“Never give up. Never say die.” It’s the advice creative writers cherish and repeat most often, which is understandable. Persistence is easy to understand. When a writer stops writing or submitting or looking for an agent, the effect can be directly attributed to the cause. One can fail by not trying.
Unfortunately, when other important aspects of a writer’s endeavors to be published remain unexamined in the belief that persistent submissions alone will achieve the desired results, the outcome is sad to see. Repeated rejections sometimes have an unwritten message to convey: “Become a better writer.”
If the only message received is “Keep trying,” the danger is that a writer can exhaust the choicest possibilities. When “keep trying” isn’t paired with “get better,” then eventually a writer will reach out to an agent, magazine editor, or publisher of last resort—potentially someone who isn’t very good at his or her job. Potentially someone who’ll soon go out of business. Potentially a scammer. All because reductionism’s simplicity is so emotionally appealing.
Here’s the truth. No matter how much praise a writer has received, no matter how long and hard she’s worked on her manuscript, and no matter how far superior her writing is to the work produced by the members of her writing group, there are hundreds of times as many fine writers out there vying for editors, agents, and publishers who will invest time and money in them. There’s no shortage of good writers. The only way to stand out in the slushpile, after having persisted to get there, is to be obviously better and more professional than the competition.
I’m tempted to define persistent with a number, but it would only be misleading. Better manuscripts are more likely to attract attention, but if the author of the manuscript is obnoxious, many agents, editors, and publishers won’t be bothered. I’d rather suggest to writers that they remain constantly open to feedback as they continue to learn about the art and the business of creative writing. The ability to recognize what can be improved is one mark of a superior intellect, and in my book, a superior intellect makes a better writer.