Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Month: August 2014

Top Ten Reasons You Keep Getting Rejected

Rejection sucks. But no one ever said writing would be all fun and games.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had your fair share of rejections. While we’re usually able to bounce back quickno-68481_640ly and submit again, sometimes it’s important to reflect on why we’re getting rejected. If you’re used to getting a big fat stack of “No” in your inbox, then it’s time to figure out the problem.

Here are the top ten reasons you keep getting rejected:

1. You aren’t reading the publications before submitting.

If you haven’t read at least one story or poem from a magazine, then you are wasting your time submitting. It’s important to read what they publish to get a feel. Besides, why do you want to be published in something you don’t want to read?

2. You aren’t reading enough current writers.

Yes, we all know you write exactly like William Faulkner, but how do you stack up with today’s current writers? It’s important to read what’s currently being published. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that all the best writing was done years ago by dead white guys.

3. You are saving your best work for The New Yorker.

Everything you send out should be your best work. If it’s not your best, then hold onto it until it is your best.

4. You aren’t revising enough.

How many revisions did you go through on the last piece you just submitted? If the answer is zero, one, or two, then you definitely aren’t putting enough time and energy into your writing. Your stories will never be the best on the first or second try.

5. You aren’t letting other people read your writing.

You don’t have to workshop everything you do, but if you never let anyone read your writing, then you aren’t going to gain much critical insight into what you could be doing better. There’s an old saying that we’re our own toughest critic. For most people in the writing world, this isn’t true at all. It’s often hard to figure out what’s wrong in your own writing. Find a writing friend who is ruthless and share your work.

6. Your writing isn’t unique.

Are you writing the same old plots in the same old style with the same old tropes? Stop. You need to write something that hasn’t been written before. With thousands of new pieces of fiction and poetry published every day, you have to do something to set your writing apart.

7. Your submission isn’t a good fit.

The number one reason why a story gets rejected isn’t because it isn’t good enough to be published. It’s because it’s not right for a specific publication. It may all go back to reading publications before submitting, but getting acceptances really does come down to finding a perfect fit.

8. You aren’t following guidelines.

Are you single spacing when they want you to double space? What about the time you went twenty words over the word limit? These things matter a lot to publishers. If you want to get on the fast track to rejection, then don’t listen to what they want you to do.

9. You are submitting too frequently.

The more you submit, the more you will get rejected. It’s a numbers game, but it’s also common sense. If you are submitting twenty times a day, then when are you finding time to write, read, edit, or research? Slow down your submissions and work on the more important things.

10. You are a writer.

We all get rejected. If you don’t want to be rejected, then either stop being a writer or go live in a cave. If you opt for the cave, chances are one day a big bear will come by and reject your work.

If you find yourself getting rejected at every turn, then it’s time to reevaluate what you are doing. By putting more time into your craft and making more sensible submission choices, you can improve your acceptance rate.

What are some other reasons why your stories are getting rejected? Share them in the comments below.

Literary Magazine Makeover

We are very pleased to announce the redesign of the Bartleby Snopes website. This was a redesign that was a long time in the making. In the world of the internet, a website looks out of date after about two years. We hadn’t updated our website since 2008. We apologize to all of our authors and readers for the delay, and we are quite grateful for a readership that continues to grow.

The main reason we chose to redesign the site is to provide a cleaner and more readable look for our stories. We are proud of the stories we publish, and we want to give them the best home we can.

We are currently in the final phases of the redesign. Please be patient as we continue to convert all of our story archive to the new look. We’ve published over 600 stories, so it will take awhile.

We’d also love to hear your feedback regrading the new website. This includes suggestions for improvement and notes about where we screwed things up.

For those who’ve never visited the site before, here is the recent transformation:

Old Site

old site


New Sitenew site

From all of us at Bartleby Snopes, welcome to 2014.

The Editor’s Paradox

If you’re an editor these days, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That sounds like one of those clichés we tell writers to avoid, but it’s true.

Exhibit A: Response Time

response time

Exhibit B: Response Type

personal rejection

Whether our responses are fast or slow, personal or form, there are writers who will complain. As editors, the best we can do is follow our instincts and ignore the hate. Most of the writers out there are trying hard to do the right things; don’t let a few bad apples spoil the whole process.

