How to deal with (and avoid) rejection
When you’re getting started as a freelancer, you’ll run into a lot of hurdles. Most of them will be manageable headaches like figuring out the tax code, tracking your expenses or finding story ideas in a dry spell. But some of them will be more difficult. Keeping my spirits up after being rejected was one of the hardest things for me to grapple with in the beginning.
Growing up, I always strove for good grades, tried my best to stay out of trouble and relished in love from friends and family. And the thought of someone being mad at me or not getting the grade I anticipated after studying my ass off felt awful. But eventually I learned that a grade is not a true reflection of one’s intelligence, rather an assessment of how well you’ve grasped the material and how much work you’ve put into assignments over time. (We all had that friend who did really well on tests but not so much with the homework part).
A similar awakening occurs when you start freelancing. At some point, you’ll pitch a story or two to an editor, and you’ll get a, “No” or “I’m sorry, but this doesn’t work for us.” If they’re interested in working with you, they might say something like, “Please keep us in mind for future submissions” or “Best of luck to you.”
Later in your freelancing ventures, you’ll likely have a story get out-right killed. In my opinion, this stings even more, because you’ve already put interviews, emails, transcribing, writing and editing into the piece all for the information you’ve gleaned to go unseen.
Though we’ve largely been taught that failure is bad, in entrepreneurship culture, failure can actually be a good thing. Yes, it sucks in that moment, but you’ll look back at that time and learn from the mistake. Here’s how I’ve coped with the mistakes I made that led to either story idea and draft rejection.
Mistake No. 1: Pitching to the wrong publication
If you pitch to an outlet and they say the story doesn’t work for them, take a look at their site again. (Hopefully, you’ve at least skimmed the site before you pitched). If it does have similar stories to the one you pitched, then perhaps it’s not the right place. If it doesn’t, perhaps they’re looking to go into a new direction or maybe they have someone working on it already.
How to avoid it: Do research ahead of time on multiple outlets
Just because the story idea doesn’t work for one place doesn’t mean it won’t work for another. Look for publications that cover the subject within which your story falls. (Healthcare, gaming, travel, etc.) Write a list of publications this story can work for, and pitch those places one at a time. Then, if that outlet hasn’t responded in a timely fashion or denies the pitch, send another customized pitch to the next outlet on the pitch. Be sure to change your angle a bit to accommodate the lost time. This method worked for me, and eventually led to my debut story in Vice. This story initially was rejected or ignored by four other major publications before I found a home for it. It takes time, so give each piece the time and care it needs.
Mistake No. 2: Not establishing a kill fee
As I mentioned in previous posts, a freelancer’s time is extremely valuable. Where you choose to spend your time is more crucial than at an hourly or salaried position, because your time and effort are directly correlated with your income. That said, look for a clause in a contract that you sign for a kill fee, which is a percentage of the wage you would have earned had the story been published.
How to avoid it
If a kill fee is missing from the contract, ask for one. The ones I’ve seen run about 15 to 25 percent. Make sure you get that taken care of before starting the work. It serves as a protection for you and your bank account. It may not be much, but at least you’ll receive some compensation for your work.
Mistake No. 3 Not communicating properly
It’s rare, but when an editor kills my story, it’s usually because of a communication issue or misunderstanding of what the story is supposed to be. I nearly always pitch via email and follow up via phone. I once had a story killed after it sat in an editor’s inbox for a little over a week. It had to be revised, but the editor decided not to run it. Of course, it would have been helpful to know that person was going to be out of town because the story could have run in a more timely fashion with the help of another editor. But these things happen. As a freelancer, you’re sort of an outsider who slowly picks up information here and there about the staff editors and writers. Proper communication makes it easier to plan for absences, get a solid idea of what a story will look like and understand what the workload expectations will be.
How to avoid it
Get a sense of how each editor wants to communicate. Some prefer emails. Others like phone calls. A few will appreciate a quick text. Understand which days and times work for him or her. Are they reachable on Mondays at 9 a.m.? Maybe Tuesday at 4 p.m. is better. If you don’t know, ask. Then follow those guidelines. Editors are busy, so it’s important to balance persistence with humility. Remember that they’re balancing a lot of other tasks, but don’t let them overlook your story. Have quick phone conversations with your editor about what exactly the final story should look like. Ask questions if you have them. Set clear deadlines and work expectations. Speak up if you disagree, and explain your position. As a writer, you know your work will be edited. Therefore when communicating with your editor, make sure you pay close attention to what he or she is looking for upfront and recognize that there will be some give and take.
Mistake No. 4: Taking rejection personally
It takes a lot of time and effort to produce great journalism. So when someone decides your idea or your draft isn’t good enough, it can be a tough pill to swallow. But remember that not everything is about you. At the end of the day, everything we do is in service to our readers.
The editor’s job is to edit copy and approve or deny stories that are of interest to the publication’s readers. If the editor decides to kill your piece or veto your pitch, they’re not doing so to get under your skin. They’re doing it because they’re deciding what’s best for their readership.
How to avoid it
Stay calm when listening to criticism. (In case you missed it, here are some of my tips for self-care). Look at your piece as objectively as you can and ask, “Where could I have done better?” Do your best not to make the same mistakes in future pieces. It’s okay to be emotional. Writing is a very personal act. But remember you must remain professional if you ever hope to have a long-standing journalism career. Don’t be nasty or spiteful towards your editor. Call a close friend or family member you can trust and vent to him or her. Get some sleep. Go for a walk or get some exercise to let off the steam. And most importantly, remain focused on why you entered journalism in the first place. Remind yourself of your passion for storytelling.