Over the past few weeks, we’ve been seeing a lot of blog posts and twitter threads where people list their publication achievements for the year. These can be a great way of promoting yourself and your work as a writer (so often, we’re encouraged to keep things under the radar, to ‘be modest’), and also a great motivation to look back on in future, if you’re feeling low about your writing. But it’s important to recognise that, behind the success, there’s usually a whole lot of rejection as well.
Back in 2018, I aimed for 100 submissions a year. This included things like: job applications; commission pitches; applications for grants and funding; competition entries; residency applications; and submissions to journals, anthologies and magazines. I didn’t manage 100 (though that wasn’t really the point). I managed 87.
At the time, I wrote about the experience, and used it to create a proportion of rejections to acceptances. I was trying to prove a point about how much work goes into those few success stories – though what I found was that the more things I submitted, the more successes (or at least partial successes) I achieved.
In 2020, everything has felt a bit different.
For a start, I ended up submitting a lot more applications that I’d expected, as existing work was cancelled or postponed or reduced because of Covid-19. Suddenly, like almost every other freelance artist or writer in the country, I was panicking about where the work was going to come from. And like everyone else, I applied for everything that was going.
And like so many other people, I experienced an onslaught of rejections.
This was probably to be expected. After all, so many organisations and competitions and commission opportunities have been reporting record numbers of applications this year – whether that’s because people are desperate for whatever they can get, or because people who are furloughed from employment have had more time to submit applications for things they’d usually just let slide by. More applicants means a smaller probability of success.
So how did I do this year?
At the time of writing, I’ve submitted 53 things this year. As always, this has been a mix of commission and residency applications, competition entries and submissions to journals, as well as applications for funding.
Of those 53 submissions: 5 were sucessful; 3 were partially successful (either a ‘no’ that led to other things, or a commendation without a prize); 30 were outright rejections; and 15 are things I’m still waiting to hear back from.
So what does that look like proportionally?
As you can see, just over half of this year’s submissions have been rejections. 57%, to be exact. In a year when competition has been higher than ever, that doesn’t look too bad.
But that big yellow segment of unknowns is skewing the data. After all, all of those places I’m still waiting to hear back from could be rejections too. (They could all be acceptances, but proportionally, that’s highly unlikely.)
So what happens if we remove the unknown quantities? What if we only base our graph on the 38 known outcomes?
Suddenly, that grey slice of rejection starts to look a lot more overwhelming. That’s an almost 80% rejection rate. Want to put that in real terms? Imagine spending an entire working week on applications. 4 days of that will yield nothing.
(And yes, I’m aware it doesn’t work like that. I’m aware that some applications take days, while some only take an hour or so. The problem is, you never know which is the one worth spending the time on until the results come back.)
The flip side, of course, is that that’s a 20% success (or partial success) rate. Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that bad. Which has had me asking: why have I felt so down lately about my lack of success? Because I have. I didn’t notice it at first (after all, most of us dealing with things in different ways this year, and adapting to new ways of living and working). But it’s settled on me like a thick fog, and I can’t shake it. It’s a feeling that all writers get (no matter how apparently successful they are): a feeling of ‘what’s the point?’
Don’t get me wrong. I can make myself a coffee, go for a brisk walk on the fell, chat to a few of my writing buddies and remind myself that, yes, there is a point to the writing, and yes, it will all get better. But still, that feeling’s always there at the back of the brain, waiting for when you’re tired and reading the third rejection email of the week. This year, it’s been there a lot.
And looking at the acceptance / rejection pattern by month might help to explain why:
There are those 3 partial acceptances spread out throughout the year. Other than that, you can see that the trend overwhelming leans towards rejection as the year progresses. In fact, it’s been 6 months since I’ve had an outright acceptance for anything.
That’s right. 6 months.
That’s a long time to be continually told no.
So what am I saying with all of this?
Well, what I’m not saying (or what I hope I’m not saying) is that there’s no point submitting for things. I’m a great believer in if at first you don’t succeed, try again. And over the past few years, I’ve had some incredible opportunities that I wouldn’t have even come close to if I hadn’t sent off applications – from residencies to funded research trips to ultimately having a novel and a second poetry pamphlet published.
