I’ve been thinking lots about embarrassing moments and how many I have had in my (fairly short) writing career. I think it’s easy to see ‘successful’ writers and not see their backstory, where they have made mistakes or had challenges. Well, today I wanted to clear that up. I’ve unearthed the best (read: the worst) rejections I’ve had to pitches and stories. Because let’s face it, no one is perfect. And the truth is, it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.
The 4 best rejections I’ve received from editors as a freelance writer
After ten+ years of being a freelance writer, I’ve had my fair share of rejections and embarrassing mistakes.
But I think that’s totally normal.
For many of us, freelancing is a new pursuit and when you’re beginning or learning something new, you make lots of mistakes.
I’ve been listening to a wonderful podcast which is all about failing and making mistakes, and it got me thinking about the times I’ve failed, and what I’ve learnt from them.
So I wanted to share with you my top 4 fails in terms of rejections to pitches or stories.
These are the exact replies from editors and while the sting subsided a long time ago (most of these are at least three or four years old), I still cringe when I read them.
But onwards, right?
1. The ‘we get this pitch all the time – can’t you think of something original’ reply:
I have to preface this by saying this is a pitch from early on in my writing career (circa 2012).
That doesn’t necessarily excuse me, but it does let you know that I’ve (hopefully) improved my pitches since then.
I was knee-deep in nappies and parenting.
So of course I pitched a highly original story about nappies to a parenting mag.
Bet they never get pitches like that, right?
You can almost hear the editor’s eyes rolling when she wrote this reply:
Thanks for getting in touch with your story idea on modern cloth nappies.
Unfortunately, as a parenting magazine this is one that is pitched to us quite frequently and while nappies are certainly an important part of the parenting world, we’re not currently looking for a feature dedicated to any specific type of nappy.
Okay, so I pitched an idea that every single parent could have pitched, but I had more ideas.
Unfortunately, my next two pitches went a similar way:
As for your two new ideas, we’ve actually got a big sleep feature coming up that touches on sleep needs, and the importance of nature in a child’s life is unfortunately another of those ideas we tend to get a lot of pitches about.
You’ll be happy to know that I did eventually crack the editor and had three unique ideas commissioned.
Then the magazine went under.
Hopefully that had nothing to do with my writing ….
2. The ‘you haven’t ever read our magazine, have you’ reply:
I pitched a story to an editor of an Australian travel magazine thinking it would be a good fit (to be honest, I don’t think I ever pitch ideas that I think are going to bomb out).
I was pretty confident, so needless to say was seriously disheartened when I got this response.
This is not quite right but thanks for thinking of us!
Grab a copy of the next edition if you can – that should give you an idea of things I want.
The worst thing about this reply is that I had read lots of back issues and thought my pitch was spot on.
3. The ‘I thought I was getting a great story, but this is really pretty crap’ response to a submitted article:
Even if you’ve been working with an editor or a client for a while, it doesn’t always stand that they are going to love your work.
I received this reply from an editor of a publication that I had worked really hard to get into and had written for quite regularly.
Thanks for the story but it doesn’t work for me. ..too broad, not enough new and focussed info.
That was it. That was her entire response.
Of course I had to go back and ask for more info – did she want me to rework it or kill it?
I liked the initial angle and the two studies you quoted in the pitch were interesting; it’s just that the rest of the story repeated info we’ve already read so many times, including in our mag.
It’s up to you if you feel you can really freshen it up and make it revelatory?
If not, we’ll have to kill it unfortunately.
I was 38 weeks pregnant and sick of the sight of the article so I took the kill fee.
4. The most sensitively written request for a rewrite:
Goodness, I love editors who manage to deliver some serious blows but do so in a way that you feel good about yourself and your writing.
This is from an editor who I think has made a kind reply into an art form:
Hi again Lindy,
I think you’ve collected some fantastic information for this story, and also teased out some interesting points including that a long-term view is required when problems have been caused by “complex causal factors”. I also like X’s quote around good policy-making being a process that relies on research.
