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The 4 things freelance writers need to know about rejection

By October 17, 2017 June 29th, 2019 14 Comments

Last week one of the readers of this blog emailed me a question and asked, “I’m wondering how you handle those weeks of silence and/or rejected pitches from editors?” It’s such a great question and one that I’ve been asked regularly since becoming a full time freelance writer (and pondered regularly too!)

The 4 things freelance writers need to know about getting rejections from editors

Getting rejected or not hearing back from editors is one of the inevitable truths of freelance writing.

But there are four things I’ve learnt over the past six years about getting rejections or having query letters and pitches met by silence. 

1. You can’t control how an editor responds to your pitches or query letters

Yes, you can write a brilliant, well-researched pitch but once you’ve done your job (e.g. writing and sending the query letter to an editor) you don’t have control over the process anymore.

You can’t control if and when an editor replies to you. You can’t control whether they open your email, read your pitch or respond to you.

I know loads of freelance writers who use email trackers  but I’m not a fan of knowing when an editor has opened my email. For me that’d be crazy-making.

I see threads full of writers worrying that an editor has opened their email five times but hasn’t yet responded and full of corresponding comments from well-meaning fellow freelancers trying to allay the pitcher’s fears.

It’s lost energy and I think it’s a waste of time and energy. The editor will get back to you (or not) when they’re ready. I know it sounds blunt, but there’s really very little you can do to impact the situation. 

Focus on the part that you can control – send out tailored, wonderful pitches guaranteed to knock an editor’s socks off (once they open the email, that is.)

2. Pitching is a numbers game

I reckon there’s a fairly simple formula to being a successful freelance writer.

Send out lots of pitches. Regularly.

A few years ago, the NSW Writers’ Centre published a wonderful book called “Talking Writing” where 50 contemporary writers shared their advice and inspiration about everything to do with writing.

I still regularly think about one passage from writer and presenter John Safran. He wrote:

“I’ve noticed you kids come up with a short film idea in uni and then when I bump into you a year after that, you still haven’t completed it. Then I bump into you a year after that, you’ve got the short film script done, but now you want to develop it into a pilot.

For God’s sake, churn out ideas. Lots of them. Stop being in love with that one idea you have. It’s not even such a great idea.

“I worked at an ad agency as a copywriter before I got into TV. The creative director would make us draw up 30 squares on a page. Every square would have to be filled with an idea before he’d let us pitch to him.”

30 squares on a page. Each with an idea. This revolutionised the way I thought about pitching.

Stop being so precious, I told myself. A pitch is one idea. There are plenty more where that came from. So I changed my mindset from waiting for editors to get back to me to sending query letters, getting my zen on and letting the idea go. 

3. Don’t wait to hear back about your pitches

This point isn’t about sending off the same pitch to different editors at the same time (although I do think that’s okay in the right circumstances) – but I can’t tell you the number of freelance writers who tell me they are waiting to hear back from an editor.

In their defence, perhaps they just mean that they have pitches out there that they haven’t heard back on, but my philosophy is send the pitch and forget it. Until, that is, you have to follow up.

I have an excel spreadsheet that I use for each month’s target income and I don’t stop pitching until I hit my target. That way, I’m never waiting to hear back from pitches.  

4. It hurts to get rejections or be met with silence

I have a very thin skin and believe me, I know how bruising it can be to get a “no thanks” (or not even get a “no thanks”) from editors. But this is part and parcel of being a freelance writer. 

A few years ago I interviewed the wonderful poet David Whyte for DumboFeather magazine. He spoke to me about how traditional craftspeople work – they spend a third of their time preparing, a third of their time working and a third of their time cleaning up.

So the actual doing part is just one portion of our lives, and it’s the harvest part. But it takes a lot to lay the groundwork properly and do good work.

David spoke about the importance of humiliation – that we can’t avoid humiliation or being rejected.

“Humiliation has that beautiful root of humilis, meaning ground or soil,” he told me. “So both the ground that you come to and the soil from which the new harvest is grown. Every path you try to take in life, whether it’s the path of relationship; intimate relationship or the relationship of a mother or father to a child, or in marriage, or the relationship to your work and vocation, or the relationship to yourself, you will have your heart broken on each of those paths. There’s no path that any human being can take without having their heart broken.

“We spend enormous amounts of willpower trying to find a contour to follow where we won’t have that imaginative organ broken apart.

“So the only question seems to be, will you have your heart broken with something you care about?”

So yes, we may get our ideas and pitches rejected, but if you are wholeheartedly pursuing this life of freelance writing then I tend to think rejection and silence is all part of it. And in fact, it’s probably where the growth is. 

How do you manage rejection or silence from editors? Have you adapted to it as you’ve moved through your freelance career?

14 Comments

  • Michaela Fox says:

    Oh gosh, the dreaded silence…that’s almost worse than the "no thanks" response! Love how David described the importance of humiliation. Like you I am thin skinned, but I am slowly getting better at dealing with rejection and not taking it (too) personally.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Silence is worse isn’t it because you don’t know where you stand. Yes, I really loved David’s words, especially when he talks about there’s no path you can take without having your heart broken. And yes, it takes time to get used to rejection – the more you pitch the thicker your skin becomes I reckon!

  • Kristin says:

    Another great post, thanks Lindy! I personally like the email tracker because if I see an editor opens something and doesn’t respond, I just move on. I have a question about story ideas: What are your favorite ways of getting story ideas? Do you sign up to get press releases from various organizations, or spend part of your time looking at the news and thinking of angles? Thanks!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks Kristin 🙂 I can see why that might be good (in terms of the email tracker) – but I just had an editor get back to me with a yes after 5 months! I assume she’d opened my email before and then come back to me, so I wonder if that approach always works?!
      Good question re getting story ideas – when I was pitching lots I would go through all my subscription lists (so from academic journals, round-ups of news sites etc) as well as Twitter (I get lots of great ideas from Twitter) and also news sites.

  • Claire says:

    Thin skin here too, but I also get very excited if there’s a yes or a bit of praise. Maybe the two emotions go hand-in-hand. I love the idea of 30 squares. A quote I have written somewhere is ‘Throw giant numbers at your goal’. A bit American-sounding, but the idea is good. I need to work harder on the giant numbers though!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Ah, there’s nothing better than a YES in your inbox! I like that: "giant numbers" – I think that’s what it takes. In the beginning at least.

  • Karla says:

    I love this quote by David Whyte. It really does capture the essence of what it means to be human, and whether we can accept our human-ness and push boundaries nevertheless. Thanks, Lindy. I really get so much out of your blog.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thank you so much Karla, I really appreciate you making the time to comment. And yes, David Whyte – that man is so full of wisdom!

  • Halona Black says:

    I write marketing materials, so I’m not really waiting around for editors. However I do wait for marketing directors to get back to me on my pitch. I have an email tracker and I actually appreciate having it because it lets me know that they received it — and I leave it at that. I learned early on that I can’t own whether or not they like my pitch, or even if they write me back with a gentle rejection. What I do is use the email tracker as a sign that a week after opening the email, I may write the person back to check in on my pitch. After that, I let it go.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      I think that’s a really wise way to use email trackers Halona – I like the idea of using them as a prompt to check back in or follow up with someone.

  • Zohra says:

    I got a ‘thanks’ for my last pitch Lindy. Not a ‘no thanks’ or a ‘yes thanks’. So while it’s not rejection yet, it could be!I was going to follow up next week to see what goes with the thanks!
    While I’m not freelancing full-time, I can see how easy it would be to get bogged down by rejection. Great tips as always Lindy!

  • Deborah says:

    This is a great article, thank you!

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