The Upside of Rejection

Ali photo

“Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” — Muhammed Ali

Greetings fellows,

You will have doubtlessly experienced a failure by this point in the fellowship. Most likely it came in the form of a rejected pitch to some editor or another. Or perhaps that pitch never got a response at all.

Some of you (and this is entirely normal) have wondered aloud to Amy or me whether your ideas or your writing were any good, and have even taken the rejection or the silence as a verdict on your capabilities as a thought leader.

I want to give you my strong assurance that rejection does not equal failure, especially in this field. We can never know what’s going on behind the scenes of a publication. Decisions are made based not on an objective assessment of an article’s quality, but on what happens to fit their temporary plan on how they should use their highly limited space that day. Some days the editor just isn’t in the right mood or gets distracted. Some days the piece never gets looked at at all.

The more time I spend doing this, the more I am convinced that writing talent is not the most important factor in getting widely published. The most important factor is perseverance — and a refusal to confuse a temporary setback with a royal proclamation on your worthiness, or the worthiness of your ideas.

Want proof? Several of our fellows got published this week after a round of initial rejections.

Tim Lahey’s New York Times article: four rejections from other publications.
Israel Reyes’ Fox News Latino piece: six rejections
Petra Bonfert-Taylor’s Washington Post piece: seven rejections
Darlene Drummond’s Pacific Standard article: three rejections

This only fits a general pattern. Here’s the statistics on other work of a highly commercial nature.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”: 12 rejections
“Gone With the Wind”: 38 rejections
Dr. Seuss’s first book “To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street”: 27 rejections
“Chicken Soup for the Soul”: 140 rejections
“Kon Tiki”: 20 rejections
“A Wrinkle in Time”: 26 rejections
“The Help” 60 rejections
“Dubliners”: 20 rejections

My own (modest-selling) first nonfiction book: 24 rejections

Part of what made me not give up was the experience of trying to sell a novel to a big publisher while still in my 20s. I had no idea what happened inside those Manhattan office towers but I assumed that it was high-level and expert critiquing. Then I got a job at HarperCollins and saw what really went on inside those inner sanctums. And I felt a lot better about my rejections. Because I knew they didn’t mean anything (see Ali’s thought above).

Impossible is nothing.


Tom ZoellnerPeriodically we share wisdom from our team with our community. The above letter was sent as a weekly missive to the Public Voices Fellowship cohort at Dartmouth from leader Tom Zoellner. 



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