Friday wondering: to comment or not comment?

Fri 20 Aug 2010 - Filed under: Not a Journal., , , | 19 Comments | Posted by: Gavin

One of the perpetual questions around here is whether to provide feedback to writers when they send us something that’s not for us. Some writers love it, some hate it. And everyone knows that our response time has slowed horribly over the last year (sorry) so why spend extra time? Occasionally I’m asking to see another story, sometimes I’m trying to be helpful or useful. I received this email the other day in reply to a note I added about a story I turned down. It’s not the first such letter nor no doubt will it be the last (how many rejections-of-our-rejections have we received?) but perhaps I should short circuit them and not include notes at all?

This isn’t about this letter in particular (be nice, impolite comments deleted). I’m just curious what people like: comments/no comments; feedback/no feedback.

Thanks for taking the time to make a handwritten note on the rejection letter for my story, “TITLE.”  You wrote, “This was fun but a little reminiscent of ‘The Cold Equation’ or James Patrick Kelly’s ‘Think Like a Dinosaur.’”

I’ve never heard of these works. Were they recently published in your magazine? Or were you simply trying to say “TITLE” is derivative and unoriginal?

If it was the latter: I realize there are other stories on the topics of teleportation and genetic engineering, and even more stories involving children. I’m not surprised my story reminded you of others you have read, but I’m not sure why that is a problem. The mere existence of similar works is not a solid rationale for rejecting a story. Literature should be judged on its own merits rather than what others have achieved or—even worse—the arbitrary, preconceived notions of what constitutes “good” writing. Based on your note, it appears that you may want to think more carefully about the basis for rejecting the works you receive.

The collective unconscious runs deep, especially for writers. I recently saw an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that was so strikingly similar to “TITLE,” it gave me chills. The episode was called “The Masterpiece Society” if you want to look it up. I don’t feel threatened by the similarities because I know “TITLE” is different. I wrote “TITLE” when I was 20 years old and saw the Next Gen episode about a month ago (I’m 24 now). In different time periods from different perspectives, the Star Trek writers and I explored the exact same topics. How’s that for science fiction!

Just a thought.

Best good wishes,



19 Responses to “Friday wondering: to comment or not comment?”

  1. Monica on August 20th, 2010 10:14 am

    As for the comment you gave to the writer: I think Anxiety-of-Influence is present in speculative fiction to a much greater extent than other genres, for whatever reason. Maybe because in speculative fiction, there’s more of an emphasis on ideas and less on style. But my opinion is that an “old” idea can be made beautifully fresh if told in a fresh way (I mean, that IS literature–iterations of King Lear and the Odyssey have been with us for thousands of years). Whether this author succeeded in doing that, I don’t know. But I think s/he is right that collective unconscious goes very deep, that your comment was too vague to be of much use to her/him, and that idea-based similarity alone is not a sound basis for rejecting a story.

    (On the other hand, comments like “not for us” and “didn’t work for me” are. Because then, at least, you’re admitting to the inherent subjectivity of the process.)

  2. Gavin on August 20th, 2010 10:24 am

    Monica, I love a story in conversation with previous stories as much as anyone else (see my own writing/what we’ve published) but to tell the truth I’m more interested in your feelings on whether comments are useful/wanted/annoying/useless and so on.

    And, yes, reading is absolutely subjective! Or, if there is an objective reader out there I want to meet he/she/it!

  3. R. H. Kanakia on August 20th, 2010 10:34 am

    I like comments if they tell me that a story was getting somewhat close to being purchased…there was a long period where I was not selling anything, but I thought I was getting better…and getting slightly more positive rejection letters was a confirmation of that feeling.

    But I generally ignore the actual comments I get in rejection letters. Or rather, I don’t actually use them to revise the stories. Because I generally don’t revise stories once I’ve been submitting them for awhile. I just write better ones. But the comments themselves don’t particularly bother me. Sometimes I think they’re terribly misguided and would destroy the story. But on occasion I’ve looked back over stories years later and realized that an editorial comment which I originally disliked was actually pretty on point.