Note: Artwork by Henry Sinclair.

Henry Sinclair lives in Guilford, Connecticut and is a third year student at Guilford High School. Henry crafts technological masterpieces with recyclable materials he finds from his favorite hobby, dumpster diving. After he graduates, Henry plans to study electrical engineering.  He’s been drawing comic strips since age 5.

10 Examples of Feedback You Might Get From a Lit Mag

Most writers seem pretty excited by the prospect of getting feedback on a submission. It’s especially true if you’ve become accustomed to receiving those 6-month form rejections.

At Bartleby Snopes, we work hard to give you personal feedback within a reasonable time frame. In fact, the literary magazine was founded on two basic principles:

1. Every story deserves a personal response

2. No submitter should wait more than a week to get that response

So what exactly does this personal feedback look like?

Let’s take a quick pop quiz.

Question: Which of the following reactions to the prospect of lit mag feedback is the most appropriate?

A. Wow, they are going to edit my story for me!
B. Holy shit, I can have my story workshopped without giving anything in return!
C. Feedback? I don’t care what these assholes think of my story. I just want them to publish it.
D. Cool. They will actually offer a reason if they reject my story.

If you guessed D, then you have passed the test and may submit your story for feedback. If you guessed A through C, then you probably still have a bit to learn about submitting.

Okay, so what does our “feedback” actually entail?

Well, it varies. We typically write anything from one sentence to several paragraphs explaining why the story doesn’t fit. Sometimes we offer a larger critique, but sometime it’s as simple as “Thanks for submitting, but we don’t publish 3-word stories.” The main purpose of our feedback isn’t to try to make you a better writer. It’s to give you reason for a rejection. In other words, you can get a better sense of what we want. However, we do hope that you will find our words at least a little helpful for future writing endeavors.

While these explanations are all nice and good, what you really want to see are examples. I’m about to share ten actual examples of feedback with you, but before I do, here is a little warning. We’ll call it the Managing Editor’s Warning:

  • Feedback will vary
  • Don’t expect 2-3 paragraphs every time. We have a lot of submissions to read.
  • A longer rejection doesn’t always mean you were “close” to acceptance
  • If you aren’t prepared to receive the type of feedback we offer, then please select the “without feedback” category

Note: All author names and titles have been removed to protect the identity of submitters.

Example 1:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. To us, this read more like notes for a story than an actual story. There isn’t enough of a developed narrative here — the summarized incidents don’t add up to what we usually look for, which is a piece with a plot and fully realized characters.

Example 2:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. Your vignette is capably written and appropriately ambiguous but does not typify the form of Flash Fiction we favor. Your piece doesn’t exhibit a full dramatic arc or character development.

Example 3:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. This strikes us as mere scene as opposed to a fully developed story; we prefer pieces with deeper characterization and more of a dramatic arc.

Example 4:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. With flash submissions we tend to look for a big emotional punch or some startling insight into the human condition; we feel those things can help lift extremely short narratives out of mere anecdote. Unfortunately we just didn’t see enough of either of those things here.

Example 5:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us.

This feels like a good start to something larger. As is, it’s all situation and the reader knows nothing of the characters, or their issue. It’s a vignette. The prose works a little too hard to create complexity (bowing and tilting of heads, etc). You’ll also want to check on submission format guidelines.

Example 6:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. Although we enjoyed the tone here we think this needs more development — we wanted more plot, conflict and resolution, and character development. We also had some confusion regarding who Char A is and who Char B is … are they the same person?

Example 7:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. We thought the narrative was competent and capable with good pacing. However, it didn’t feel like the main character developed enough. There wasn’t enough sense that the MC wanted anything or changed at all. It also felt a bit overwritten/over-described at times. It’s a good piece with strong writing, but it’s not what we’re looking for.

Example 8:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. We didn’t feel grounded enough with this story — the jumps in time and place were just too disorienting. We prefer that a story maintain a single point-of-view; we feel this makes for a stronger, more focused narrative within the constraint of our word limit.

Example 9:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. 

This piece generated some discussion. We found it both compelling and well written. But we are going to pass because the story is a little too reflective for our tastes and our editors wanted to see a more tangible conflict than the somewhat existential one here. Also, while one of our editors really enjoyed the use of language, several others found it distracting. 

