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Freelance Writing Workshop: On Rejection

Few things are more frustrating for freelancers than the accumulation of rejection letters in our inbox. We all understand, on a practical level, that not every pitch is going to land—and in fact, that overall only a very small percent of the total queries we send out will actually find a home at a publication. But nonetheless, it can be both disheartening and aggravating every time we receive another one of those standard “I’m sorry, but unfortunately we don’t see a place for this article in our upcoming editorial schedule” form letters.

Tyler Moss

This post is part of a series of freelance writing-related posts from Writer’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors to WD, his own freelance credits include Conde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Outside and New York magazines.
Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.

I should know. Not only have I received thousands of those generic emails, as an editor, I’ve been forced to send out just as many. On occasion, I’ll receive an impassioned or passive aggressive reply to a rejection letter—“This is the third time you’ve rejected me!” or “You must never accept anybody!” Such correspondence surprises me, as these writers have made a critical mistake: taking rejection personally.

It should go without saying, but let me be clear: a rejection is by no means a statement on the quality of your writing, or even necessarily on the viability of your story idea. As it happens, there are dozens of reasons why an editor might reject a pitch, reasons that would never even occur to writers. Here are five such reasons:

1. The Pitch Does Not Fit With Other Slated Content
Here at WD, as the editors of a writing magazine, we’re fortunate enough to be flush with strong pitches. Unfortunately, that blessing is also our burden, as we’re forced to sift through the plethora, dismissing many strong stories in search of the perfect collection of potential articles. In general, editors are forced to take a step back and take a look at the magazine as a cohesive whole. Every article in an issue needs to complement the rest of the articles in that issue. If there are open editorial pages waiting to be filled, we have to consider what needs must be met in order to create the most well-balanced magazine possible. Are there too many how-to pieces? Are there enough articles on craft? Or could we use a bit of humor?

When real estate is limited, editors have to assess which piece makes for a perfect fit. Your essay on the writing life could be well-written, full of tragedy and dramatic tension, but if I’m in need of some humor to add levity to a section, I may have to reject your piece. So it goes, the writer gets the short end of the stick, through no fault of their own.

2. The Editor’s Lineup Really Is Filled
The unfortunate truth about print publications is that, unlike online media, editors are forced to work within the parameters of a certain page count. And if those pages fill up, you have to start looking toward the next issue. But you can only work so far ahead—at a certain point, you have to cut off acquisition. Otherwise you’ll have three years worth of content, and no flexibility to include a timely piece (such as publishing a tribute to a recently deceased famous author), or to take on a new pitch that’s an especially ideal fit for the theme of a particular issue. So for a short time, an editor may hold off almost entirely on accepting new stories—similar to how a literary agent will go for spans during which they aren’t accepting new manuscript queries. Writers who receive rejections at that point may once again just be the victims of poor timing. “Why not just save the pitches for later?” you ask. Sometimes editors do, but that isn’t particularly fair to the writer, as it prevents you from being able to go pitch the piece elsewhere.

3. The Pitch Is Too Similar to Something Else
Sometimes an editor will reject a pitch because they feel it has too much overlap with a prior article. That could be in overall theme, tone, or even commonality between specific lines or similar examples used within the text—but the writer shouldn’t feel at fault. Of course, all editors advocate writers read a few issues of the magazine and conduct a rudimentary search of the magazine’s website before pitching. But you certainly can’t be expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the publication like an editor does, and know that the January 2015 issue had a half-page sidebar on this very topic. In some cases, it could even be that the editor has already commissioned an article on the topic that isn’t even written yet, simply because another writer pitched the idea before you did. Take that as a good sign: It means you had the right idea for the sort of article the magazine would publish, you just weren’t quite quick enough this time around.

4. The Editor Has Reader Insight That You Do Not
Alternatively, an editor may have some insight that the writer does not about how a certain topic plays with their audience. For instance, last year we reviewed some data that indicated the majority of our readers are not particularly interested in stories about how to write memoir. Thus we might end up rejecting a pretty solid pitch on how to protect the identities of real people in a memoir simply because we’ve been granted with that inside information. Note that doesn’t mean we would never acquire a piece on a topic that a smaller faction of our readers would be interested, it just means it’s a subject we’d publish stories about far less frequently than others.

5. The Editor Is Hesitant to Invest in an Untested Writer
As a magazine for writers, I’d like to believe we’re more forgiving in this arena—we regularly take a chance on writers we’ve never worked with in the past. But as far as many other magazines are concerned, in order to convince an editor that you can be entrusted with an assignment, you must provide evidence that you’re a worthwhile investment. This often means including a short bio at the end of the pitch that presents your credentials: “My name is Deborah and I teach creative writing at the University of Oregon,” or, “My name is Theo and my writing has appeared on, in Texas Monthly magazine and in The New York Times “Modern Love” column. Here are links to a few of my most recent pieces …”. Be your own best advocate. A unique story idea can be enough to draw an editor in, but proof that you can execute is the real ringer.

Note that these are only a select few of the somewhat unexpected reasons an editor might opt for rejection, but the primary point is clear: a rejection is not a personal attack, nor should you consider it a reflection of your work or a dictum dooming your future. Patience and persistence are key. Furthermore, if you receive a form rejection letter that does not indicate why your piece was rejected, I encourage you to send a polite email back to the editor asking why they decided to pass. While you may not always receive an answer, on occasion the editor will take the time to write back a truly insightful answer—one from which you can learn and carry forward into your next query.

In the words of Ray Bradbury, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.”

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