Introducing: Your Worst Writing Nightmare
Behind the Book: What if I get rejected?
Hey look - it’s a new mini-series! I’ve decided to write about some of your worst writing nightmares. Why? Because I like to terrify you.
Just kidding. You’re already terrified!
Writers reach out to me on the regular asking for advice on the “what-if’s” that are keeping them from getting their work out into the world. What if nobody likes my writing? What if I get dragged? What if I get harassed or threatened? What if I get it wrong? What if my mom never speaks to me again?
If you thought I was going to come on here and say that these things never happen and you have nothing to worry about, I’m not! These things can and do happen. These things can and do happen to me! It sucks and I don’t wish some of these things on anyone (that’s a lie, I actually do keep a handy little list of people I wish some of these things would happen to but something about wishes and fishes…I don’t know - I’m just saying that some of y’all *not you who are reading this, I love you, but like - you know, shitty people* could use a little more consequences in your life) but I’ve gotten through them so far and I’m still writing (yes, this is writing) and publishing and I want you to be writing and publishing too! So, in this mini series, I’m going to tackle some of your worst writing fears. I’ll talk about what happened to me, how it relates to what I know about the industry in general, and what you can do to try to prevent - or at least be prepared for - this happening to you.
Have a worst writing nightmare that you want me to cover in this series? Leave it in comments!
So, for our first installment we are going to cover the most common and most unavoidable writing nightmare: What if my writing gets rejected?
First of all, let me say this: your writing WILL get rejected. It will get rejected a lot. It sucks, and it doesn’t stop sucking. Please know that while there are things you can do to reduce the number of rejections, you will never reach a phase in your career where you aren’t getting rejected. I’m at a place in my career where I no longer have to pitch ideas and editors are coming to me asking me to write for them, and there are still plenty of times where an editor will be like, “Oh please, please write for us!” and then I say “ok” and tell them what I’d like to write and they are like, “LOL nevermind! That sounds awful! No thanks!” And then I’m like, “Oh shit - did I forget how to write? What if I never could write at all and this editor is the only person to figure it out?”
Everyone gets rejected. It’s not because we’re all shitty writers. And a lot of shitty writers get published. Because sometimes it’s about the idea, sometimes it’s about your writing, sometimes it’s not about that at all.
For a little perspective, let me talk a little bit about the pitch/acceptance process as someone who has also worked as an editor for an online current events mag (RIP Establishment forever).
The Editor’s Perspective
Each month/week/day you have a calendar that drives the majority of what you are publishing. If you are publishing only online, you are usually working no more than a few weeks to a month ahead. If you are publishing your magazine/paper in print - lol, you’ve got most of your work set for you months in advance. There are usually things that have to go up in order to fit the theme you set, the regular columns or sections your publication has, or the time of year. A lot of publications will also have a small allotment of space for current events pertaining to whatever the hell your publication is about and a small allotment for editorial. And you have a shitty tiny little budget with which to pay for every piece you publish.
So, as you start your day looking for new pitches to approve and new writers to publish, you have a very limited amount of pieces you can accept. You have to be picky - not just about writer or idea quality, but about how well that piece fits in with the rest of what’s already been predetermined to go up, and also about how many eyes you think you can get on that piece to maximize the budget you spent on it.
You go into your emails. Usually you have a mailbox just for pitches and ideas and questions for editors. You scroll through the inbox and see dozens, if not hundreds of emails titled:
“Idea for you”
“Writing idea about Trump”
“Pitch about racism”
“Writing about racists”
“Pitching an idea about Trump and racists”
So, out of this oh so descriptive and not at all repetitive list of subjects, you have to find the hidden gems that will be the piece that everyone will be reading on your site. You see a pitch from a writer you’ve worked with in the past. You liked working with them so you click on their email. Damn, you already accepted a piece from somebody else just yesterday with a very similar idea. You click on another pitch. They’ve spelled your name wrong. Twice. Another one sounds promising but you aren’t familiar with the writer and they haven’t provided any links to their other writing so you have no real idea of their writing style. Maybe. You click on an email with an actually interesting and informative subject line. That is a really great pitch! Unfortunately, it’s just not a good fit with your publication. You hope they’ll submit it somewhere else so you’ll get to read it. You click on another one and the subject sounds like it might be interesting but it’s kind of an obscure topic that you aren’t familiar with and the writer didn’t put enough background information in the pitch for you to know if it’s a good fit.
