Part of being a freelancer is facing rejection, sometimes repeatedly. It can be really tough when your work is not wanted, whether that is a pitch for a magazine feature, an approach to a literary agent that goes wrong, or a business that just isn’t keen on your suggestion of content. It is important to not take this personally, but that is easier said than done. In this solo podcast episode, I talk about numerous different ways to cope with rejection, so you can brush yourself off and keep going.
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Hello and welcome to episode 55 of A Little Bird Told Me – the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful self-employment. I’m Philippa Willitts and I’m doing a solo episode today. Make sure you head over to our website at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com because there you’ll find all the links you need to subscribe and make sure you never miss another episode. You’ll also find a link to our Facebook page, where you can come and say hello, as well as all the links to my websites and social media feeds. There will also be any links and websites that I mention during the course of the podcast.
So today, I’m going to talk about something that affects all writers at some point in their career – whether they’re commercial writers, media writers, fiction writers or novelists – and that is the dreaded rejection. It does happen to everyone. In fact, when you look at skills needed to be a freelance writer, one of them is always to be able to cope with rejection. Because it’s just part of the job. Not everything you suggest to an editor, not every agent you approach, not every business you get in touch with will want to buy what you have to offer, whether that’s your novel manuscript or a great deal on press releases. It’s going to happen, so what you have to be able to do – brutal as it may sound – is deal with it when it does. If you think about it, you’re never going to be able to appeal to everyone. We’ve all got our preferred styles of writing – some people like very descriptive passages in novels, whereas others will skip those right over to get to the action. Some people love long, in-depth blog posts coming in at 3,000 words; others like quick sound-bites that you can quote and get on with your day.
So just like you don’t like every kind of writing, not everyone will like your kind of writing. It’s life and it’s part of the job. However, that’s not to say that it isn’t unpleasant to have your work rejected, particularly if it’s something you had particularly high hopes for. You really researched and found who you thought was the perfect agent for your manuscript or you planned a proposition document for a business for days and weeks, and you really thought you had it spot on. It can be quite painful when they say no, so what I’m going to do is look at various ways of coping with rejection, and also with the possibility of rejection. There are some people who are so scared of rejection that they never submit anything. And sure, you won’t get rejected but you also won’t ever get hired or published.
So the first important factor in coping with rejections is to anticipate them. If you send everything off thinking, “This is going to change my life!” you’re going to be really disappointed when it doesn’t come through. However, if you send things off knowing there’s a chance you’ll be rejected, it might not hit you so hard. It’s inevitable and you just have to keep going. Some writers even advise that you assume that your writing will be rejected as your default reaction, and then you can only be happy when it doesn’t happen.
And so I think that’s one of the most important factors. Even if you’re not pessimistic enough to assume that everything you sent out won’t work, it’s important to be realistic and remember that a lot of it won’t. And so a key to managing that – the next stage, really – is to make sure you have plenty of submissions on the go at any one time. And I’ve heard many numbers – I think the number is arbitrary, really; it’s the principle, really. But, say, for magazine feature submissions, I’ve heard that between eight and twelve. You should always have eight to twelve pitches out and on the go at any one time. So, you should always be waiting to hear from eight. When you hear back from one of them, you send another one off. And you hear back from the next one, you send the next one off. If you keep submitting and approaching editors and businesses, the focus lessens on that one piece of work.
If you send one thing and then wait for a response, which can sometimes take weeks and months, then everything is riding on that one submission and if it goes wrong, it’s very hard to deal with. If, on the other hand, you have eight submissions on the go and you hear back from one and it’s not gone well, first of all, if there’s not as much riding on it because there are another seven out there , but also as soon as you get the rejection, your next job is to get another pitch out there. That helps to take the focus off the individual pitch which just wasn’t right or wasn’t a good fit for whoever you’d submitted it to, and instead just makes it part of your job.
Something I found myself doing for a while – which was really stressful and counter-productive – was, as soon as I’d sent off a pitch, I’d sit there hitting refresh for 20 minutes. And it was stressful, time-wasting and pointless – even if someone loves your idea, they’re unlikely to get back to you in a few minutes to commission it. They might have to think about or check that they have space for it. Or, they might need to discuss it with someone else. Or, they might just not be at their desk. And so, I’d find myself sending something off and, even thought I knew I wasn’t going to hear anything in the next few minutes, I couldn’t help obsessing over my inbox.
So, I put a plan into place where, the moment I hit send – whether it’s a pitch to a magazine or an approach to a commercial company – I have to leave my desk and go and do something else. For me, that’s usually something like doing the washing up or going and getting some lunch. Whatever it is, I have to physically go and do something else and it really helps to take the focus off that one individual submission.
