Unbalanced: I'm sorry to inform you that this is no good

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

Carol Schaal

Way back in my sophomore year in high school, when my English teacher, Mrs. Smith, was returning our assignments, she didn’t give me mine. Instead, she asked me to stay after class.

There I was, left behind, uncertain as to why. Then she gave me back my assignment — a five-page essay. On the back page was a big fat F.

Oh, wow. An F? In English? My best subject? Wow. (The only word my shocked brain could come up with.) And, nice teacher that she was, Mrs. Smith told me that she knew I was trying a creative spin on the topic but it just didn’t work. So I could have a do-over, and this F-work wouldn’t count.

I didn’t save the essay but wish now I had. It would probably be worth a laugh. And the pain has faded, although clearly I remember the experience. I also remember with gratitude Mrs. Smith, who was kind enough to break it to me gently and who gave my do-over a B-plus.

Now one of the editors’ jobs at the magazine is to review the abundance of articles and story ideas sent to us by freelance writers; stories they’d like us to buy and put in the magazine. Which unfortunately leads to an ancillary job: sending rejection notices.

On rare occasions, when something is almost laughably bad, I’m tempted to be blunt, the Simon Cowell of rejection, the Chef Ramsey of put-downs.

“Ewwww,” I sometimes want to say. “This stinks.”

But I remember Mrs. Smith, and I don’t.

Generally the reason for the rejection isn’t explained. Rating the submissions would be nice. It also would be a full-time job, and we have a magazine to put out. Sometimes, however, if time permits, I might tell a writer that the piece was nicely written but we can’t use it. Try again, I’ll say.

At a presentation I gave to a Notre Dame journalism class, a student once asked me what the hardest part of my job is. “Sending rejection notices,” I replied immediately. “I know it hurts to be shot down, and I don’t like being the one who does the shooting.”

I can hear it now: “Oh, boo-hoo. She feels bad.” And I do, but I’m not expecting sympathy here, since I’m the one with the power. A lot of people would like to be in my shoes.

But for those who’ve been kicked to the curb, the best we as editors can offer is this: It was read. It was considered. It may even have been discussed by two or three editors. No, we can’t hold every writer’s hand. But we can, and we do, operate with good faith. I hope that counts for something.

Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine.