What Does the Response Time Mean?

A writer I know recently intimated that he was feeling discouraged about his kick-ass steampunk story, because a market I’d recommended he try sending it to rejected it very quickly (compared to their Duotrope-reported average response time, and compared to response times I’ve endured experienced from them). When I was first starting out, a very wise writer told me not to engage in rejectomancy. I told this writer the same thing. But the truth is, though I try my best, it’s clear that we’re all at least occasionally guilty of it. So now that I’m (temporarily) on the other side of the desk, I feel empowered to address this issue. So what does the length of time a publication takes to respond mean?

Well, when writers ask this question, they’re usually tacitly asking, “What does it mean about the quality of my story?” I can answer that one very simply:

Abso-fucking-lutely nothing!

Seriously, folks. I’ve held a God-awful story for the entire staff to read, because I felt like they needed a laugh. That seriously slowed the response time for that writer. Does it mean his story came close? NO! It means we were mocking him behind his back.

I’ve rejected solid, well-written stories within 24 hours. Why? They happened to come in when we weren’t terribly busy and all the readers managed to read and consider it in that amount of time. Bad news, folks. We reject lots of good stories. “Good story” is the prerequisite, not a guarantee that it’s what we need for the upcoming issue. Why would we sit on it once we know we can’t use it?

I’ve also been making a concerted effort since I got here to get our response times down (mostly by making sure I stay current on the reading and by riding the other readers to do the same). So Duotrope reports a much longer average response time than we’re currently experiencing. What would happen if all those writers we’ve rejected got dejected and gave up because we’re more organized and efficient than we used to be?

I’m also going to tell you that the “Responses have been received for submissions sent as recently as…” line in Duotrope is meaningless here. We have multiple readers, each with their own set of assignments and each with their own style of working. I’ve had stories pass through enough reads to be rejected before earlier-submitted works have gotten their initial read. Some publications — usually those with only a single person reading the slush — make a concerted effort to read submissions in the order they were received. We do not. So there’s no information to be had from that line, except if you’re wondering whether or not you should query and you see that no one has gotten a response, in which case you should just sit tight.

So, again, the timing of the response has no correlation to the quality of your story.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t information to be gleaned from the timing of the response. For example, if you’re a Duotrope watcher, you’ve probably noticed that rejections tend to come in batches. Ours do. That’s because there are only a few readers who have the authority to reject as they go. Everyone else flags the story with their recommendation, and at some point a staff member goes through, sees what we’re passing on, and sends out all the notices at once. So what does it mean if yours was the only rejection from that magazine to appear on Duotrope that day? Well, it means the person who gave your story the final read happened to be one of the staffers whose job it is to send rejections, and that person decided not to make you wait for the next batch to go out.

Probably not the information you were looking for, but that’s what it means.

Some magazines publish when their staff meetings are held. So if you get your rejection within an hour after staff meeting, yours was probably one of the stories they discussed. Yes, that’s information you can glean from the timing of a rejection. But, unfortunately, you can’t extrapolate anything else from that information. I’ve flagged stories for discussion at staff meeting because I wanted to ask if others think the author would appreciate and benefit from a personal rejection. (Yes, this is an MFA program. We’ve all got strong teacher instincts.) That doesn’t mean the story ever had a chance. Other stories don’t go to staff meeting because there’s overwhelming agreement among the first readers that it should go directly to the senior editors. Those editors don’t discuss their choices in the meeting, they simply read it and accept, reject, or hold it as they see fit, on their own timetable.

So, again, who really cares if your story was discussed or not?

Again, rejectomancy is useless.

Also, sitting watching other people’s work getting rejected on Duotrope isn’t the best use of your time.

Because, ultimately, what you can learn from the response time is nothing that you can use to improve your craft or to give your story a better chance of being accepted.

So if you’re wondering about the quality of your rejected story, go ahead and give it a re-read. If your skill has improved, you may see a re-write that you want to do. Otherwise, get it re-submitted elsewhere, and then get back to writing something new!

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