was kind enough to include his name, instead of just mentioning the journal, so this may very well be a personal invitation to submit in the future! YAY!

  36. Almost all the rejection notes I have received have been at least civil. Some have been encouraging, and have even emboldened me to write back and ask if I might see the readers’ notes. In these instances, I found the notes so much to the point and so useful that I submitted another draft, which was accepted. This also started a fine relationship between me and the editors, who now know me as someone who is open to trying to write a better poem, and who can respond quickly.

    The only rejection note I would really call rude was a form letter. It annoyed me so much that I wrote a poem about it.

  37. I’ve been writing novels for years. In trying get one of them published, all I get is “it’s not right for us”. With one agent, I asked if my book was marketable and this agent wouldn’t answer the question. I firmly believe, based on the articles I’ve read that unless you become acquainted personally with these agents, you’re wasting your time querying them.

  38. Just received my first rejection letter today. When I first checked my email, I wasn’t expecting such a fast turn around (I’d just sent it yesterday). When I saw it sitting in my inbox, my first reaction was “Oh! I got a response!” After reading it, I immediately found myself here. The tone of the response was very light and encouraging, even though it was a rejection. When I finished this article, it made me feel even better to know that my line of thinking was already in the right area. I was smiling while I read the letter, mostly because I was still excited by the fact that they had responded. If anything, it’s a motivator! I’m going to print and store this beautiful bit of “No, thank you” and keep doing so until that “Yes” finally comes along.

  39. I have so far received two rejections with comments, neither particularly full of praise (but I suppose if they were full of praise they wouldn’t have rejected them. One said the characters were flat the other, for a separate story, said it was plotless and pointless. I guess the fact that they said anything at all is a good thing.

  40. I received a rejection letter stating that the publisher didn’t think they could, successfully, publish it but they encouraged me to approach a literary agent.

    I am not sure if this means it just wasn’t a fit for them.

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