This post is the third in our Bearings Online series on editors and editing. For this series, we asked editors to reflect on the particular joys and challenges of working with writers, and we are publishing their responses every Thursday in September. To read other essays in this series, please click here.
When I first became an editor, I wanted to be a nice one. I wanted authors to perceive me as kind, regardless of what decision I made about their work and to think things like, well, she rejected my essay, but she’s a good person. I sent my first rejections along with the desperate whisper, “Please don’t hate me!”
As a communication scholar, I can slip on my dark-framed, academic glasses and name this desire as an effort to maintain my “positive face.” Face negotiation theory (FNT) can be used to describe interpersonal interactions, especially instances of conflict and difference (i.e., someone thought their essay was a great fit, and I said otherwise). It describes how people work to maintain their positive face—wanting to be seen as good, wanting to be respected—and/or negative face—wanting to be independent and autonomous. Ultimately, people engage in facework strategies to save face. All of this is to say that I was overly-worried while making editorial decisions.
This concern made me do a lot, the most, when it came to rejections. First, I spent an unreasonable amount of time telling authors in decision emails what worked in their pieces. I’m an advocate for doing this when possible, but only when time constraints make it a helpful, quick addition and not the burden it soon became for me. Second, if I went through Submittable to make decisions on the queued pieces, and a submission I decided to decline had arrived just a few days before, I didn’t decline it immediately. I waited weeks to reject submissions, even if I knew I was going to reject the pieces long before that, perhaps three days after they came in.
Well, I don’t want them to think their piece was extra bad, I thought. But I really meant: I don’t want them to think I’m extra bad.
The whole workaround was clunky, inefficient, and, I eventually identified, dishonest. If I say I consider pieces as thoroughly and quickly as possible and then don’t make the quickest notification I can, I’m not being the most honest editor I can be. Honest is better than nice. And in all of this, my conception of the editing process was too focused on me and my role: the decisions I made, how I communicated the news to authors, how quickly I worked to make decisions.
I’ve since learned to view the editing process as writing-focused. The central figure isn’t me as an editor, nor is it the author. It’s the actual submission. What is it saying? How does it say it? How is it in conversation with our previously published work? What does it offer to our readership?
As a writer, I understood this much sooner, at least the part about it not being about the editors. I checked Submittable every day while waiting to hear decisions about my poetry chapbook, and I don’t remember imagining the editors at all beyond faceless blurs that click “Accept” or “Reject.” It’s difficult to think about others when you’re concerned with your work—and yourself.
I am familiar with how intimate writing feels, how my written words reflect and constitute my identity. Rejection of a poem can, if I let it, feel like a rejection of me. Writing makes one vulnerable. Submitting writing makes one even more vulnerable. Submitting writing is an inherently face-threatening act. When I remember this as an editor, it not only decentralizes me, it also equips me to make ethical and considerate decisions regarding others’ work in a way that is humane and gracious, in a way that is concerned about the others’ vulnerable face.
Twitter was abuzz recently with #ShareYourRejections—a communal act of transparency about rejections people have faced, particularly in the arts. The basic form of these tweets is something like: My piece was rejected from 30 journals and magazines before it was placed with such-and-such publisher!
As a writer, I commiserated and rejoiced with these small stories, because they illustrate the elusive goal of validation as a writer, that ever-evolving process that is other-dependent but self-defined. As an editor, though, I was surprised that the stories didn’t feel inspirational. I felt defensive. My face felt threatened. Of course, some pieces were rejected. There are only so many spots. Being both a writer and editor allows me to feel both ways simultaneously, and this helps me recognize the uniting and central factor between the two: the submission.
In many ways, the binary between writer and editor can be broken down, and my focus-on-the-submission philosophy can be deconstructed with the consideration of power dynamics, gate-keeping, and access. But as a writer and editor, focusing on the work does help me see both writing and editing as less face-threatening. No matter which role I’m playing, a rejection or acceptance is primarily indicative of the work, not me.
As an editor, I practice this by not reading bios or looking at author photos before I read the work. As a writer, I thank myself for trying and make rejections my favorite color on my submission tracker—anything to tell my work that I’ll keep fighting for it.
Of course, it can’t be entirely about the work, because it’s impossible to separate who we are from what we do. If I view writing and editing as primarily about me and my individual identity, then, yeah, it feels like rejecting pieces is just me, She-Who-Rejects-Writing, and me having pieces rejected is me, She-Who-Is-Rejected. But if I view writing and editing as a communal identity, then I can see my roles as writer and editor not as isolated series of actions, but as part of a larger group of People-Who-Write-Things and People-Who-Make-Decisions-About-Written-Things, and their common denominator is The-Things-That-Are-Written. Any action I take as a writer or editor can then be conceived as a gift to the work itself.
A rejection is a gift. It’s a chance to make works better and submit somewhere else. It’s also a chance for a piece to find a better home with a more appropriate audience. The writing will outlive us all, and we, as writers and editors, can give the words we create and curate the best gifts while we can.