Rejecting People’s Work Aways Makes Me Feel Like a Terrible Person

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For the past year and a half, I’ve been an editor at Invisible Illness, the largest mental health publication on Medium with over 55,000 followers. I love the work and making suggestions for each piece to improve. I love the thrill of watching writers feel proud of the improvements they made.

My least favorite part of being an editor, however, is rejecting people’s work.

I’m sure I’ve pissed a lot of people off. I’m sure some writers have cursed me out without me knowing or gossiped about how terrible I am to others.

Who mad me the judge, jury, and executioner of what constitutes quality and what doesn’t? Who made me the one who tells each writer exactly what they need to do to maximize a piece’s potential?

I would love to skim a piece and press publish on everything that comes my way. However, I can’t do that— especially since we’ve adopted higher standards and feedback for our publication, it’s taken longer to give each piece the rigor and scrutiny it deserves.

The challenges

There’s a certain balance to helping edit a mental health publication as well. I don’t think rejection is the best thing for someone who bared their heart in an extremely vulnerable personal essay. And for a long time, Invisible Illness was a welcoming outlet and space for talented writers and professionals to share their stories. It still is — just with much higher selectivity and standards.

There are many things I have to look out for when I go through pieces, particularly for Invisible Illness. I have to ask writers for more sources constantly, but again, there are particular nuances to editing for a mental health publication. I have to ask for disclaimers that an article isn’t intended for medical advice, content warnings when a piece talks extensively about a triggering topic like suicide. I have to make sure a piece follows suicide reporting guidelines, and I’ve had to apply a high level of scrutiny whenever a writer labels someone a narcissist or a psychopath. I’ve had to ask writers to remove parts of their story that go extensively into repressed memories because they’ve been scientifically debunked.

Sometimes, it takes a toll on me to read so many very vulnerable, strong pieces. And I’m not someone who generally likes saying no.

I didn’t always know these things, but I grew through trial and error and tedious but rewarding back and forth with writers. Sometimes, I’ll try too hard to make suggestions for a writer to fit the piece best to the publication, but it might just be better to say no.

And in those moments, I grew as an editor too. I started to know when introductions didn’t establish credibility and pull the reader. If a writer has credentials as a health professional or mental health professional, I ask them to brag about them for a bit. I know when a headline overpromises or exploits fears or when a writer is overgeneralizing their personal experience as advice for everyone to follow. That’s okay in a lot of things — not okay with medical or mental health advice. When a writer does sound too preachy about their own experience, I’ll ask them to either reframe in the first person or include more research that supports their claim.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t edit. I hate being the bad guy in anything I do. Plus, it’s very time-consuming. I sometimes feel like I’m less productive as a writer and teacher. But the pros outweigh the cons because I look out in my own writing to see if I’m making the same mistakes I call out and ask people to fix all the time. In particular, in the digital blogging age, introductions are the most important part of your pieces. Again, it’s all about the introduction, introduction, and introduction.

I’m not saying the rest of the piece can be crap, but many readers won’t keep reading if the first two paragraphs don’t hook them or compel them.

I hate being an editor because it makes me feel like a horrible person to be in that position. But again, the pros outweigh the cons. I’ve helped many writers reach new audiences and have helped many get curated for the first time. I try to get back to people as soon as I can, but life happens.

My least favorite thing to do is reject people’s work. I try to give one area of improvement for most and offer them the chance to resubmit. Sometimes, it’s just a headline that rings as clickbait and overpromises. Other times, I say no. I think a firm no is better than my suggestions that sound like “if you write a whole new piece, we can accept this.”

And sometimes, yes, I question my judgment. Plenty of pieces I’ve rejected have done very well. However, if I have doubts in the process, I’ll ask one of our wonderful other editors for a second opinion. But for a large part, I rely on my gut after a year and a half of experience in editing for Invisible Illness — will it work or will it not? Or is it in the “almost there” category?

Plus, I try to reject as nicely as possible. But I still worry that it comes off as mean or cruel. I get rejected several times a week, and I always appreciate the kindness and feedback that other editors took the time to give.

Takeaways

Editing is hard, often thankless work. The time is often volunteered. But editors don’t like being bad guys or boogeymen but are working for what’s best for the publication. I try to maintain a writer-first mindset, as a writer who has experienced the disappointment of getting rejected or getting no response from publications.

Because I still write a lot, I, of course, know how much hard work writing is. It isn’t easy to spend days on a piece only to have it rejected. And it’s a push and pull relationship — I’ve been more empathetic towards other editors when they take a long time to return my draft. I appreciate the fact that someone took the time to give me suggestions. I stopped acting self-righteous about how I’m such a good writer and can’t possibly be rejected because the truth is everyone can improve.

I will say that rejection is never personal. Most of the time, it’s based on fit for a publication, not a knock on the writing quality. And it’s important to remember when you get rejected that it’s not a death sentence for your draft. You can self-publish. You can send it somewhere else. You can try to re-work pieces to try to make them fit.

For me, compassion from both the writer and the editor makes a tremendous difference and a harmonious working relationship. We’re all on the same team.

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