Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 9: Why Stories are Rejected

By Ward Macauley

Originally published in the April 1903 issue of The Editor

Reader for “*Wayside Tales.*”

I have read a great deal lately, in the way of complaint, that “readers” do not give writers sufficient consideration. It may not be amiss to say that the shoe is sometimes on the other foot. I can vouch for it, that writers very often submit manuscripts which, from a mechanical standpoint, show that the feelings of the reader have not been considered in the least. Nor is the sensitive reader offended only by the preparation of the manuscript; too often the story is so hopeless as too create disgust.

I suppose the most helpful things I can tell you are some of the reasons why a story is, or is not, available for publication in a fiction magazine of the type of “Wayside Tales.”

In the first place, as a hint, let me say: Write an exceedingly brief note to accompany your manuscript. Indeed, unless you have something special to say, I see no need of any communication. Simply be sure that your name and address is in the corner of the first page. What you write in a letter, remember, makes positively no difference; it is what you write in the story that counts. So I advise you to expend your surplus energy there.

A typewritten manuscript is, other things being equal, much more likely to be accepted than a pen written one. In the first place, nearly all absolutely hopeless stories are in handwriting. It is the trademark of the novice. The officeboys, the butchers, and the others who think they can write a story, send it written in ink or even with a pencil. A typewritten manuscript, therefore, is usually recognized as being at least worth a careful consideration. It certainly receives more prompt attention. I know that, because human weakness cannot but defer reading villainous writing as long as possible. I must say, however, that I prefer good, plain handwriting to some of the wretched type copies we receive. Dim, blurred, full of errors, many of them are certainly a test to our patience. To be typewritten, therefore, is not enough. A manuscript should be typewritten well.

Attempted fine writing, I think, is on the whole the most general cause of rejection. High-flown, flowery language brings a smile to the reader’s face and an “N. G. Reject” to the remark column of the report on the manuscript. Don’t do it; that is all I can say. I find that many otherwise good stories are marred, spoiled and eternally condemned by a ridiculous use of poetic terms.

Unnatural dialogue is another cardinal sin of the average writer. Please remember that a man seldom, if ever, says, “horrid,” “lovely,” “delightful,” etc., and that if you want your story to please you must not put such words in the mouths of your male characters. The other day, as an instance of this error, I read an excellent story, that was marred by this sentence, supposed to be used by a cowboy: “See those gesticulating men.” Did anyone, out on the plains, ever utter such a sentence in real life?

There is also the common error of using obsolete or unknown words. This makes the conversation stilted, and the characters puppets, instead of real men and women.

Rank improbability is another fault that puts many stories out of the running. Don’t have the eternal laws of gravitation suspended to meet the exigencies of your plot.

Trite plots are a very effective means of making stories unavailable. For example, never write a story in which a man makes love to a girl and then discovers that she is engaged to another. That is so very old, and has been used so much, that one pauses to wonder why any author should be foolish enough to think that a reader could be surprised at the climax. Unless your story has something original, either in matter or manner, your chances have gone a-glimmering.

The other day I received a story, accompanied by a letter in which the author said : “I do not know what kind of an ending you prefer, so I send two. You can take your choice.” What do you think of that? If an author cannot make up his mind how to end his story, how can he expect an editor to? A story with two endings is no story at all, and, indeed, the one in question was not much of a tale and riot acceptable with either ending.

Many so-called stories I read are not, in fact, stories at all. They are essays, descriptive articles, religious exortations,—what you will; but they are not stories.

I believe that the best stories are the ones that portray an attractive and inspiring phase of real life. The best story I have ever been given to read was a tale of a southern minster, who delivered an address, arraigning politicians, before a political convention. He was, at once, nominated for sheriff. The story of how he carried his ideals into real life was immensely interesting, and the character work of a rare order. So I say, the most acceptable stories are lifelike, rather than bizarre, or fantastic. The average reader will care more for a well-told story like the one I have outlined, than he will for some unbelievable tale of gems of fabulous worth, or other chronicles of that ilk.

Most of all, have your stories in a presentable shape. Put yourself in the place of the reader; then you will think twice before you send him a scrawl.

Lastly, let me say that we receive more good, really good, available stories than we can possibly use; so I can vouch for it that a “rejection is no reflection on the merit of the manuscripts.”