7 Reasons Your Manuscript Was Rejected, Because It's Not Always About Your Writing

Whether you're being turned down by a crush, an agent, a publisher, or a temperamental cat, rejection hurts. You pined over that crush for weeks, or you worked on your novel for months, or you spent minutes spooning cat food into a bowl, and yet you were flat out rejected. That bites. But before you descend into a funk and start going through old Instagram posts from your friend with that sweet book deal, remember that manuscripts get rejected, not authors. And here are a few reasons why your manuscript might have been rejected.

As Sylvia Plath put it, "I love my rejection slips. They show me I try." Treasure your returned manuscript. It means you had a manuscript to return. And most importantly, don't give up on it (insert anecdote about J.K. Rowling getting rejected here). All writers have to get used to rejection, the same way we have to get used to our parents mailing us brochures for law school. It's part of the job, and it's almost never personal. If it is personal, it's probably because you've been calling the publisher at home with threats, and you should really stop doing that.

So, you may never know the exact reason that your work wasn't published. But here are a few possibilities:

1. They have too much to read

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Is there ever such a thing as too many books? Well, if you're an agent or publisher drowning in unsolicited manuscript submissions... yes. Very much so. Sometimes it's just an unfortunate numbers game, and your manuscript rolled up on the scene when everyone was already booked solid (no pun intended). It can feel doubly unfair when your manuscript is rejected simply because there's no room for it, but it's actually a good thing: it's no comment on your work, just on how busy the agent is. Rebound, revise, and submit somewhere else.

2. Typos

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Oof. This one's rough. As someone who writes on the internet for a living, I can vouch for the fact that typos inspire irrational rage in some people. Your story might be the most important thing, but if your manuscript has too many typos, awkward wording, or formatting errors, it looks wildly unprofessional. Yes, it's horribly painful to comb through a manuscript after it's been rejected and then notice a bunch of grotesque typos. But better to proofread late than never.

3. You’re imitating another author

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You're probably not doing it on purpose, either. But publishers want to read you, not your best David Foster Wallace impression. Every writer is inspired by other authors, and when you're starting out it can be hard to find that line between "inspired by several accomplished artists" and "god I wish I were Ursula K. Le Guin." Your writing might be top-notch, but if it's clearly trying to borrow someone else's voice, it's not really your writing. Buy yourself a few cupcakes and start your next draft.

4. They’ve seen other stuff like it

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Even if your writing style is totally your own, your subject matter might not be. Sure, from your perspective, your short story about how technology is destroying modern romance seems gutsy and relevant. But to the exhausted assistant or agent who'll be reading your piece, it's the eighteenth story about dating apps they've seen that day. You can't know for sure how many other manuscripts will share your topic and opinions. But you can try to find a unique point of view in your next round of revisions (or maybe just write about how technology is saving modern romance, even though it's totally not?).

5. It’s not the right genre

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Maybe the literary journal just filled their last poetry slot for this issue, and they're only looking for prose. Maybe romance just sells better than your magical realism piece. Maybe this agent or publication doesn't accept science fiction at all, and you're barking up the wrong tree. In your manuscript-submitting haze, there's always a chance you didn't do your research on every single place you submitted to. But luckily, one zine's "we don't publish memoir pieces" is another zine's cover story.

6. It’s too long/short/complicated

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Sometimes publishers give very clear word counts, so you know how long your piece should be. But other times you're left alone to guess how long/short/weird of a manuscript they want. Your novel might just be too darn long for this particular agent or publisher. Or it might be too complicated, or have too many sex scenes, or not enough sex scenes. It can all come down to very specific criteria that you can't guess beforehand. As long as you're not trying to sell a 100,000 word manuscript to a short story publisher, you just have to keep writing and rewriting.

7. Your manuscript is just not there yet

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When we get rejected, we want to believe that it's not us, it's them, and it's all a grave injustice. And it's true that it's not us. But sometimes it is our writing. I know. It's a hard pill to swallow. Our manuscripts are our darling children, and we want them to go far in life. But sometimes your beautiful baby manuscript just needs a little more love and attention and time to mature before it's ready to strike out on its own. The important this is that you keep at it, because the only way to make sure that your manuscript is never published is to stop submitting it. And every rejection means that you're getting closer to that elusive acceptance.

Images: omardiss/Pixabay, Giphy (7)