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Many literary magazines routinely send out form rejections with the following types of statements:

Thanks very much, bla bla… Unfortunately, the story is not right for us at this time. We wish you better luck in placing it elsewhere.

OR

Thanks very much bla bla… Unfortunately, we have decided to pass on the story… Writing is very subjective and just because we rejected it does not mean that some other magazine will not accept it. We wish you good luck in trying it with other publications.

I often hear from these slush readers that the vast majority of stories sent to them are ‘terrible’. If that is true, then it seems dishonest and irresponsible that they would be sending form rejections with such obvious falsehoods.

When someone uses words like "at this time," it strongly implies that the same story could have been published by them in different circumstances. It also implies that the story can be sent to them again at a different time. Yet, we know that these magazines have a policy of not allowing rejected stories to ever be sent to them again even if they are improved, which makes the words "at this time" ridiculous. Also, adding “good luck” to the words "placing it elsewhere" is also clearly misleading and dishonest with respect to poor-quality stories.

If the purpose is to be ‘kind’ to the rejected author, it seems to me that there are obvious alternative ways of writing (genuinely) kind and helpful rejection forms without lying to the novice authors or misleading them. One such way is the following:

Thanks very much for trying your story with us. While you had interesting ideas, we personally felt that more work is needed in improving the story. Please do not be disheartened; writing is a skill that takes time to master and the competition is fierce. If you keep at it, you will no doubt be successful. Also, for future submissions, we suggest testing your stories with beta readers and writing groups before sending them out. We wish you best of luck in your writing career.

I wrote that on the fly in just under a minute. As you can see, it is both very comforting and honest. Another example, which is neutral and doesn’t involve making any comments on the nature of the submission, would be:

Thanks very much for trying the story with us. Unfortunately, it doesn't suit our magazine. Feel free to try other stories with us in the future. We wish you best of luck.

Of course, there are many different variations of them. But the bottom line is that they are polite, kind and do not involve lying.

From my experience and observations, the vast majority of people appreciate honest feedback as long as it is done kindly. There is nobody who would write an obviously poor quality story and then throw a tantrum when kindly told that it isn’t perfect.

At the end of the day, if these editors lack the imagination to compose rejection forms that do not involve being dishonest and misleading, then why don't they just simply say "story declined", or something to that effect, and move on?

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    I strongly suggest you edit your question, removing insults and what could be viewed as an assault from it. The only reason why I bother to comment is that I think the question has potential. However, when you insult and call out multiple people in the opening statement you do nothing but repulse a potential answerer. Aug 21, 2020 at 11:30
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    The tone of your question, your comment to dorijan, and most of your other contributions to the site, suggests to me that you have already decided on your answer. This is clearly a subject you feel very strongly about, but I get the distinct impression that you're editorialising about your hatred of literary magazines and their staff, instead of asking an actual, genuine question. Ask yourself this: if someone were to post a well-reasoned answer to effect of "no, literary magazines don't lie", would you be willing to listen to it?
    – F1Krazy
    Aug 21, 2020 at 12:36
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    Thanks very much for contributing to Writing.SE. Unfortunately, I have decided to vote to close your question. It is very subjective and quite clearly intended to start a discussion. Just because I closed it does not mean that some other web site will not accept it. I wish you good luck in finding a home for your rant. Aug 21, 2020 at 13:38

2 Answers 2

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There is nobody who would write an obviously poor quality story and then throw a tantrum when kindly told that it isn’t perfect.

This is incorrect for two reasons. First, people who write stories don't necessarily know if they are poor quality, and second, because many --perhaps most-- writers are emotionally involved with their stories. I myself have thrown tantrums on multiple occasions when receiving good, valuable, and kindly meant criticisms on stories I have written.

it seems dishonest and irresponsible that they would be sending form rejections with such obvious falsehoods.

These aren't actually obvious falsehoods. Writing IS subjective. Editors have made big mistakes before. Famous books have gone through multiple rounds of rejection before being accepted. Something which seems terrible to someone who doesn't appreciate its style or genre might be acclaimed as genius by someone else. It might not be likely, but it's possible. It's also quite possible, and considerably more likely, that a well-written piece might not be right for the current needs of a given magazine.

If the purpose is to be ‘kind’ to the rejected author, it seems to me that there are obvious alternative ways of writing (genuinely) kind and helpful rejection forms without lying to the novice authors or misleading them.

First --it isn't the magazine's job, or a part of it, to provide feedback. That's not what they're there for. Any time spent on evaluating submissions beyond the binary question of "right for us / wrong for us" is time wasted for them. Second, it's difficult to think of any response that wouldn't anger someone. For instance, consider your first replacement response. What if you had twenty years writing experience, and you had extensively workshopped your piece, and you got that response. Wouldn't that anger and frustrate you? It's making assumptions --potentially unwarranted --about who you are as a person and as a writer. And, as @Jedediah mentioned in the comments, angry people are potentially violent people. Something that distinguishes you from the crowd might end up being the thing they latch onto to focus their anger around. Or, conversely, the shorter, neutral dismissal might anger other people, and for other reasons. No one likes rejection, so there's really no winning here.

