Don’t Be a Jerk to Your Online Humor Editor
November 5, 2019 5:04 AM   Subscribe

Since 2007 I have been the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. I receive anywhere from 200 to 300 submissions a week, and I try to read and respond to each and every one of them within five to seven days. A small percentage of my replies are acceptances, but the overwhelming majority are not. I’ll be the first to admit that sending rejections is a lot easier than receiving rejections, but just the same, “killing dreams” is not something I look forward to. Even less fun is when I receive the occasional vitriolic reply from an angry writer.
The Ultimate Rejection Letter.
One Job Candidate’s Response to a Rejection Letter.
posted by growabrain (38 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The recommendations in that piece are basically the same recommendations of every submissions editor ever (says someone who used to act as a submissions editor for, yes, a humor site). There really is no clever response to a rejection letter; it will either annoy the editor (and then you go in the permanent Jerk file), or it will make them wonder why you couldn't have been that clever in your rejected piece. In neither case will it reverse the rejection.
posted by jscalzi at 5:11 AM on November 5, 2019 [25 favorites]

About 500 words too long for our publication. We encourage you to send us something else—just less of it.
posted by notyou at 5:20 AM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

"lol, like I care, whatever dude!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" -Someone who definitely doesn't care.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:32 AM on November 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

That's not a rejection letter. THIS is a rejection letter.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:41 AM on November 5, 2019 [11 favorites]

Tag yourself, I'm guy who thinks his 7000 word submission to McSweeney's is Vonnegut, Lynch (figuratively), or Pynchon.

Made Of Star Stuff
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:49 AM on November 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

Paul Slade - what a thread!
posted by growabrain at 5:50 AM on November 5, 2019

Although I'm glad that email has replaced the age-long wait for rejections, I know it has to be hard to run such a popular site and get these messages on your hell rectangle 24/7. I've been on both sides of the pile, and I know that it's difficult to reject writing, at least if you are doing the rejecting properly. We composed the form rejection with all the care of a woman designing a polite "no thanks" after the first date, equally uncertain if it would provoke invective.

I do think that if I was rejected with the phrase "this doesn't fail to amuse," I too might have become salty, but I would immediately repress the saltiness and remind myself that this was a very busy editor doing their best. I was not raised to the Confidence of a Mediocre White Man.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:52 AM on November 5, 2019 [9 favorites]

Probably the single best rejection letter I received came from the Ohio State Creative Writing MFA program. I had no idea what I was doing, and for some reason, I thought I would try to get an MFA which would magically open all sorts of doors and I'd be set for life. I was not all that bright at 23. While the other schools I applied to sent me form letter rejections, the Ohio State letter was quite open and honest, and they said, as politely as they could that they felt my level of writing was not up to the level that would be needed at any MFA level program, and that I should seriously reconsider that path.

Of course, being 23, I raged about it for a couple of days, but after a little thought, I kind of realized, holy shit, they were right, and I'd better start figuring out what to do next.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:05 AM on November 5, 2019 [13 favorites]

The McSweeny's rejection responses are bummers because they smack of having been written by unprofessional tryhards who have no idea what it takes to succeed in, like, anything: a lot of rejections, and a little bit of luck - greased by good relationships. It's a little painful to read. Maybe they should submit to the Dunning-Kruger quarterly?
posted by entropone at 6:09 AM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was impressed by the level of casual egotism in some of the replies.

I am grateful to Metafilter for explaining that it is all down to the patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism or some other shit. It is probably easier for an offender to overlook your miserable behavior if it is down to some structural deficiency of the twenty-first century than that you are a narcissistic bowel movement.

I felt the strength of the piece was the examples, not the text binding them together. As a point of discussion, would it have been better to leave the names in place rather than redacting them? It would certainly make ducking the responsibility to be a good human harder, but it feels sort of unilateral, too.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:21 AM on November 5, 2019

Who on earth would actually reply to a rejection letter in the first place? The very idea of doing that seems completely nonsensical to me, and I've been on both sides of this process.

