Getting a rejection letter from a journal is one of the most disconcerting experiences for any author. Statistical evidence suggests all authors including the most experienced ones face rejection even at matured stages of their careers. There is evidence that a rejection from one journal is not the end of the road for the author or even for that particular manuscript. However, there is no denying the fact that a rejection letter hurts a lot. So, how does one deal with it?
Take a step back: Accepting rejection is particularly hard at the beginning of one’s career. You may look back on all the effort put into writing, editing, and formatting the paper and consider all that as a complete waste of time. However, these are initial reactions that are normal and hence allow them to phase out. Once you have read the review, put it away for several days. What seems shocking and rude on the first day starts to look more manageable by the third day. Getting some distance on the comments is useful for the next steps.
Understand why it was rejected: the review letter will have clear answers to your primary question; why was it rejected? Read the letter objectively once you get over the shock. Poor language is an extremely common reason for manuscript rejection along with formatting issues. Many journal editors reject an article at the initial stage because of other factors such as multiple articles on similar lines or topics etc. If your manuscript was sent for peer review, it means the set of challenges are quite different. Read the review comments carefully and try to understand where exactly the challenge lies: methodology, main argument, presentation of academic evidence, a lacuna in rigor. A ‘revise and submit’ may be as bad as a rejection but it also leaves enough scope to work on for the next round.
What to do next? Contrary to initial feeling, you actually have multiple options before you: (1) abandon the paper, (2) send the paper without a single change to another journal, (3) revise the manuscript and send it to another journal, or (4) protest or appeal the decision and try to resubmit the paper to the rejecting journal. While the initial reaction may be towards options (1) and (4), it is really the options (2) and (3) that makes more sense. However, all four options are equally valid and what you decide to do must be based on sound reasoning.
Even though it may sound ironic, it is better to be prepared for rejection even at the time of drafting the manuscript for journal publication. Some prepare to send it to multiple journals from the onset. Some look forward to peer-review under rejection only to polish the manuscript for a better journal. Many authors have experience of the same paper being rejected multiple times before it was finally published. Rejection is just another stepping-stone for an academic career.