How to Write a Rejection Letter That Won’t Make People Hate You

Getting rejections is hard. That much is obvious.

Sending them can be hard, too. Especially when you know the rejectee is going to be very disappointed.

Not that I’ve ever had to send one quite like that. But I get it. Many of you people who must send rejection letters regularly have been on the receiving end at some point or another. You know how hard it is. You want to let them down gently. You want to be encouraging, but not so encouraging that they’re going to flood you with more submissions or applications, especially if you really didn’t like what they sent you. It’s a delicate balance.

Well, as a highly experienced rejectee, let me share with you what actually helps me feel better about a rejection letter… and what decidedly doesn’t.

How to Write a Good Rejection Letter

1) Get to the F-ing Point

Most rejection letters start out with a thank you. This is appropriate. But the bad news should be in the second sentence at the very latest, and it should be stated clearly.

You’ll see some examples below where I had to hack through all kinds of verbiage to confirm that what I was reading was, in fact, a rejection letter.

Listen. I hate to tell you this, but the moment we open your letter, we couldn’t care less how glad you are to have the opportunity to read our work, how many submissions you receive, or how much you wish you could respond to each submission personally. Our hearts are in our throats. We just want to know your answer. Put us out of our misery.

2) Don’t Apologize for Sending an Impersonal Form Letter

I know this may be counter-intuitive for the more empathetic among you, but please, don’t apologize for sending a form rejection. There’s nothing more phony than an impersonal apology for being impersonal.

I know many of you do wish you could respond individually and it pains you to have to send form letters. You can mention that if you have to, but really, all we hear is “O woe is me, I am so successful that I can no longer afford to respond individually. Woe!” And it kinda makes us wanna slap you. And then send an impersonal apology.

3) Do Apologize if the Letter is Late

If you committed to a specific response time (in your submission guidelines or elsewhere), and you’re sending the rejection later than that projected time–please apologize and thank the rejectee for his or her patience. Every additional second is torture for us. We know you’re busy, probably underpaid, and doing your best, but failing to meet a deadline you set for yourself is unprofessional and disrespectful of our time, and the least you can do is acknowledge that.

4) Don’t Give Empty Praise or Encouragement

Do not ever include words of praise, even the most vague, in a form letter.

Not ever.

Doing this is damaging in multiple ways. It makes us unsure whether the letter was a form letter or a personal rejection. So it can both give us false hope, and undermine the genuine value of praise we receive in an actual personal rejection.

I’ve had several rejections from agents that said vague things like “While I found the premise intriguing…” or “This looks interesting, but…” Sometimes, when I compared notes with others who had been rejected by the same agent, I discovered that their rejections were identical. Not cool. Don’t say it unless you truly mean it.

5) Keep It Short

It is unspeakably irritating to trudge through a long letter that says nothing you want to hear. Especially when you’ve read dozens exactly like it.

A form rejection letter should be one or two short paragraphs long. You’ll see a few examples of good ones below.

Of course, you do have to consider the possibility that this is the first rejection letter your rejectee has ever received. So I understand why some feel a need to add something along the lines of, “Please don’t be discouraged; this is just one opinion, and another may feel differently.” But this often comes off as patronizing–especially toward us “veterans.” See below for examples of letters that manage to convey this message without that patronizing tone.

Really, if you’re trying to be helpful, all you have to say is, “I know getting rejected is hard. If you’re interested, there’s this amazing blog about coping with rejection that I highly recommend…..” 😉

Some Examples of Annoying Rejections

Happily, I have an abundant pool of examples to draw from.

You will find my comments {in these brackets and in bold}.

Let us begin:

Sample #1

“Dear Ms. Levy:

It is with kind thanks that I respond to your submission to [Fancy Literary Agency]. {Pompous-sounding. Keep it simple.} Please be assured that I have carefully considered your project. {Oh, Agent. We both know that “carefully considered” means “took two seconds to scan your query letter and wasn’t hooked.” That’s how things work in this industry. Let’s not overstate our case, shall we?} Unfortunately, I don’t feel the manuscript is right for me at this time.

Because we receive more than two hundred submissions per week {Cry me a river}, it is necessary to be extremely selective on a very subjective basis. {This sentence is clunky. Consider revising.} There are numerous excellent agents that might be the right fit for your manuscript. I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely,
[Fancy Literary Agents]”

Sample #2

“Dear Ms. Levy:

Many thanks for the arrival of your letter describing your writing project. {Okay firstly this sentence is a mess. I am not responsible for the “arrival” of the letter, so I don’t know why you’re thanking me for it. Just cut “the arrival of.” It’s superfluous.} Unfortunately, we must report that we do not feel sufficiently enthusiastic about the project to pursue it further. {This sentence could be half as long and still say the same thing. “Unfortunately, we do not feel sufficiently enthusiastic about it.”}

I regret the seemingly impersonal nature of this letter. {“Seemingly”? Are you implying that it’s not impersonal and only seems to be?…} Because the agency handles so many letters of query and wishes to provide the timely response that any author needs and deserves, we have had to depart from the practice of responding personally. {I give up. Let’s just say I’m not hiring you as an editor anytime soon.} Please be assured, however, that we continue to carefully consider each query, including yours. {Seriously, why do agents say this? Do they think that if they don’t, I’m going to write back and accuse them of never having read my query, because if they had, clearly they would be begging me for my brilliant manuscript? Listen, if the writer is enough of a megalomaniac to do that, assuring them that you have carefully considered their submission is not going to stave them off. And what it does to the rest of us is make us think, “Huh. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that you didn’t actually read my query until you mentioned it.”}

We do appreciate the opportunity to consider your work and wish you much success and pleasure in your writing.

