Find n

Friday March 04, 2011 @ 10:29 PM (UTC)

Here’s one of those things that I can’t believe I’ve never blogged about before (though I hinted about it when I chronicled my first rejection letter in 2004). Writing folks who know me in real life have probably heard me say this, but I want it up here, for two reasons. One, so I can drop a link when I refer to it in future; two, in case this way of thinking about rejections helps someone as it helped me.

When I started sending out stories, I knew I would be hearing a lot of “NO.” We all know that. We all find some way to deal with it: this is mine.

There is a finite, unknown number n of noes between you and yes. The only way to determine n is experimentally.

That may actually make me sound a lot more logical than I usually feel, but it helped me. It helped me take those thin, thin envelopes out of the mailbox and open them and keep sending stories out, in the dark days before n made itself known. A friend of a friend is reported to open responses from poetry journals exclaiming, “Aha! The rejection slips I sent away for have arrived!” but this, while cheerful, is not sufficiently optimistic for my worldview.

The truth is, every rejection is a sort of accomplishment, provided you’re improving your work and trying your best. Without throwing yourself in the way of rejection, you’re never going to stumble into acceptance. There are ways you can learn to improve your writing, which will probably make n smaller. There are ways — not researching markets, scattershot submissions, not revising and not being honest about your work — to make n almost certainly larger. But there’s only one way to determine the value of n. There is no equation, only experiment. You have to do it the hard way. Send out more stories. Count your losses. Send out more stories.

It’s true for stories, for academic articles, for grad school applications. Every rejection is one fewer between you and acceptance. Get out there and find n.


“… provided you’re improving your work and trying your best.”

For those of us who are of the fixer mentality, the above variables help us feel like we have a modicum of control over the duration to n. I feel a formula coming on!

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