But I also think I need to take a look at how I approach submissions going forwards. This year – especially the latter half of this year – I’ve spend a huge proportion of my working time on submissions and applications. Probably up to 60%. This was fine, and my choice – but it comes at a cost to my own writing.
Since the summer, I’ve barely written anything. Not nothing, but also not much. It isn’t just the time that all these applications take up. It’s the headspace as well. For many of them (especially applications for things like commissions), you have to imagine an conceive and plan out an entire project. That’s a lot of work, and a lot of creative energy that isn’t going on my own writing.
If your application is successful, then the work pays off, because you’ve already done all that planning, which allows you to hit the ground running. If you’re not successful, then often it’s wasted energy, because so many of those commission projects are non-transferable, either because they’re site- or theme-specific.
So what am I going to do about it?
It isn’t enough to say, ‘well I’ll just write and not apply for anything then’, because unfortunately there are bills to pay, and spending more time at home means more heating and lighting and all the rest of it. And also because I still want to get my work out there, which means journals and anthologies and competitions. But, in 2021, I’m going to think more strategically about which applications I devote any energy to.
OK. So what’s my strategy for 2021?
Mostly, I’m making this up as I go along. The Covid-19 situation is changing so fast and so often, that whatever I decide now, I may have to change my mind about in a couple of months anyway.
But for now, here’s my basic battle plan for 2021:
- Keep submitting to journals, anthologies & competitions. This is one area of submissions that doesn’t take up too much time (although it can be financially costly). Mostly, what I end up submitting is work that I have anyway. Poems I’ve already written. Stories just waiting in a folder. It doesn’t take up too much creative energy to submit them to a journal or a competition. And, unlike more specific commission & residency applications, when they come back with a ‘thanks but no thanks’, you can parcel them up and send them right back out again. I’ve had poems shortlisted and even win major prizes, which have been rejected by multiple places before. Keep writing. Keep sending out. Keep sending out to somewhere new.
- Focus on my existing paid projects. I’m lucky in that not all of my work is stuff that I have to apply for. Well, I say lucky. Like most things in the arts world, it’s a mixture of luck, privilege and hard work. I’ve spent the past 7 years building up a network of contacts and organisations – people I’ve worked for and with before. This means that sometimes, work just drops into my inbox, either from these organisations or from others that have been recommended to contact me. For 2021, my strategy is not to underestimate the value of work I don’t have to submit an application for.
- Apply for fewer commissions. This is probably an extension of the point above, but I’m giving it its own bullet point because commissions are by far the applications that take the most time and creative energy to write. They’re also often the least transferrable. This isn’t to say I won’t apply for any commissions at all in 2021. But I want to focus on the ones that allow me to explore my own practice in a way that suits me, and my creative development. In other words, I’m going to be extremely choosy about the commissions I apply for.
- Focus my applications on funding that allows me to write. Grants to write are probably the holy grail of applications. After all, isn’t that the dream for so many of us? For somone to give us a big pot of money and say ‘go and write for a few months’? This means that these applications are highly competitive. But they do exist (from places like the Arts Council, the Society of Authors, and New Writing North). These are the sorts of applications I intend to focus on: ones that are designed to buy me writing time, rather than lose it.
- Make my own work. I’m already planning to take things a bit more into my own hands in 2021, running a series of online workshops and in-depth talks about craft with other writers. This still requires a lot of work, but it’s work that I know is leading towards something. Work that I want to do, and which I know will happen – rather than simply throwing an application out into the universe and hoping. It feels constructive. It feels useful. And, hopefully, it’s a way of helping other writers as well.
So that’s it. It’s a strategy that’s specific to me (though if you want to take any thoughts from it, be my guest). I’m aware that not everyone is in the same position, financially or in terms of the work already coming in. And I know not everyone has been eligible for the goverment self-employment grant, which has been a godsend this past year. I know I’m lucky. I can make this choices about where to spend my energy, about which applications to take the time to submit.
The choices I can’t make are which of my applications will be accepted in the new year. All I can do is follow my strategy, write as well and as hard as I can, and keep my fingers crossed that the next 6 months yield more acceptances than the last 6 have done.
Happy writing, and best of luck with everything you apply for in the new year.