No, No, No: How to Deal with Rejection

Rejection? It comes with the territory of being a creative professional, but it never feels good. Instead of letting it tear you down, learn how to deal with rejection and use it to make you and your work stronger.

In addition to serving as managing editor on various magazines where I regularly sent rejection letters to fellow writers, I've also been a freelance writer since 2001. In that time, I've dealt with my fair share of rejection. I've unsuccessfully pitched featured stories, columns and essays. I've rewritten articles under contract once, twice, three times. I've seen my byline on stories that look only vaguely like what I submitted. I've been pitching picture books for six years and have yet to see one published. Once, I collected a kill fee from a high-paying, high-profile publication.

I recently listened to Garrison Keillor speak, read and sing at a local bookstore. I asked him about rejection. He spoke of his early years and the long walk down his driveway to get the large gray envelopes from The New Yorker ­– rejections (acceptances came in small creamy envelopes). He told me you have to have a fair amount of arrogance about your work – and he's right. Of course, you have to review, revise and change, but you also have to keep pushing, knowing and believing that the work you do is good, creative and worthwhile.

Still, the hard-to-swallow feedback will come. Here are four ways to deal with rejection.

1. View it as a Game

"To ward off a feeling of failure, she joked that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejection slips, which she chose not to see as messages to stop, but rather as tickets to the game." – Anita Shreve

It's a game. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. Sometimes it's a game of skill. Sometimes it's a game of chance. But we have to play. And playing, in the creative field, comes with rejection. Being told "no," having to redo work again and again or losing a client isn't uncommon, but that's cold comfort. Just remember that no team wins every game, no matter how skilled.

2. Be Open to Feedback

"All great innovations are built on rejections." – Louis-Ferdinand Celine  

The logo design you spent hours and hours on doesn't live up to your client's expectations. The creative pitch you carefully crafted just came back from your boss covered in red. What to do? Curse. Have a drink. Go for a run. Then, revisit, listen and consider. Be mindful that constructive criticism can make your work better if you remain open to it. And while inspiration can be spontaneous, creative work takes time – and, sometimes, a lot of revisions.

3. Consider the Source

"Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what's wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong." – Neil Gaiman

I once took a book I had written to a writers' group meeting. I had been pitching the book to agents and although I was receiving kind rejections, they were still nos. Although I was proud of the work, I knew something needed to be fixed. A fellow writer told me exactly what needed tweaked (the ending) and how to tweak it. And even though I wasn't totally confident in her recommendation, I changed it. The next agent who responded stated he didn't like my ending and suggested something different ­– my original ending. The lesson learned? While it's important to listen to the advice of others and be willing to make changes, follow your heart, too.

4. Welcome It

"To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." – Elbert Hubbard

To be told "no" means you're saying "yes" to putting your work out there. A surefire way of never receiving a rejection is to never submit anything. To never push the limit on a design. To never take a chance on a new market. Stephen King's Carrie was rejected 30 times. William Golding's Lord of the Flies ­– 20. Check out New York's Museum of Modern Art's rejection letter to Andy Warhol. It happens. But with perseverance, "yes" happens, too. 

Kara Gebhart Uhl is a freelance writer and editor. A contributing editor to Writer's Digest magazine, she also blogs about parenting at Her essays have appeared on The Huffington Post, The New York Times Motherlode blog and TIME: Healthland.

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