So I think all the elements are in place – but I would like you to have another little look at how the piece hangs together. I have a feeling that you took to heart the idea that this piece would be excellent support material for the audience (which it is!) – but I think along the way we lost the sense of story.
For example, the research projects mentioned in those opening paragraphs are fascinating but I felt more like I was reading a list than getting a sense of the shared philosophy or purpose, or being inspired by the idea of thinking big. Lots of ‘what’ but not enough ‘why’, perhaps…
My suggestion would be to have another crack at the piece, imagining that it was being written for an educated audience, but still a non-specialist audience looking for a good story. My suspicion is that it’s just about getting the opening right, and that then all the other bits of information you’ve gathered for the piece will just slot into place below it.
I’m sorry to burden you with this – it’s always awful when you think you’ve finished with a story but they you find out there’s a bit more to do. But I think it’s just about taking a fresh look, freeing yourself up from the detail a bit, and shuffling it to rediscover the story!
I still think this is one of the best rejection emails from an editor I’ve received.
It’s so sensitively written, but doesn’t shy away from the fact that I had to seriously rework the article.
It’s funny looking back at these emails – I’m sure I have loads more buried in my email account, but these are the ones that immediately came to mind when I thought about embarrassing editor moments.
In retrospect, all the rejections and requests to rework articles have made me a better writer, however bruising it is initially.
What about you? Do you have any best rejection stories you want to share?
Ermagaaahd. I am cringing for you reading these, but only in the full knowledge that I have many similar ones in the depths of my own inbox. I have to ask you, does the fear of a rejection letter like this ever lessen? I’ve been freelancing for several years now, but as I write this I’m waiting to hear back about a piece I submitted yesterday and I’m TERRIFIED that the editor is going to hate it. The relief I feel when I finally file a piece is always replaced so quickly by that anxiety! (I think the worst option with this particular piece would be the request for a substantial rewrite…)
Oh Ruth, that’s a good question. I must admit every time I send off an email with a completed story attached I grit my teeth and hope with everything I have that the editor likes it. I’m not sure if that feeling every goes away and I think that’s probably okay because it makes sure that we are invested and trying our best.
Sending you positive vibes for this story Ruth, and that the anxiety abates quickly when you get an, ‘I love this!’ response from the editor (which I’m sure you’ll get).
Oh gawd, we’ve all been there Lindy. Those are the moments that keep us humble. Evidently pitching is a skill that I’m not sure I will ever perfect. Thanks so much for being brave enough to share.
Exactly Tracey! I don’t think I could ever feel like an expert because responses like these are too close to the top of my inbox 🙂
I love that you share the full breadth of your experiences here, Lindy. You will recall the time the editor of the mag who asked me to call her upon receiving my filed piece. I was literally trembling when she answered. She asked me to rewrite the piece I had filed (ouch) and then she said "Michaela, you are a good writer and I will keep commissioning you. But here’s how you can be a great writer…" Whilst I felt the pang of disappointment, I also appreciated her words of advice and I have never forgotten it.
Oh Michaela, I remember when you had that conversation. It takes nerves of steel to call editors sometimes! But you’re totally right – when editors take time to give feedback it really does help us improve, even if it does sting (a lot). Thanks for your comment – lovely to see you back here 🙂
So did you nail the rewrite on the last one?
Love this article. It was timely for me as I just recently made an epic fail on a piece I was reworking for someone else. All the excuses in the world – but it’s sh*t I should have done right the first time and I felt sooo so stupid for the mistake. I felt like a failure and a hack. It was temporary of course, and resulted in a good learning experience….but the sting is not so pleasant, is it?
I reworked it and she was happy with it, yes!
Don’t be too hard on yourself Katy, I think that we all, for whatever reason, stuff up, make mistakes and don’t always produce our best work. I remember once apologising to an editor for submitting a terrible article (well, I felt it was terrible and she didn’t think it was much better because she asked me to rewrite it) and she said "It happens all the time – all part of the job."
It rocks your confidence though, doesn’t it?
