APS News

Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

The Craft of the Improbable Science Writer: The Art of Rejection

By Steve Nadis

Editor's Note: Apparently, the Annals of Improbable Research has a very high rejection rate higher than most of the "serious" science journals such as Nature and Science. The following is an example of how far certain would-be authors go to try to get their works published in AIR.

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 worryjust 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, 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."

Steve Nadis is a freelance science writer. The above article originally appeared in Annals of Improbable Research, May 2002. Reprinted with permission.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette