Learn from the experience, then move on...

February 20, 2004

Rejection is an occupational hazard for many academics, but it can also be a positive experience, writes Susan Bassnett.

Rejection is one of the toughest emotions to deal with. For academics, it is often difficult to accept the rejection of something in which great personal investment is involved. The human problem of coping with rejection is intensified by the contractual pressures in academia to bid for funding and to publish. We send off articles or books, works in which we have invested time, money and sometimes parts of our souls, often to have them brutally refused.

Academics receive no advice on how to cope with rejection even though it's a common experience. And to the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as rejection counselling. Yet there are some guidelines that, if followed, can ease the pain, and even turn it into something positive.

The first point to remember is that you are not alone. We have all had pet projects refused, and those of us who have made it into print have all had the nasty experience of seeing our brilliant book or article rubbished in a spiteful review. At one point in my life, I could have papered a room with rejection slips, and I still remember the sickening sensation of having my first piece of serious writing returned to me covered in red ink. I slid it into a waste-paper basket and cowered away to the bar. Just because some of your colleagues seem confident and chat easily about their latest publication doesn't mean that they haven't felt the sting of rejection.

They may not admit it, but they definitely have - believe it.

The second point, linked to the first, is to try not to take personally whatever has been said to you. So what if your article has been turned down? You are not your work, your work is what you do, and nobody can do everything perfectly all the time. If your article has been rejected, remember that just because something is deemed unpublishable by someone does not mean that your whole life is a failure and you have chosen the wrong career. You may simply have sent the piece to the wrong place, they may have such a backlog that they can't consider anything unsolicited, or you may have not paid enough attention to their guidelines.

If in doubt, ask questions. If you have failed an interview, or not been awarded a grant or had a piece of work sent back without explanation, ask for more feedback. If you understand what went wrong, then you can do things differently next time.

If it isn't a case of straightforward rejection but of being asked to do a radical rewrite, which can sometimes seem too daunting to contemplate, remember that though experienced editors may seem tough, they know best how to reshape material for publication.

A good editor may not bother overmuch with calming a writer's wounded feelings, but a good editor will take a manuscript and hack it around until it is considerably better than when it first arrived. A distinguished editor of a leading series of books on critical theory is such a brute with a manuscript that I have paled when reading his comments on my work, but I've never ceased to be grateful for the effort he put into reworking my more awkward sentences.

What should you do if your work is badly reviewed? The temptation, of course, is to rush into print in self-defence. Avoid that temptation: you will only draw attention to a review that most people won't have noticed or won't care about and you'll look like a bad loser. Nobody ever helped their cause by taking a reviewer to task. Just turn the page and move on. Then, if you ever write reviews yourself, remember how it felt and choose your words with great care.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Warwick.

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