What Editors Say—and Don’t Say—to Writers

By Jack Limpert

In a collection of quotes about editors, published here four days ago, T.S. Eliot said, “An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.”

Paul Starobin, an author and staff correspondent for the National Journal, then pointed out: “And yet as an editorial advisor to a London publishing house Eliot turned down George Orwell’s manuscript for Animal Farm.”

Why did T.S. Eliot, in 1944, reject the book, a satirical look at communism, that went on to sell more than 10 million copies? Wikipedia, quoting the Times of London, says: “During the Second World War, it became clear to Orwell that anti-Soviet literature was not something which most major publishing houses would touch — including his regular publisher Gollancz. He also submitted the manuscript to Faber and Faber, where the poet T. S. Eliot rejected it; Eliot wrote back to Orwell praising the book’s ‘good writing’ and ‘fundamental integrity’, but declared that they would only accept it for publication if they had some sympathy for the viewpoint, which I take to be generally Trotskyite.'”

Most writer rejections aren’t that complicated. In the print world, an editor will likely reject at least 20 manuscripts for every one accepted. Most rejections try to be kind: “This is interesting and well-written….Thank you for submitting it….Unfortunately it’s not something we can publish….Good luck submitting it elsewhere….etc.”

In my early years at the Washingtonian, I had a rejection note with boxes an editor could check off as the reason for the rejection: “It’s not Washington enough for our magazine….We recently published a similar story….We prefer stories with more reporting….”

The last box was “This is an affront to Western civilization”—a line that might be amusing to editors but we never found a writer who deserved it and we fairly quickly went back to routine rejection notes.

Among themselves editors can be caustic about submitted manuscripts but almost all of us had done enough writing to follow Eliot’s advice to just be kind and often tell the writer his writing is better than it is.

One editor, well-known in New York, told me: “I used to have two rubber stamps that I metaphorically—and sometimes literally—applied to queries and, sometimes, manuscripts. One read LTS (Life’s Too Short) and the other SOS (Same Old Shit).”

Another editor said he’d just write “Let’s skip” on queries and manuscripts that he was rejecting but he didn’t have anything interesting to say about his rejection notes. He did mention an editor he knew who dealt with especially annoying writers with this kind of note: “Some crackpot is writing idiotic letters using your name. You should contact the authorities.”

If you Google “writer rejection letters,” you’ll find lots of posts on the subject, and many reproduce the rejection letters sent to well-known writers.

One site, literaryrejections.com, has copies of rejection letters sent to Kurt Vonnegut, Gertrude Stein, and others. It also shows a rejection slip used by Essanay, a Hollywood film company, that has an entertaining checklist (“Weak plot….Too conventional….Not enough action….Idea has been done before….No strong dramatic situations….etc.”).

Even though we never checked the box and sent it to a writer, I still like “This is an affront to Western civilization.”





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