I could see a response if it was obviously a personalized rejection - "hi - I'm the one who read your piece, and I really liked [insert very specific detail from piece here]. We discussed [second very specific detail from piece] a lot, and while some of us felt that it would work, others felt that [third very specific detail here] ultimately made it not the best fit. However, I personally think that if [very specific editorial suggestion here] was stronger it actually would have gotten in, and so I encourage you to consider a rewrite. Or send us something that [specific editorial suggestion here]". That garners some kind of response (and that response is a thank you, and maybe some follow-up questions). But to respond to a generic "Thanks, but not for us"? Who would think that was even acceptable?

....And because I mentioned that "I've been on both sides of this relationship" - the only "response to a rejection" that stands out for me was fortunately not abusive, but it was puzzling and ultimately annoying - when I was doing the play writing contest, a woman responded to our rejection of her submission with an email thanking us for the opportunity - and also sharing with us five photos from her recent sailing trip on her husband's yacht. Her play did not reference sailing, nor did it reference her husband. She just....shared these photos with us like we were her cousin or something. (I was also still struggling with dial-up at the time and the email came to my home email, so that response took FOREVER to download before I could see that "freakin' VACATION PHOTOS????" was the problem.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:50 AM on November 5, 2019 [12 favorites]

This is timely since i it came across screenshots of a (male) writer demanding an editor (female) read his work ahead of everyone else’s and then telling her to kill herself when she refused.
posted by bq at 6:59 AM on November 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I fucking hate the "what are you afraid of lol" response to the "I'm afraid I can't do that" kind of gentle rejection.
posted by fleacircus at 7:00 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Who on earth would actually reply to a rejection letter in the first place?

I think Countess Elena nailed it upthread: mediocre white dudes, who have never faced any amount of professional failure. I'll bet you 5 crisp new American dollars that every blacked-out name here is a Jason or a Christopher or a Thomas (never Tom). It's the same impulse that drives the totally-inappropriate responses men have to romantic rejections: these are people who have literally made it through 20 or more years without ever having been told no, and not even the most placating bromides of a form rejection letter can dampen the sting of being told they're not up to par. And as with all narcissistic injury, there must be lashing out at a world so cruel that it would dare say no to such self-evident genius.
posted by Mayor West at 7:07 AM on November 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

“If they put out a call for funny open letters, don’t send them a monologue of a person sitting on their ex-girlfriend’s parents’ toilet, pooping.“

I dunno... I might enjoy that if I ran across it on McSweeneys.
posted by midmarch snowman at 7:23 AM on November 5, 2019

But it's not an open letter.
posted by kyrademon at 7:28 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's the same impulse that drives the totally-inappropriate responses men have to romantic rejections: these are people who have literally made it through 20 or more years without ever having been told no

If it's anything like the people flipping straight to fuck-you anger when their come-on is rebuffed, it's not for lack of rejection, it's for a feeling of entitlement that makes those repeated rejections unfair, the product of a world not justly rendering them their dues. The people having their pieces (or romantic advances) accepted most, half, or even a meaningful some of the time, they're not generally the ones really flipping out when it happens. It's the dudes who are actually deficient in some way, but refuse to face or acknowledge that, who tend to be the problem. One rejection, that sucks. A few, it maybe stings. Every time (and assuming you're not going to take that as an oppurtunity to reflect or grow, and improve) and now it's a fucking conspiracy, and if those fuckers weren't all such assholes, or could do their fucking jobs, then someone would recognise their genius.

Anyway. These are very gentle rejections - polite, encouraging, and clearly not just a mailmerge form or other stock or automated reply. Replying to any rejection with anything but a polite acknowledgement or thanks is a fool's game, but to one like this especially.
posted by Dysk at 8:11 AM on November 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Aren't sonnets supposed to rhyme?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:25 AM on November 5, 2019

You didn't notice the "clever" ABBC stanza where he rhymed pentameter with pentameter? /s
posted by Dysk at 8:33 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

I do think that if I was rejected with the phrase "this doesn't fail to amuse,"

I find it interesting that some of these seem to be generated Mad Lib-style — [faint praise] but [rejection]. [appreciation of effort]! — with some phrases getting reused, but not always in the same combination.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:44 AM on November 5, 2019

> "I find it interesting that some of these seem to be generated Mad Lib-style ..."

