A Rejected Article
An Example of What Doesn't Work
The Annals of Improbable Research has a very high rejection rate -- higher than most of the "serious" science journals such as Nature and Science. Here is an example of how far certain would-be authors go to try to get their works published in AIR. The editors rejected this article for reasons that will be obvious to most readers...
The Craft of the Improbable Science Writer: The Art of Rejection
by Steve Nadis
Improbable science writers are, by and large, a hardened lot. They have
to be to keep doing what they do. In the course of their work, they're constantly
sending out proposals to heartless editors and getting most of their entries
sent back in the dreaded SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). For me,
about the only thing that's not being rejected these days are my phone bills.
(Not to worry--just a temporary slump.)
Rejection letters assume various forms and are, in fact, an artform onto
themselves. Here are some recent examples, just to give you a feel for the
genre: "Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. _____," wrote the editor of a prestigious
journal. "Thanks for giving us the opportunity to read 'Sex and the
Silicon Cell.' I'm sorry it does not work for our magazine, but please send
more on the subject for my private use." And: "Thanks for sending
us 'Wetlab Zombies.' I'm afraid it is too fringy (sp?), even for Frontier
News. Or: "Thanks for giving us a look at 'Astrophysical Platitudes
Amidst the Latitudes,'" wrote the erstwhile editor of The Journal
of Dubious Findings. "While the research you cite is undoubtedly
dubious, it is also unspeakable, as well as trivial."
Note the infinite variety, elaborate construction, deft use of irony, and
subtle shifts of tone characteristic of the rejection oeuvre. As written
testaments, penned by some of the world's highest-ranking literary authorities,
these letters are treasures to be mined for all they're worth. Rather than
cranking out one mindless article proposal after the next, aspiring improbable
science writers would do well to study their rejection letters carefully
and learn from the true masters of the craft.
Occasionally, though rarely, the illustrious author of the rejection letter
completely misses the point. To wit: "We liked 'The Thermodynamics
of Volleyball,' but unfortunately we do not cover volleyball. However, if
you'd like to do a piece on the thermodynamics of racquetball, walleyball,
tennis, or squash, please get back to us."
My reply was equally vacuous: "Sorry, I don't do racquetball, tennis,
walleyball, or squash. Improbable science writers, I'm told, are supposed
to write about what they know. For me, that happens to be the thermodynamics
of volleyball. Such is life."
In that instance, I committed a serious breach of the improbable science
writer code: I lost my temper. Sure, sometimes the process is enough to
test anyone's mettle. But the seasoned professional realizes that such immoderate
outbursts will never advance his career, nor will they advance the cause
of improbable science education to which he has devoted every waking second
of his conscious life.
Rather than sitting back and waiting for rejection, the industrious writer takes the offensive. "To whom it may concern," I once wrote. "After grave deliberation, I have decided not to submit my neurological treatise, 'The Man with Two Eyes and One Nose.' In fact, I have decided not to write it. Even so, my story would probably not be right for your magazine, nor you for it. Regrets..."
Of course, emissaries of the improbable science editorial establishment
are not always such a bad lot. Sometimes, they're so contrite and apologetic,
I actually feel sorry for them. An editor from Half Truths sent me this
heartbreaking missive: "Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. ____, I found your story
on 'Isotopes at the Sushi Bar' intriguing, as well as disconcerting. It
has been an extremely difficult decision, one that I've grappled with over
many sleepless nights. But I finally realized that when there is so much
debate and so much soul-searching, the answer, ultimately, has to be no.
Sorry you had to be the victim of my learning process."
At times like these, I (as would any other responsible improbable science writer) often send back soothing notes to comfort the poor rejector and ease my own conscience. "That's OK," I say. "Don't feel bad. I realize you're literally swamped with manuscripts and can only accept a tiny fraction of the material you receive. I know you'd like to be able to publish more, if only space and budgets permitted. I know all this, yet I keep sending these things. Sorry. I'd stop if I could."
NOTES TO ACCOMPANY THE ARTICLE
1. This statement is so obvious, it would take an entire book merely to list the most important citations. The proof, for fastidious types who demand it, lies in the typical response to all new research: "Huh?"
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