You click on another and it’s a writer who is pitching the story everybody is talking about right now and they’ve included a few links to past work so you know they can string words together and shit - you really have to accept something because you also have to do your actual job and edit a bunch of essays today and you have a bunch of frustrating editorial meetings on your calendar. That’s the one you pick. It’s not, like, making you all hot and bothered or anything, but the one you accepted yesterday did, so you are okay with this one just being okay. You click through some more of the pitches just in case something jumps out at you in the 5 seconds you have for each one. One sounded good, but when you go back to look at it again, you can’t remember which “about Trump and racists” pitch it was as there are 15 in your inbox with the same subject line. Oh well.
If you’re feeling generous and happen to have the time, you’ll reply to a few of the pitches to let them know that you’re going in a different direction. A few of those writers will immediately send you an angry email back demanding to know why you dared reject them. You’ll decide that from now on you aren’t going to take the time to send rejections. Writers will just have to figure it out when they don’t hear from you. You go through the rest of your editing day and begin it all again tomorrow.
I included this rather long description of an editor’s day because I want you to see that there are a lot of reasons why a piece gets rejected and so few of them have to do with whether or not you had a good idea or whether or not you are a good writer.
I remember that there was a writer we’d regularly publish at The Establishment, and sometimes it would cause some frustration from writers who were getting rejected. Why are they being rejected when this writer, who doesn’t seem to be anything special, keeps getting published? What they didn’t see though was that nine times out of ten, that writer’s pitches were rejected for various reasons. But their pitches were clear and informative, so we could tell pretty quickly if we wanted to publish their piece or not, and they pitched a lot on the subjects we liked to publish. Like, constantly. If two or three days went by and there wasn’t a pitch from them in our inbox, we started to worry that they fell down a well or something. And we weren’t the only place they pitched to. If they didn’t hear back from us on a piece in a day or so, they sent it off to another publication. They seemed to be everywhere and that’s because they were pitching everywhere, all the time.
This was my modus operandi too (although to a lesser degree as my time was more limited) when I first started freelancing. I would send a pitch out to one place and if I didn’t hear back in a few days, I’d just assume they weren’t interested and pitch elsewhere. If I was lucky, I’d get a rejection that would help me understand some tweaks I needed to make to my pitch - but that almost never happened. I would just pitch and pitch and pitch until my piece found a home, or didn’t. Sometimes, it just wasn’t to be. Then I would either put it on my blog or let it go. But when I started working as an editor as well and I got that other perspective, I was able to dial in my pitching process in order to reduce the amount of rejections I got. Here are some adjustments I made and things I kept in mind:
You need an informative subject line. Make the editor want to click on it. Not click-bait. Don’t be annoying. But do make it stand out and give an editor a good idea of what’s to come.
If you aren’t absolutely sure the editor will know about the subject you want to write about, include a little background info or links for more information. Editing is a very different job than writing and often editors are too busy being nerds about sentence structure and shit to keep up on all the hot topics. Don’t assume that they know about the cool new thing Rihanna is doing just because you and all your friends do.
Read through a few articles in the publication, does your piece seem like a good fit? If it doesn’t seem like it would fit in, maybe look around for a publication that would be a better fit.
Link to your past work. Don’t assume that your grammatically perfect pitch will be enough to convince an editor that they must publish you. Link to some past work - preferably past work that is similar in style to what you want to publish for them. This is not about where you’ve been published. Your blog and your college paper are great places to pull from - this is about providing the editor with a taste of your writing style and with proof that you can take an idea to a finished product. Every editor I know has been burned by a great idea submitted by a writer who they found out only after accepting the pitch that they had no idea how to turn that idea into actual paragraphs.
If it’s a timely topic that you only have a few days to publish before it becomes “old news” consider putting an expiration date or time on the pitch. It’s considered bad form to pitch the same idea to more than one publication at the same time, but what do you do when you need to get that piece out within 24 hours in order to capitalize off of the news cycle? Put a line in your pitch letting the editors know that if you don’t hear from them by a certain day or time you will consider the pitch rejected and you will send it elsewhere. Then you are free to move on to another publication without worrying about harming your relationship with an editor. I remember clearly a piece I wrote on a current celebrity being shitty that wen’t pretty viral. When it went viral, I got an email from an editor at a larger publication that I had worked with in the past asking why I hadn’t sent it to them first. I replied that I had - and I forwarded my pitch to them, with it’s expiration date clearly indicated. The editor realized that they had missed the pitch and it was completely on them - and then they actually gave me a more direct email address to send my pitches to in the future so they wouldn’t miss out next time.