I generally used a polite form letter when I was a Submissions Editor. I only added a personal comment if there was something I particularly liked about it.

I think people underestimate how many of these submissions get sent in. A literary agent I heard speak a few months ago mentioned that she gets 5,000 submissions per year. And that sounds comparable by order of magnitude with what I was reading back in the day.

I would not be surprised if McSweeney's gets significantly more than that.
posted by kyrademon at 9:17 AM on November 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

There's a gallery in my town where an artist decorated his rejection letters, added cartoons, and then highlighted the word "unfortunately" when it was used, every time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:30 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

posted by Mchelly at 9:31 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh sorry to be clear, the interesting part wasn't "it's a form letter," it was "he bothers to vary the form letter at all." I would 100% not have expended the effort to do that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:33 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

My Dad, the comedy writer, told me this story.

His friend was the script editor (basically chief writer) on a big TV sketch comedy show. The script editor got mailed some unsolicited material from an amateur which came with a fawning submission letter. The letter said how he was a big fan of the show and how the editor was his favorite comedy writer, and he be honored if his work could be considered.

The material attached was terrible. Not funny, not original, just the worst, so the editor sent it back with a polite rejection letter, trying to be as nice as possible.

The amateur writer imediately writes back saying, "You no-talent idiot! You don't know anything about comedy! You shouldn't work in comedy at all, you should be a garbage man!".

The editor sends a reply, "You are right. I see that now! I have quit my job and become a garbage man. I'll be around tomorrow morning to collect your material.".
posted by w0mbat at 10:51 AM on November 5, 2019 [27 favorites]

Fifteen years ago, Making Light had a post about slushpiles and rejection letters; the problems have only gotten worse since digital communication is now everyone's standard.
Manuscripts are unwieldy, but the real reason for that time ratio is that most of them are a fast reject. Herewith, the rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections:
  1. Author is functionally illiterate.
  2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
  3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.
  4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.
  5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:06 AM on November 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

bq, I saw that yesterday, too! I almost sent it to someone, but didn't, and now I really wish I had because I would have the link. Unfortunately, since all the conversation was in screenshots, it's pretty much impossible to search. It was pretty classic. (something along the lines of, "oh I see you are interested in horror fiction" and she's like, "yes, I'm a horror editor?" and he's all oh, we should really talk because I have some good material you would totally love to see ..." etc. and etc. down to the 100% predictable gruesome finale.)
posted by taz at 11:09 AM on November 5, 2019

"Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs."

I've never felt so seen in my life!
posted by bookwo3107 at 11:18 AM on November 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

plaintiff melody

That is totally the name of my next album.
posted by kristi at 12:23 PM on November 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

I responded to a few rejection letters for when I was applying to grad school. I was rejected from every school but one, and thought that maybe this meant I had miscalibrated my ability in the subject, so I asked what I could do to make my application stronger if I were to reapply. In the process, I found out that one school didn't receive one of my recommendations, (which incidentally was the recommendation that got me into the school I did get into).
posted by chernoffhoeffding at 3:47 PM on November 5, 2019

Is this an American thing? I think of the last fifty or so jobs I've applied for and fifteen or so interviews, I've had maybe two people bother to send a form rejection letter. When I used to pitch writing it was universally either published, or The Void. Why would you be rude about a rejection letter, it's kind to get one at all?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:34 PM on November 5, 2019

