We Regret to Inform You

The form rejection letter is used in every industry.

Such is the formulaic structure of the letter that it is often hard to distinguish what exactly has been rejected.

If a writer lined up a literary agency form letter with that of a job application, only a few sentences would differ. The majority of each letter would consist of the same terminology.

One phrase in particular, is used more than any other: we regret to inform you.

These 5 words when constructed into part of a sentence can be devastating for any recipient. As one skims past the address and greeting, one stops dead on this phrase. The heart sinks. The spirits fade.

It remains one of the most powerful phrases in the English language because of what it signifies: the crushing of a dream and the rejection of one's talent, in just five words.

For those with the courage to persevere, the five words will be repeated again and again and again. Receiving rejection with just a phrase after so much hard work to impress can be endlessly deflating. If only the rejections varied. If only they used their creativity to construct a new phrase. But no, these 5 words remain constant: we regret to inform you.

But when the phrase is broken down into its 5 components, what exactly does each word really mean?

Deconstructing the Phrase

  • We - This suggests that the literary agent consulted with their colleagues before making their decision. However, this seldom happens. The decision was almost exclusively that of the literary agent alone. They could be rejecting for a number of reasons, but it is 'I' not 'We' doing the rejecting.


  • Regret - This feeling of sorrow and a sense of loss, suggests a literary agent has time for these sentiments each and every time they reject. This is not the case. They are so swamped with submissions, that they simply do not have the time to regret. For every rejection going out the door, another 100 submissions are coming in. 'Regret' is a polite word, but it is the most misplaced one in the phrase.


  • To - On its own this is a harmless word. But not within the context of the rejection phrase, because it is the moment where the recipient is dreading the subsequent words. Just as their gut feels a painful hollow from the preceding word, this one sets them up for the imminent fall.


  • Inform - This is an empty promise because it is always generic. To inform is to explain why. The formulaic rejection never does this. It exists to end the chaser e-mails and allow the recipient to move on to their next try.


  • You - The final nail in the dream-killing phrase. It hurts the most of all because it has erased the name of the recipient. The impersonalisation of this word cuts the deepest. It says to the recipient that they are not an individual. That they are not unique. The word is an indication that the sender is using a mass mail shot of rejections. The little time they have restricts the use of names within the phrase, but even that small effort would hurt the recipient less.

The Unfortunate Formulaic

literary agent will reject the majority of submissions they receive. It takes something special to impress them.

But for the writer, the form rejection letter is never received well.

It is not the rejection that bothers them. It is the not knowing why, that kills them. 

Why was it not good enough? If they have an editorial clue as to what needs fixing, then they could at least use the rejection letter as a springboard for a better draft. Unfortunately, time restraints prevent literary agents from being able to help writers understand the rejection and improve their manuscript. They simply do not have the time to offer editorial notes.

We regret to inform you that the form rejection is simply an unfortunate formulaic letter that will always be part of the publishing industry.

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