Thanks for sharing your experience x
Thanks for that, Lindy. You gave me little prickly tears in my eyes! Yes, it’s all ‘dust yourself off and try again’ kinda stuff.
You learn resilience, but the main silver lining is that it helps you find ways to better yourself for next time. And to stay on the ball!
Have a good night xo
This was absolutely wonderful to read. As someone still fairly green to freelancing, you don’t often get these stories from writers you look up to, so it’s encouraging to see that to get to where you are today, you’ve made similar mistakes along the way that I do. I guess it just reconfirms the well-trodden path I’m on, and eventually, I’ll find my way too! Thank you!
Goodness yes Chloe, I’ve made SO many mistakes, and continue to! I always appreciated it when writers I followed and looked up to shared their ‘failings’ – it made me feel less alone and less like a solitary failure 🙂
You’ll definitely find your way.
Thanks for your comment.
Hi Lindy, I echo the sentiments here – I love that you show the full gamut of freelancing. Usually I get either a yes or just silence on pitches. There was this one time, however, when I was approached by an editor after a call out and my name was added to a list. The article subject matter – rocket science. No problem I thought! I did have some very interesting conversations with space engineering students but when I got the editor’s feedback my heart sank. She basically rewrote my main article and asked for more details to be added. I was also asked for the bio about the university to be rewritten, all of which meant I had to go back and ask interviewees for a second interview! So embarrassing. I filed and was paid accordingly but they didn’t contact me for more work until a year later and I declined.
I feel for you Karla, it’s never easy to absorb that kind of feedback, especially when you have to go back to interviewees after you’ve given them the sense that it’s all done and dusted.
I think it’s easy to think that we are the only ones that experience requests for rewrites (everyone else is filing word perfect copy, right?!) but it’s only natural that we’ll miss the mark sometimes. And also, sometimes it’s because the brief wasn’t that clear in the first place (or at least I cheer myself up thinking that!)
The fact that they came back to you says to me that they weren’t as hard on you as you were on yourself. Thanks for sharing – we’re all in this together!
Thanks for sharing those Lindy! Overall, everyone seemed reasonably polite – and I love the people who took the time to be kind and constructive. Most editors want a well-written story with a fresh take for their publication. One of the hard things with writing a story is that the person commissioning it doesn’t always know what they want until they read it. And if either side hasn’t been very clear in the brief, then you both might be at cross-purposes. Most of the time it’s no one’s fault and with a bit of work you get the story there. It just means extra hours for no more money which is a booo! It’s rarely a criticism of your writing, but more your angle or choice of material used.
Getting asked to re-write something does hurt and is annoying. As a writer you do have to learn to not take it personally. Not always easy! Also, keep a eye out for editors who tinker for the sake of it vs you writing a perfectly great story. They pick at things and can hurt your confidence for what ultimately is no good reason other than they have copy they have the ability to mess with.
That’s such a useful perspective Ara – I think you’ve nailed it – that sometimes the editor doesn’t know what they want until they’ve got something in front of them that doesn’t quite meet their expectations. Thankfully I haven’t had any tinkerer editors, but I’ve heard that there are a few around!
I can’t believe the timing of this. I submitted a piece last week and the editor got back to me last night saying the tone was great and there were “a lot of good things” but I needed to have another look and clarify some things etc. I thought I’d nailed it the first time and felt really bummed that I was going to have to rework it. I wouldn’t bother as the money I’ll get paid is peanuts, but if I can get this piece published on this particular platform it’ll be a huge boost to my confidence and portfolio.
When I reread the reply this morning I was able to accept that this is how I become a better writer, but geez I wish it wasn’t so bloody hard.
Thanks for reminding me it’s all part of the fun.
Hi Rose, Thanks for your comment – I really feel for you being asked to take another look at your piece. It’s never easy when you feel like you’ve got it right to have the editor say otherwise. I often think that once the initial sting subsides the re-working is never as bad/painful as we expect. And like you say, having this piece published will be great for you in the long run. Go well with it – you’re definitely not alone in having this experience. And just think how good it’s going to feel when you can add this article to your portfolio.