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    Almost exactly the response I had already half-written in my head. The main thing I would emphasize even harder is there really are a handful of violently unhinged people out there, and editors, slush-readers, and agents don't relish the idea of a non-anodyne rejection message triggering someone to track them down and poison their dog, or worse.
    – Jedediah
    Aug 21, 2020 at 14:35
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    Let me put it this way. I've been rejected by many magazines. I've never gotten any useful feedback from any of them. Were my stories terrible? I don't know --there's no way to tell from their responses. Is that disappointing and frustrating? Yes. What lesson do I take from that? That the submission process is the wrong place to look for useful feedback. Aug 22, 2020 at 4:27
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    I can judge only by my own perceptions, but your vision of writing as an easily judged objective craft doesn't match my experience in the slightest. // I've written work that seems magnificent to me at one time, terrible at another. I've read other people's work that struck me as great on one occasion, terrible on another. So much of any reading experience is what you bring to it at that moment. 50 Shades of Grey is widely considered an objectively terrible book, yet it is immensely popular. // I've responded badly --and in surprise! --to good criticism. I can't believe I'm alone in that Aug 24, 2020 at 12:05
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I understand that most people don't like being called out, nevertheless I was slightly surprised to see such hostility by supposed 'professionals' to such a fair and comprehensible question, and equally surprised to see the rather obvious tactics used in attempting to shut down the question; by pretending it is not understandable or that it "starts a discussion" (as if virtually all questions don't intrinsically do that). I really expected more mature behavior. So I will attempt to provide an answer myself.

First of all, I should make it clear that, in my discussions with people outside of this forum, many have confirmed that magazines DO indeed regularly write what they know to be falsehoods or misleading statements in their rejection forms. They refer to them as "white lies".

I was rather disappointed because I expected the response to the question to be something along the lines of:

"The premise that most stories sent to us are 'terrible', as you heard from the slush readers you spoke about, is not actually correct. The majority of stories we receive are actually of adequate standard but are nevertheless rejected out of subjective preference rather than glaringly poor quality. Therefore, the form letters are not actually dishonest since other magazines COULD indeed accept them. But for stories that ARE glaringly horrible such that no literary magazine could possibly accept them (the kinds of stories that those slush readers gave you the impression that they usually receive) we usually use a different, more concise rejection form; something along the lines of 'Thanks. But this story is not for us.'"

This is what I expected the response to be like. Thus, I was quite disappointed to instead receive either emotional hostility without any rational explanation, or an actual admission of dishonesty.

Nevertheless, my intuition would still be that MOST of the stories that are sent to these magazines are NOT actually 'terrible', as claimed by those slush readers I read, but that they were merely exaggerating and imposing their own subjective reactions on stories that were actually of standard quality. And it may be that the people who have responded to the question, in other places, by admitting to regular dishonesty simply did not properly understand the question and failed to see that I was talking about stories that are of poor quality by anyone's standards.

But if it is indeed the case that these kinds of form rejections are being sent to truly horribly written stories (by any standard), then it would mean that there is widespread dishonesty. As to why it happens, despite the fact that, like I pointed out, there are neutral ways of writing such rejection forms that do not involve dishonesty, I think it really would come down to simple carelessness and lack of imagination on the part of most editors. After all, editors are human and make mistakes and can be careless and inconsiderate. I suppose for most people it simply takes extra effort to compose more proper and honest forms and thus they simply did not bother. And once a certain type of rejection form has been used frequently as a result, it eventually becomes the norm because everyone simply copies it without giving it much thought.

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    This is not an answer to the question posed. // The poor reaction your questions and answers are receiving is not primarily because of the content, but because they do not match the structure and set guidelines of the site. SE is meant for answerable questions, not discussions or arguments. Posts that are primarily neither questions nor answers will always be downvoted regardless of their content or other merit. Aug 22, 2020 at 4:17
  • Not only does it answer the question, but it is the only real answer to the question itself because, unlike the other responses, it actually goes right to the heart of the question. Also, a great many questions asked on this site DO invoke discussions, as you well know.
    – user394536
    Aug 22, 2020 at 4:25
  • If you want me to remove my comments regarding the behavior of the respondents, then simply say so. But don’t pretend that it doesn’t answer the question. You (and the others who have chosen to subvert it) know very well that it does..
    – user394536
    Aug 22, 2020 at 9:59
  • Regarding the question, just who exactly are you kidding, Chris? The hostile and emotional reactions the question got had EVERYTHING to do with the content (it calling them out) and NOTHING to do with ‘structure’. The original question was of a simple ‘Yes-or-No’ structure: ‘Do these magazines lie in their forms? Yes or no? (with elaboration)'
    – user394536
    Aug 22, 2020 at 10:01
  • The irony is that your modified version of the question actually makes it MORE prone to discussion than the earlier ‘yes or no’ format. I even stated CLEARLY at the beginning of the details in the original question that I am simply asking if these forms are indeed being sent to ‘terrible’ stories and why. (The rest of what I wrote was mere exposition.) That fits perfectly with the normal format of questions. YET the respondents STILL voted to close the question and spewed venom without providing any justification. And yet you pretend that it had nothing to do with the content??
    – user394536
    Aug 22, 2020 at 10:01

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