Two lousy words from the word crowd

The literary world has two chronic word problems. As writers, we know the power of specific words to shape a reader’s thought and feeling. We spend hours searching for the exact words to capture what we want to convey.

Trashed Technology, from DaCosta1 flickr photostream (click to visit). CC licensed.

Our thesauruses are full of synonyms — myriad, plenitudinous, superabundant synonyms — and we take perverse pride in agonizing over which will be most effective in a given sentence.

Yet in our own hopeful business dealings, we begin and often end with two loose, sloppy words that carry all kinds of unpleasant baggage. Yet we seem blind to their effects upon us. I refer, of course, to “submission” and “rejection.”

The first has the simple, functional meaning of “sending something in” — harmless enough, even promising in its possibility. And it prosaically covers what we do when we put an envelope in the mail or, more likely these days, hit send on an email, slinging our painstakingly crafted work out for the tender consideration of some editor we probably know nothing about, beyond the look of her/his magazine. We “submit.”

But the verb enfolds a whole spectrum of other, more insidious activities. Here’s a quick list of definitions from dictionary.reference.com :

  1. to yield (oneself), as to the will of another person, a superior force, etc.
  2. to subject or be voluntarily subjected (to analysis, treatment, etc.)
  3. to refer (something to someone) for judgment or consideration
  4. to state, contend, or propose deferentially
  5. to defer or accede (to the decision, opinion, etc, of another)

[from Latin submittere to place under, from sub- + mittere to send]

What we see ourselves as doing is #3, with maybe a side of #2. But look at the other implications of the word : yielding; subjecting oneself; deferentially proposing; acceding. In other words surrender, caving in, craven servitude — all a death warrant for interesting writing. Is that what we intend, even tangentially, when we “submit” our work? As writers, we ought to be (exquisitely, in this case) aware of the implications of our terminology. Even editors, the god-like arbiters of our labours, should wince when they issue a “call for submissions.” (At least it’s not a “call for submission” — that would be unconscionable!)

At the other end of the process are the “rejections” made infamous by the public moaning of countless authors. That particular word choice has the effect of making specific and personal a process that may be anything but. Having seen a bit of the publishing world from the inside, i know there are a dozen reasons why a piece may be refused, and most are impersonal and episodic: the pages are full, or they already have a similar piece, or the editor has a headache today. So “rejection” may not even be technically correct. If you’re trying to plug a carrot into a power outlet, the outlet doesn’t “reject” the carrot. If you’re trying to pour water into a glass already full, the glass doesn’t “reject” the water. Something else is going on.

True, one of the possibilities is that your work is not up to snuff, and the “rejection” tells you so — and that, by extension, you are no good either. It feels personal, which tends to be the reaction no matter what the actual reason for the “rejection.” If we’re lucky, the editor sends along an explanation we can use to assuage our egos. It stings nonetheless.

We need new words for these writerly events. I’ve been wrestling with this for a while now, because i’ve developed a distaste for any “call for submissions” and an outright allergic reaction to “submitting.” For a while i would just send my piece, but that’s too prosaic — it’s what you do with your hydro bill, not your life’s work. So now i’m thinking more dramatically : test fly my piece, maybe, or even launch it. I’d like to trial a new work. I could challenge an editor with my gauntlet. The possibilities are as wide as one is ballsy.

And “rejection”? How about just They’re busy, or The bag was full, or Square peg, round hole. (I was going to put They suffer from a lack of taste, but that’s just an ego sop; plus it sets up adversarial thinking that undermines the collaboration actually going on here.)

Your suggestions? Leave ’em in the comments below for all suffering (but not submissive) writers to peruse.

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