And if you add those tips to these few etiquette reminders, you’ll have a much better chance of pitching success:
If you get an actual rejection email from an editor, thank them for letting you know. Trust me, it’s a courtesy every time, even if it stings. Editors take all the risk for very little reward in sending rejections. They are the ones getting angry replies. They are the ones getting demands for explanation. They are the ones getting the tearful responses. Over and over and over. And they have to reject the majority of the pitches they receive. That’s just the way the job works. They are human beings with feelings who don’t like making writers feel bad. Don’t make them feel bad for doing their job.
Only pitch to one place at a time. You pitch to the place with every intention of publishing with them if they accept, and they offer acceptance to you only if they are actually going to publish you. That’s how the deal works. If they accept your work and then you find that you just can’t work with the editor (I can cover this in a future installment if you want) so you have to pull the piece, that’s one thing. But if you pitch to more than one place and both editors want the piece and then you have to tell an editor no because you’re giving the piece to an editor you like more, they will be less likely to accept a pitch from you in the future.
Don’t demand an explanation for a rejection. Editors don’t have the time and it honestly just feels like a punishment for reading your pitch at all. Writers who don’t take rejection well will find that their emails don’t get opened in the future.
Reply back promptly to any questions an editor asks. If an editor replies to your pitch, not with an acceptance, but with a question: ANSWER THAT QUESTION. That means they are interested in the pitch but they need more info. Provide that info! The amount of writers who get downright snippy that an editor would dare ask questions instead of providing an instant “YES, YES YOU ARE A GENIUS PLEASE LET US PAY YOU TO WRITE FOR US” is astounding. If you can’t answer a question about your pitch, it’s a very strong signal to the editor that you will be the absolute worst to edit.
Spell the editors name right! Ok, so this one is a bit personal but it’s also a complaint I’ve heard from so many editors who have names that are unique to a lot of westerners. Spell our names right! It’s on the website, it’s on our social media, it’s in our auto-signature! Spell it right! I’ve had multiple email conversations with people who are asking me to publish their work and yet they spelled my name wrong four different ways. It’s just disrespectful.
Look for pitching instructions and follow those instructions. Often, editors will go through a lot of trouble to outline how to pitch to their publication. There will be a page like “contact us” or “write with us” or “submit” that will tell you where to send your pitch, who to send it to, and what the pitch needs. You should use that thing that editors took the time to make! Don’t just be like, “lol I found this editor’s personal Facebook profile let me DM them my great idea.” Boundaries are a real thing - even on the internet!
If an editor rejects your pitch but asks you to pitch again in the future, they mean that! Don’t act like a jilted lover and flounce away never to return. Editors mean it when they say they want you to pitch to them again. It’s pretty common to reject one, two, three, four pitches from a writer only to fall head over heels with the fifth pitch and accept it. Don’t let your pride keep you away from future opportunities.
If you keep in mind all of the above, chances are your ideas will be rejected less. But they will still be rejected sometimes. Sometimes it won’t be a good fit, sometimes it won’t be a good time. Sometimes your pitch won’t even get opened. Sometimes, it’s not actually a good idea that you’re pitching (not every idea is a winner). None of that means that you aren’t a good writer. You’re going to have to try your best to keep that in mind, because freelancing is brutal. I do not know a single writer who does not get rejections on the regular. It is a huge part of the job. But you only get to see your rejections and everyone else’s publications. And that really sucks because it can really skew your sense of self-worth as a writer.
When you’re feeling really low, it helps to have a few writer friends to talk with. If you are a writer from an underrepresented group (BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled etc.) you will really need some writer friends from that group because you will not only be dealing with the standard rejections that every writer faces, you will also be facing rejections and hurdles that are driven by oppression and bigotry. It’s a tough world to be in and you need people who understand, and you need to be able to talk to people who have faced the same hurdles and are pushing through. Be open and honest with your writer friends. Share your wins and your losses. Don’t turn your writer friends into your therapists, but just cultivate a space where it’s okay to be a little down about a rejection sometimes. It’s totally natural, it happens to all of us, and the more open we can all be about it, the better.
And make sure you really celebrate your wins. None of this humble shit. If you’re going to let that rejection kick your ass a little, you better let that acceptance pump you up even more.
Keep writing, keep pitching. Know that there is a place for your words and your work, even if you haven’t found it yet. And when it finds its place, we’ll all be better for it.
How are you dealing with writing rejection right now? Put your tips in the comments.
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