Good luck with this one elsewhere

Example 10:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us.

Although there is a good arc here, we think the story needs a little heart; we didn’t have much of a grasp on how the narrator feels about anything. We especially craved more emotional weight and insight at the end. The dramatic gesture of ripping the dress is a good idea, but the gesture belongs to the mother, not the narrator, and, also, it didn’t seem to arise out of any character development that we’d been given. There hadn’t been any tension, related to the separation, leading up to trying it on (there is tension inherent in the daughter not wanting the dress, but that is minor and ends up unrelated to the climax of the story). We also think that the prose needs some attention.

Bonus Example:

Thank you for submitting XXXX to Bartleby Snopes. We appreciate the chance to read your work. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. You didn’t ask for feedback, so we won’t mention that we actually loved the characterization, but longed for a dramatic arc. Keep writing. Good luck with this one elsewhere. Feel free to try us again in the future with something new, but please wait at least one month before submitting again

In Closing

No matter what you submit, we want to read your work. We exist to share the words of writers with the world. Please send your stories. We promise we’ll be gentle.


Over-used Phraseology Goes Over like a Lead Balloon.

You’ve received feedback: “The prose overall needs to be scrubbed for cliche and over-used wording.” The meaning here is obvious, but what to do about it? Are you really compelled to write a narrative that sounds different than you speak? Sure. You easily leave out the “umm” and “like” and “listen here, friend” in order to achieve a transparent decorum of formality. Why not leave out the trite phrases and images that everyone seems to know already? I would argue it’s fundamental to story-telling–at least the story-telling we are interested in.

Here’s a test: If you can google a quoted set of 2 or 3 words and find tens or hundreds of thousands of matches, you’re best to find something else. Another test: If you can say the first half of the phrase and most folks can guess the rest of the phrase without prompting, that is also a bad sign.

Let’s say you’re tempted to write in the narrative (not dialog) this phrase, “a woman’s work is never done.” Not only is this over-used (13 million hits!) but it is also derogatory, inasmuch as a progressive woman will not saddle herself with an unfair load simply based on gender “obligations” Additionally it is culturally-specific and maybe era-specific to mid-1950s American suburban middle-class WASPs. Is that really what you want to convey about your character? Can’t you find a more original way to say it?

Try this in the narrative (not dialog): “Tall, dark and handsome,” which taken literally applies to Darth Vader as well as Abraham Lincoln. Such ambiguous words lead to a lack of specificity. In that case why are you writing them? Furthermore, in this case, the cliche’s connotation is that the narrative speaker is female, possibly lonely and a bit longing, romantically.

Is there any lack of truth in a cliche? A stereotype? A common turn of a phrase? Of course not. The point is to distinguish your narrative utterly, while at the same time achieving thematic universality through resonance with the audience. The temptation is to resonate by using something familiar. Using old things in new ways is a real struggle.

By way of example, you film buffs out there will know that the use of Ligeti’s composition in the recent Godzilla soundtrack was largely panned as odd and unoriginal, if not regarded at least as some sort of misplaced, ill-conceived homage. Inexperienced movie-goers presumed that it was simply taken from Kubrick’s film soundtrack 2001 (The director himself admits stumbling on the piece in the 2001 soundtrack while developing the said action sequence for Godzilla.) However, the iconic choral piece does predate even Kubrick’s use of it by seven years. Is this chorale never to be used again in a film? Maybe not. It’s almost impossible to overcome the ingrained experience conveyed in Kubrick’s earlier film. The onus on the modern filmmaker to re-use it uniquely–even after 45 years–is huge.

So much for film. In literature this re-use problem applies to choices in story elements, as well as narrative itself. Does your mother character lay guilt-trips? Is your detective hard-boiled? Is your dark night also stormy? Is it raining out when your character mopes at the window sill? Is there an animal in the distance making a noise? It had better be darn original.

We are modernists you say? Maybe. T.S. Eliot did say, “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” It means to take ideas, take unique words, take startling imagery and make it your own. So you can write about familiar story elements, but you are really going to have to struggle to make them fresh. Eliot was a modernist and arguably subscribed to the “make it new” mantra, though maybe not quite in the way that says, “it’s never been said that way before.” But perhaps you get the idea.