Just a few minutes ago I was looking for a used envelope and found one in a box in my office, but inside was a stack of papers. I took them out and realised it was a rejected manuscript, one of mine, for a short story collection I sent out quite a long time ago. It had an extremely demoralising reader's report and a quite encouraging cover letter.
It was from many years ago and when I read the reader's report, I remembered some of the comments (the bad ones of course, since they stick with us) so I must have read through everything, put it back in the envelope, and forgot about it. I wondered just now why I kept it all. I do occasionally file hard copies of correspondence, but nowadays with everything in email, rejections are usually deleted right after reading, in those days thrown in the bin. Perhaps I meant to take some of the advice from the reader's report, who knows? Reading it now with some significant distance, it's easy to see what he was right about and what he was quite wrong about, because indeed some of what was written there was wrong.
It's obvious from the reader's report that he prefers a certain type of story. The stories that he pulled out to recommend, there were two, one has done okay for me, but the other one won a prize but could never find a place to be published. One of the stories that the reader hated has been published in four different places since then, in three different countries.
I'm not saying reader's reports are always wrong, they are often very right. Nowadays most publishers won't send any evaluation of your manuscript when it is rejected, nothing but a letter from a robot, so a reader's reports can be very helpful. They can let you know where the person thinks you're on track and where they think you've gone astray.
But when you're starting out, they seem to be the word from God. They can make or break you. But you need to keep in mind, that in the end, they are one person's view. Yes, an experienced person, but still that person has an opinion regarding the type of writing that they like. It was obvious he was not keen on my type. But time has shown that other people were.
I've been moderately successful here and there, I still have a lot I'd like to do. I still want to improve, be the writer I wish I was. I am still happy to get a reader's report even for a rejected manuscript, but I can say I always need to take a few breaths before opening one, need to prepare myself for what I'll read. They're tough. Always. Even when there's only good stuff. Even when the words are nearly ten years old like this one.
I'm thinking the cover letter from the publisher was what gave me strength to go on after that brutal reader's report so long ago. It ends with- "Lauri, you are clearly a talented writer and your writing can only get stronger." That was a kind thing to say, a life vest thrown out to this floundering new writer. Thank you, thank you Assistant Editor Lady! Even now reading it I'm pretty thankful for that bit. She invited me to send a full length manuscript when I had one. I did eventually. And they published it, and a few others. So there is a happy ending in there.
I guess my point is, as it often is, this writing business is hard, and you should try always to improve, but you should also know that maybe you are who you are, and sometimes it's about you finding the reader that appreciates that. And, too, try your best to take criticism in the spirit in which it is given. It is only rarely meant to kill you (watch for those folks, they're deadly) , it is meant to help you find your way, even if it is in the opposite direction.