Fiasco, in my experience, fiction writers, poets, and others shopping a whole piece generally get rejections from all but the largest publications, or else a notice in the submission guidelines that a failure to get in touch after so many weeks means a rejection. We need those rejections so we can tell what's going on with our piece, especially if the journal has the dreaded "no simultaneous submissions" policy and you have to wait before sending the piece somewhere else.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:45 PM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who was rejected by jscalzi when he was a submissions editor for a humor site, I can say that I was treated well and have no hard feelings. On the other hand, I will never forgive him for using "Whatever" as his blog's title before I could... but then, my WWII veteran father never forgave him for using "Old Man's War" as the title of a scifi novel... and never forgave me for buying it and leaving it where he could see it.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:42 PM on November 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

This is a bit dated, but I think it might be sort of connected to what American Idol tapped into. I don't mean the long winded pop-star making machine of the whole season, I mean the horrific early episodes with the open calls. I never watched more than those episodes, and I watched them probably for the same reason a lot of people watched those episodes, looking for the absolute train wrecks. At some point, though, I started to realize what I was watching, and why, and realized that was a deeply terrible thing about myself, that I was getting entertainment from people being humiliated when confronted with just how mediocre (or worse) they'd really been their whole lives.

And those audition episodes are incredibly instructive of the mindset of a larger portion of the american population than we'd honestly feel uncomfortable with admitting. So many of the people auditioning truly believed that they were incredibly talented and exceptional, and that this was their chance to prove to the world just how wonderful they were. Many of them were their with family members who had helped them, encouraged them to maintain their delusion. When confronted with a panel of people who actually had expertise, and could (for whatever level of good this is) readily identify who does and who doesn't have the ability to sing, let alone have the 'it-ness' that translate into pop-stardom, their carefully constructed world shatters. When you have so much confidence in your singing ability that you enter yourself into a singing contest that thrives on humiliating its contestants, only to be told you suck, it's such a strong and sudden shock. You've been told, or believe you've been told your whole life how wonderful you are, and suddenly someone tells you you're not, you have a choice, you either rely on the sum total of your experience where you've been allowed to believe this, or you accept this one person you don't know, telling you something you aren't prepared to believe. Most people, I think, would lash out, or deny the expert.

When I said before that I was rejected for an MFA program, I mean, that was me. I was literally told by every member of my family that my writing was special and wonderful. I can't imagine anyone not believing that. Hindsight has allowed me to realize that, while yes, maybe some of my teachers were honest and nurturing, I don't doubt that some of my teachers just played along with my delusion (it's maybe a strong word, but it fits) just because, well, shit, I was another young white guy who believed that I was special, and as soon as the world realized it, I would be showered with all that I deserved, and they'd had to deal with that so often that yeah, maybe it's easier just to nod and smile rather than to be the person that takes them aside to talk to them about how things really are.

In my life, I've been the person who needed to be taken aside, and I know I lashed out more than I listened, almost until it was far too late, and I'm embarrassed as hell by that. But I've also been the person who tried to take someone aside and try to let them know, and it's gone so badly, so many times that yeah, sometimes I just don't try because I don't feel like being the target of the sum total of a person's belief in how the world is, and how special they are.

I feel for these editors because for a lot of them, they are literally the first person to tell these assholes that their shit does, in fact stink, and for doing that, they are the target of the storm of rage that erupts when a "special" guy finds out that, well, no, not really.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:19 PM on November 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

How often is it an editor reading, anyway? In my experience it’s interns and the juniorist of junior editors who have to go through the slush pile.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:02 PM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

From the other end of the spectrum: While still a greenhorn 21-year-old who only semi-facetiously believed he held the keys to all musical taste in the universe, I was put in charge of crafting the stock rejection letter for an indie record label I was working for. I don't recall the exact text now, but I do remember that it had a jovially snarky tone that was utterly inappropriate for the task of gracefully deflating people's hopes and dreams. I still wish I could track down every artist we sent it to and apologize.
posted by mykescipark at 10:56 PM on November 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've had to send a lot of rejections, and since most writers are really nice people, most responses are just a thank you (almost always for non-form-letter critiques). 100% of the people who have called me a cunt were men though. It has made me more hesitant to offer personal comments, and these days I only use a form letter unless the piece was thisclose or I know the author.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

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