A lot of creative professions involve submitting work to gatekeepers of various kinds: agents, editors, publishers, gallerists, funders, producers, studios and competition judges and so on.
Yes, the 21st century gives us plenty of options for creating things without gatekeepers – you can sell direct, build your own platform, launch your own event, self-publish or whatever, and we’ve covered a lot of them on this show. But that’s not the game we’re playing today.
Today we’re assuming you’ve considered the alternatives and you’ve decided that here is an opportunity worth pursuing, worth submitting and waiting and hoping that whoever is on the receiving end will love your work enough to say: ‘Yes!’
My own experience of this is submitting poems to magazines and competitions, because that’s how the poetry world works here in the UK, how I can reach the hardcore poetry readers.
And rest assured I have had my share of rejections. And just about every week I talk to coaching clients who are wrestling with how to cope with rejection. Often serial rejection, because if an opportunity is really worth pursuing, there will be a lot of competition for it.
Rejection is normal, even for highly talented creatives. But it doesn’t necessarily feel that way when yet another ‘no’ lands in your inbox.
Firstly there’s that feeling like a punch to the gut. Then on a bad day, the Inner Critic starts up, doing its best to make things worse:
Of course they said no! What were you expecting? Why did you think you had a chance? How much longer are you going to keep banging your head against a brick wall?
And so on. Ad nauseam.
From observing my own experience, as well as having worked with hundreds of creatives on this issue, I’ve noticed that a lot of these anxieties boil down to one deeply depressing thought:
My work wasn’t good enough.
As if that’s not bad enough, it’s not long before a further thought occurs to you:
And that means I’m not good enough.
So today, I’d like to examine this assumption. Because that’s what it is – you’re assuming that the reason your work was rejected was that it wasn’t good enough. And it ain’t necessarily so.
This was brought home to me way back in 2005, when I had the chance to go through the looking glass and edit a major poetry magazine myself.
I was on the editorial board of Magma Poetry, one of the foremost poetry magazines here in the UK, and which has a different editor for every issue.
And when my turn came in the hot seat, I found myself on the receiving end of a torrent of email submissions and bulging postbags arriving at the door.
The first thing I noticed was how many there were – literally thousands of poems. And I had room for about 60 poems in the issue.
And immediately I felt better about all my own rejections, because I realised that with those odds, there was no shame in not being regularly plucked out of the stack of submissions.
Over the next few months, as I worked through the poems, it gradually dawned on me that I was going to have too many good poems. In other words, there were plenty more poems that were ‘good enough’, in terms of writing quality, than there was room for in the magazine.
So what was I going to do about it?
After thinking it over, and getting some advice from more experienced editors, I realised there were two other factors at play that would decide which of the excellent poems would make it into my issue.
Firstly I started to notice patterns emerging in the submissions – poems by different authors on the same topic or theme, that seemed to build on each other or talk to each other. It was as if these poems somehow joined hands and made friends and looked out for each other, whereas others were left on their own and it was harder for me to make a case to include them.
Secondly was my personal taste. If the issue was going to be my issue, I had to stand by my own judgment and make the selection of poems I liked the most. Otherwise what was the point in me being the editor?
So I chose the poems I liked, in full awareness that another editor would probably have done a similar job of sifting out the well-written pieces, but could have made a radically different selection of poems from the ‘excellent’ pile.
If you want to read some of the poems I selected, you can find some excerpts from Magma issue 34, here.
And ever since that experience, I’ve taken account of these other factors when preparing my own submissions and in helping clients with theirs.
I think of the process in terms of a triangle, comprising Quality, Context and Taste. When I’m preparing a submission, I call it The Triangle of Aspiration. When I’m dealing with a rejection, I call it The Triangle of Consolation.
Starting with Quality, ask yourself:
Is this the best work I can possibly do?
You have to learn to set your ego aside, to be a relatively objective judge of your own efforts. It’s not easy to do this, so if you’re starting out, you need to find a teacher or mentor or someone else whose judgment you respect, to give you high quality feedback.
Outstanding quality is necessary but not sufficient. And… it’s the point on the triangle that you have the most control over. So it’s up to you to do what it takes to get your work to the highest level you can – practising, taking courses, getting feedback, whatever.
Next, consider the Context. The key question here is:
How does my work relate to the bigger picture?
Maybe the venue you are applying to is known for a particular style or genre of work.
Or maybe a competition or magazine or event has a specific theme or topic. Sometimes the theme is optional, but even if that’s the case, your chances of success go up significantly if your work is ‘on theme’. Because clearly, you are solving the gatekeeper’s problem by giving them what they are looking for.
Or maybe they are looking for work from a particular type of person, representing a specific type of lived experience in terms of cultural background, gender, sexuality or something else. If you happen to belong to that group, then you can help them by sending in your work.
Another thing you should be aware of is current hot topics and trends in your creative field. If you have work that aligns with this, then that could give you an edge in certain venues.
And I want to be very clear about this: I am NOT saying you should write to market or create art that hops on the latest trends and fads. That’s a slippery slope to compromise and selling out.
I’m not talking about deciding what to create. I’m talking about deciding what to do with what you have already created.
So in my case, I write the poems that come to me, and I’m grateful for what comes. But once I have a stack of poems ready to send out, I think carefully about where to send them, where they are most likely to be welcome.
Finally, it’s worth asking yourself:
What do I know about the judge’s taste?
Because regardless of quality and context, it really really helps if they actually like your work!
Now taste is subjective and often idiosyncratic. So on one level, there’s nothing you can do about it. But what you can do, is take into account what you know of the judge’s taste when deciding where to send your work.
If you haven’t heard of the selectors before, take time to research their work. And look for interviews with them, these can be very revealing about what they like and don’t like.
So that’s the triangle – Quality, Context, Taste. And you need to hit all three to get a ‘yes’, not just the Quality part.
Just because your work got rejected, it doesn’t necessarily it wasn’t good enough. There are three factors at play, and there are things you can do about all three of them.