Best Writing Tip: Fail Better

dealing with rejection


When I first started sending article queries out in the eighties, callow youth that I was, I sent them to all the major venues: The Atlantic, Esquire, The New Yorker, The Paris Review. I eagerly awaited their replies and expected a gilded chair at the Algonquin Round Table.

I didn’t know that I was starting a collection of rejection letters thick enough to prop up a table with half a leg cut off. My rejection folder, in all its glory, is two inches high and weighs almost two pounds. And since publishers stopped sending out printed rejection letters years ago, my ever-accumulating total carries electronic weight on my hard drive.

There’s a widely circulated Samuel Beckett quote that goes like this: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Beckett, the consummate Irish wise guy and black-comedy tragedian, could have stopped a curveball in flight with a hard stare, but he took his publishing swings against fate just like the rest of us.

Yes, my rejection folder weighs two pounds, but that’s considerably less than the weight of the hundreds of magazines, newspapers and books that accepted and published pieces of mine. The rejection folder is just a reminder that I have to do the work and keep doing it.

That pile of rejections is a step writers can stand on to be a bit higher on their way to ‘yes’.

How one deals with rejection – being told no, no thanks, not interested – can be indicative of personality: anger or annoyance are natural for some, dejection for others. In the past, I’ve been more of a moper, likely to cry a pointless ‘Dang, don’t you see my genius?’ 

But since a large territory of life is being told no – and for a writer, that territory can be continent-sized – it’s better to turn the rejection into an opportunity. It’s a chance to look over what the rejecter has to say, to be more objective about the negative assessment and to see if there is credible value to take away from the experience. It’s simply an opportunity to make the work better – or leave it be.

Years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or vandalised their car. Now, I basically shrug and move on. I take into account any comments or assessments, and if the rewrite is right, I’ll send it to another publication. I’ve had articles accepted for publication that were years old – ones I’d already sent out ten times.

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non-fiction, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Keep sending stuff out (and send it out again), because without doing that, no one will ever get a chance to accept it. And if you must take vengeance on yourself, take it out on the rejections instead: cut them into ribbons, mash them up into a malleable pulp and make an editor-face voodoo doll.

And don’t forget to celebrate the victories. A week ago, I had a travel piece accepted by The Washington Post. I’ve been trying to get into the Post for a mere ten years or so.

What matters is that you can’t succeed if you don’t keep sending the stuff out. It beats vacuuming. Fail better.

About the Author

Tom Bentley’s newest book is the memoir of his teenage shoplifting business, Sticky Fingers: Confessions of a Marginally Repentant Shoplifter. He is the author of three novels, a short story collection and a how-to book on finding your writer’s voice. He’s published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. If you’re in the neighbourhood, he would like you to pour him a Manhattan right at five. See his other lurid confessions at



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