  4. Monica on August 20th, 2010 10:38 am

    Hi Gavin,

    Yes, if you mean comments in general–I’ve gotten a lot of personal rejections since I started writing, and most of them are along the lines of “We enjoyed this, but it’s not for us at this time. Please send us your next story.” That’s useful because it conveys exactly what it says: That they like your stuff and want you to keep sending it, even though, for one Reason or another, they won’t be publishing this one. I always assume that the Reason itself is trivial, arbitrary, or otherwise not within my control.

    Trying to articulate exactly why a story was rejected, especially in such a brief format, doesn’t strike me as useful. If you could give the same feedback at greater length–say, at a workshop–you could spend much more time explaining why and how the story is old territory to an extent that dooms it, even if she hadn’t read the stories you mentioned.

    I’d love to meet an objective reader, too. Now there’s a story idea!

  5. Greg McElhatton on August 20th, 2010 12:15 pm

    I appreciate personal notes to go with rejection (it’s nice to know why it got turned down) but I don’t feel they’re necessary, especially when you already have such a huge backlog. I’ve always seen them as something that’s nice to provide if there’s free time, but that free time is awfully hard to find.

  6. Amy Sisson on August 20th, 2010 12:26 pm

    I always appreciate every comment that I get. On occasion, they’ve led to useful revisions and later sales. And even on the very rare occasion that I think the editor is flat-out wrong, he/she has still given me an honest opinion, which is absolutely worthwhile because it means someone has interpreted the story in a way I wouldn’t have expected, and future readers might do the same.

    I’m a librarian, so it’s all about information. Every little data point is useful, although I don’t play rejectomancy and and I don’t read too much between the lines.

  7. Oz Drummond on August 20th, 2010 12:47 pm

    Comments are better than no comment. That said, they can be difficult to read and absorb in the heat of the rejection. But what this younger writer did was to waste your time and his/hers with a response. Instead, the individual should have gone and read the stories you noted. Period. Because they need to understand what else is out there. Being compared to JPK is not an insult and the person needs to figure that out, not write a defense.

    It’s like being in the crit circle. You’re not there to defend your work. You’re there to absorb feedback, some good, some useless.

    Please don’t let one person influence whether or not you write us personal comments in your rejection (or acceptance) letters. I might not be able to process what you’re saying right away, but I’m really grateful you took the time to write it.


  8. Paul Jessup on August 20th, 2010 1:30 pm

    I’m mixed. Most times comments are nice, but in the end- are they worth the effort of the publisher/editor? 90% of writers think that they’re work is perfectly perfect as is (or get frustrated and reject a rejection, or don’t understand, or can’t understand, or don’t edit, or, blah blah blah) so it seems like a wasted effort on the behalf of the publisher/editor….

    Then again, I really miss Nick Mamatas entertaining, amusing, insightful, egomaniacal and completely insane rejection/rants from Clarkesworld back in the day. It was like receiving the literary equivalent of a purple heart…

  9. Paul Jessup on August 20th, 2010 1:31 pm

    (btw, I did read slush quite a few times for different small zines, and always tried to give insightful comments….and was told quite a few times to stop it…I guess one person’s insight is another’s hurt feelings or something)

  10. johnny on August 20th, 2010 2:26 pm

    whether I receive comments or not is a non-issue for me. what I do find a bit pretentious, however, is when a periodical or e-periodical encloses with the rejection notice a solicitation for donations or a subscription offer.

    now, I know that as citizens of the independant press universe it is all our responsibility to support the cause financialy. I just feel that the practice of “we don’t want your byline but can you send us some money anyway” is a bit cheesey.

  11. Fred on August 20th, 2010 2:54 pm

    As a writer, I almost always prefer some kind of comment, however brief, if only to help me guage where a story is going wrong and feel less like I’m operating in a vacuum.