Sincerely,
[Literary Agent]”

Sample #3

“Dear Daniella Levy,

Thank you again for submitting your story to [Literary Magazine].

As you might imagine, our small team of volunteer readers {Blah blah blah. Acceptance or rejection?} is forced to select an extremely small number of works from the hundreds of great submissions we receive each quarter. {Acceptance or rejection?!} Submissions for our Fall Issue were once again excellent, and plentiful. {ACCEPTANCE OR REJECTION?!?!} Although we have to pass on your work for this edition {THANK YOU}, we’re truly grateful that you were kind enough to send it our way. {I’m truly grateful that you were kind enough to finally let me know that you rejected my story.}

All the best in your future writing. Warm wishes and good luck!

Sincerely,
[Magazine Staff]

Sample #4

“Dear Author, {We’re already getting off to a bad start, I see.}

Thank you for writing to me about your project. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get back to you! {Apologizing for lateness. Acceptable.} I’m so sorry for the impersonal response, I hate to do this. {Annnnd strike two. I must admit, however, that the warm, informal style does soften it a bit.} [My agency] used to respond directly to each query, but the letters have now reached a volume that is frankly unmanageable. {Boring. Is this a rejection or what?} Writing a good book or proposal is among the hardest things in the world to do; I promise, we’re not unsympathetic! {I don’t need your sympathy! I need to know whether you are rejecting my query!!!} You have our word that we are reading every single query letter that comes our way, {DEAR GOD WOMAN, SPIT IT OUT} but from now on, we’re only responding personally if we’re sufficiently curious and would like to read further. {AHA! I can now engage my powers of deduction to conclude that this is, indeed, a rejection! Thank you for this vigorous intellectual exercise.}  I’ve been focusing on maintaining my current list for the last few years and can only make an exception for the rare book for which I am completely over-the-top enthusiastic. {You sound really sweet. But I want to strangle you right now.}

I do encourage you to continue developing and submitting until you find the perfect home for your work-it’s out there! {This sentence was doing great until the last three words. DO NOT SAY THIS. There is literally no way that every single person you have rejected later found a home for their work. I know you’re trying to be encouraging, but it just comes off as overly cheery and insincere.} Along those lines, I wish you the very best.

Take care,
[Literary Agent]

Some Examples of Excellent Form Letters

The Rejection Survival Guide Award for Best Form Rejection goes to… The New Yorker.

“Dear Daniella,

We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.

Sincerely,
The Editor”

IT’S PERFECT.

The bad news is delivered right away. It’s only two sentences long. It manages to be polite and encouraging and impersonal at the same time.

Their reputation as the #1 literary magazine in the world was confirmed for me, not by their illustrious list of awards, nor by the the work they publish, but by the masterpiece that is their form letter.

Here’s another good one:

“Thank you for your submission to Wolf Literary. We’re afraid your project isn’t quite right for our lists at this time, but we encourage you to continue editing and querying other agencies.

Thanks again, and best of luck in your search for representation.

All the best,

Wolf Literary Services”

Again, it manages to be encouraging in a sort of general way, without the mildly patronizing tone of “this is a subjective industry, etc.”

One more:

“Dear Daniella,

Thank you for thinking of me with your query, but unfortunately I just don’t feel I would be the right agent for this one.  I do wish you the best of luck and success with your book.

Sincerely,
Stephany Evans”

Short and sweet, and manages to sound sincere. Thumbs up.

A Note on Personal Rejections

I’ve focused primarily on form letters in this post because I think personal ones are a lot easier to write, even if they may be somewhat harder to send. I never wanted to slap anyone who sent me a personal rejection, and I could tell that in most cases, the agent or editor was genuinely sorry to be turning me down.

The key is to be sincere. If you’re writing a personal rejection, that means you saw potential there. Your goal is to encourage the rejectee to keep going and to consider trying you again in the future. “I really enjoyed reading this” is one I got a few times. One agent went into great detail about what she liked about my characters and the way I approached certain themes. A few told me I was talented and that my manuscript had potential.

What’s important for you to know is this: those were the rejections that made me keep trying.

If I hadn’t gotten any genuine positive feedback at all, I would have given up long ago. It is thanks to those comments that my debut novel is being published in September.

So if you’re writing a personal rejection, remember that this letter you are sending right now may be the difference between your rejectee walking away and giving up, or finding a home for their work.

What are some of the more annoying rejections you’ve received? What are some of the best? Please share in the comments! And hey–if you’re an editor/agent/other-person-who-sends-rejection-letters and would like me to review yours, I’d love to help. Feel free to contact me.

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One thought on “How to Write a Rejection Letter That Won’t Make People Hate You

  1. Dear Author,
    Thank you for turning the tables on all the publishers and agents out there and giving them a hardy (and helpful) swig of their own medicine. Delightful!

    Liked by 1 person

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