Rejection or New Direction? How to Handle a Manuscript’s Non-acceptance

A sample non-acceptance letter.
Remember that we have all been there.

Rejections sting. At a virtual panel on reviewing, I shared with others just how sensitive I was as an undergrad when I received what I perceived as a harsh comment on a paper or less than stellar feedback. And yet, even after participating in cycles of submission for years, I still need a moment and a sweet treat to cope when I see the “thanks, but no thanks.” But then I take a deep breath and make a new plan.

An interesting idea came up: What if we stop using the word “rejection” for conference papers and journal submissions? It might be the end of that manuscript’s road for that particular outlet, but it shouldn’t be the finale of the paper itself. A “rejection” then really means “not ready for presentation” (as one participant put it), or a “a non-acceptance.” It changes the trajectory of the paper, obviously, as one regroups and figures out a different conference or another journal outlet.

How do you figure out your takeaways from conference or journal reviews?

  1. Close the non-acceptance email and be angry for a little bit.
  2. When you are ready, skim the reviews.
  3. Make a new plan.
  4. Read the reviews carefully as you begin to revise your paper.
  5. Identify themes of strengths and weaknesses across the reviews.
  6. Make easy changes.
  7. Decide which big changes are needed and which ones aren’t.
  8. Revise big changes and readthrough.
  9. Submit to a new outlet.

I know this is tough. I have totally been there and will be again (and again). So how does one cope with rejection? First, have a lot of irons in the fire. The more projects you have going on at various stages, the lower the stakes are with each one. One of my wise advisers once told me that you should aim to have a project at each stage of the publishing trajectory:

New idea/conducting/writing up the research –> conference submission/presentation –> under review at a journal –> revise and resubmit –> forthcoming, in-press –> back to the drawing board

Having multiple projects reduces the burden of each rejection because you can still celebrate the successes. And, of course, revise a non-accepted paper for a different conference or a journal.

What if you receive multiple non-acceptances for the same manuscript? Don’t despair and definitely don’t give up on the project. It’s okay to be upset. It is not okay to be either too rigid to revise or so down on yourself that you want to let the project die. I know it’s hard. Rejection (I mean, non-acceptance) is hard, especially when it happens over and over. All writers have had their work rejected. Some of my best publications went through rough periods of non-acceptances and revision. You can make it through.

View this moment as the time to examine your manuscript more closely for bigger issues. Look across the feedback you’ve received from the various outlets. What patterns do you see? For example, if all of the reviewers have taken issue with the sample, maybe you need to add a second sample or expand the study. I also recommend consulting a friend or professor to get another educated opinion. Note: If you do significantly expand a study or change a research project, you may email the editor of one of the non-accepted journals and lay out the case for resubmission.

On a related note, overwhelming positive conference feedback does not necessarily mean that it will be easy to get the piece published. In fact, I struggled to publish a manuscript that had received a top student paper. Conversely, a conference non-acceptance is not the end of your project (as demonstrated by my “Crock-Pot” study, which I never did present, but published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry). Don’t take it personally. This is a fickle business and you never know who you might get as your reviewers.

Rejections are not the end. Rather, the non-acceptance is simply a signal for rethinking the outlet for the manuscript. Take a breath and move on to your next possibility.