    As an editor, I try to offer at least some kind of comment, more for my own sake than for the writer’s. While saying a story “isn’t for me” or is “not a good fit” is technically true — guidelines have parameters, but within them it still comes down to suvjective taste — it doesn’t actually tell the writer anything. What isn’t for me? Stories set in space? Stories with strange character names? Stories written in Courier font? I think in the end that’s too vague and just invites more of the same; I’d rather tell a writer, as succinctly and politely as I can, what specifically I don’t like about a story, why it’s not a good fit, in the hope that he or she won’t just send the same thing back to me in a different story. At the same time, if there’s some part of a story I particularly like, that does work, I try to share that as well. Because I want those writers to re-submit most of all.

    That said, it can be time-consuming and sometimes difficult to come up with any kind of commentary — especially if your reaction to a story doesn’t extend any further than “gosh, this was poorly written.” And a lot of stories fail to work in dishearteningly similar ways; after a while, even comments tailored to a specific story can start to feel like a form letter, too.

    But I think it’s worth it. The writers who’ve responded seem to like it, if only be because a personal response is still kind of a novelty, and it’s in my best interest as an editor. (And as a writer: figuring why stories do or don’t work is valuable practice.)

    As to this specific comment and response, the writer makes an interesting and not uncompelling argument. But you, of course, are well within your rights to pass on a story for almost any reason, including similarities to other stories, especially if you thought your readers *would* have read those other stories and have been disappointed by the similarities.

  12. Gavin on August 20th, 2010 3:02 pm

    Johnny, we did that for a few months once and then gave it up—for all the reasons you can imagine. The chasm between subscriptions versus submissions has to be jumped somehow, but we decided that wasn’t the way.

  13. Jim Munroe on August 20th, 2010 3:14 pm

    As a writer, I dig any/all feedback. I’ve given unsolicited feedback to friends and found they do not feel the same. “It’s not you, it’s me” is a classic for a reason — more specificity can add fuel to the fire with fragile egos. I now do an opt-in approach and say that “feedback available upon request”.

  14. Kathe on August 20th, 2010 3:34 pm

    A writer should feel pleased to have elicited any personal comments beyond form rejection from an editor/publisher on a ms. To complain about those comments is unprofessional and self-defeating. To expect a more detailed critique strains credulity; that comes after you’ve sold the thing, not before. My two cents.

  15. Lisa Barrow on August 21st, 2010 12:53 am

    Oz Drummond above said it pretty perfectly. If you feel moved to give a comment, it’s nothing but nice of you. It’s up to the writer to figure out what to do with feedback. I always appreciate feedback, even when I don’t agree with it.

  16. Alex on August 22nd, 2010 3:03 am

    I’m always happy when an editor provides some comments with a rejection. Comments that tell me something I just plain didn’t know–for example, that there’s a famous story that already covered the same ground–are pure gold.

  17. Lucas on August 22nd, 2010 4:39 pm

    I like comments too.

  18. Gavin on August 23rd, 2010 10:39 am

    Thanks for all your comments.

    Jim, I like the idea of “feedback available on request” and maybe that could be an option if/when we make the switch to online submissions.

    The way I do it at the moment—after finding that I am pretty slow at typing out letters—is to hand write on one of our form letters, which means it is relatively quick. I’ll probably just go on doing what I was doing(!).

  19. Lauren on August 23rd, 2010 2:11 pm

    Hi Gavin,

    I appreciate comments. Generally, I look at rejections two ways. The rejections I receive that say “Thanks, but not for us,” I view as “Get off our porch” rejections, which means “thanks, but your work doesn’t hit with us and may not interest us in the future” (doesn’t mean I stop trying, anyway), and the second, the personal ones, gives me something to look at and to think about and usually encourages me to continue trying. Even if the editor says nothing else but “send us more,” I find it useful to know where my stories might be more favorable.

    If I get a rejection that says my story might be related to another by another author, I’d take that as a compliment, and if I didn’t know who the author was, I’d look that person up so I could learn from the person and/or see where I might need to improve.

    All in all, one personal line, to me, is better than a form letter, and also much more soothing to my tortured writer’s soul!

    Thanks for all you guys do, and for taking the time to write those personal comments.

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