Now the next tip for coping with rejection is something I mentioned in the introduction but is worthy of more, frankly, and that is: to not take it personally. There are many reasons your work might be rejected. If you send a feature idea to a magazine and they don’t want it, there can be many reasons. Maybe they’ve already commissioned someone to write about something similar; maybe what you’re suggesting clashes a bit with one of their key advertisers. And that’s a real concern because most magazines are predominantly funded by their advertising revenue not purchases.
And so if…this is an extreme example but it’ll give you the idea…you submit an idea to a magazine about why cosmetic surgery is absolutely evil but they’ve just taken on a £10,000 advertising contract with a cosmetic surgery brand. Chances are the magazine will prioritise the advertiser over your piece! Equally, it may be that they love your idea but they’ve already got something similar planned for next month. It could be any number of things. These people don’t hate you; they’re not there to disappoint you – they’re there to produce a really good publication.
Sometimes it’s just not about you at all. If you approach a business offering to do regular blog posts for them but they’ve just hired an in-house copywriter, they don’t need you. It’s not that you’re not good enough; it’s not that your approach was rubbish. You just got them at the wrong time; they might be cutting back on their budget – there could be any number of things, so don’t take every rejection as a sign that you’re rubbish. “I’ll never make it as a writer because I approach The Guardian and they didn’t want my article… I approached a big company in my niche area and they didn’t even reply.” Often, it’s just not about you.
Now one thing you’ll find often happens with rejections is that you don’t actually get one – you just get silence; no response; nothing at all. And that can actually be more disheartening than an actual rejection, because then you at least know where you stand.
Especially if you’re going to incorporate the idea of having a certain number of pitches circulating, it’s important to set some kind of parameters, just for yourself really. If you haven’t heard back from an agent, magazine or company within, say, four weeks, then you class that as a no. You never know – I’ve had this quite a few times, actually, especially with magazines – I might hear nothing but then suddenly, after two months, I’ll get a message saying, “We didn’t need it at the time, but if you could write it for us now, that’d be great.” And then that’s a bonus but, in order to keep a sense of control over the number of pitches circulating, it’s worth putting some kind of time limit in.
Now if you do get an email back saying, “Sorry, this isn’t what we’re looking for”, it’s important to learn from what they tell you. For instance, if they say, “Thanks for getting in touch but your suggestion doesn’t really suit our publication”, then there’s a message in there that you may not have studied the magazine carefully enough before pitching. And I think there’s little that annoys editors more than people sending out pitches without reading the publication before. They want to think that you’ve thought it through and pitched to their readers, so take it as a sign that you might not be researching well enough.
Or, if they say, “Thanks for sending this to us – I’m afraid the first chapter isn’t compelling enough to make me read on.” Sure, feel upset at first but then turn it into something useful. Obviously, editors, agents, marketing departments don’t always get it right – but often this is very valuable feedback, so nurse your ego for a few hours then say, “OK, is my chapter compelling enough?” Ask how you can bring more interest, action, suspense into it. When you get feedback, value it. Try to consider it objectively and if you can learn anything from it, do so. If you don’t, you’ll keep making the same mistakes.
If the same editor who’s already told you once that your article doesn’t fit what they do has to tell you again next time that your writing doesn’t fit what they do, it won’t go well. So don’t be arrogant – don’t assume you know best and say, “My first chapter is already perfect, I’m not making any changes; I’m just waiting for an agent to spot my genius” then you might not get very far. You may be right, but be a bit humble.
If you’re starting to feel a bit down because you’ve had a few rejections, and you’re thinking that you’re no good at this and you’re never going to make it, then a good tip can be to do something that will give you a sense of achievement. Often in this case, a small “quick win” is the best choice. If you can spend two hours doing five tasks that have needed doing for a while, you can gain a real sense of achievement and rebuild your confidence.
Another tactic is just to keep going. As I said earlier, it’s important to keep submitting. The more submissions you have circulating, the less personally you’ll take an individual rejection and the less focused you’ll be on a particular pitch as well.
So in a similar way, make sure you’re strategic as you work. If you’ve really thought through which agent would suit you best, and you’ve sent your novel out and you don’t want to send it to five others in the mean-time, that doesn’t mean you have to sit and wait. It’s a cue for you to start working on something else. Maybe start redrafting the later chapters or do some work on your website. Get yourself on social media and get networking – don’t ever just sit and wait for a response to one submission – chances are you’ll have a long wait; you may well be disappointed and you’ll be annoyed at the time you could’ve spent working on your next pitch.
And if you’re in a position, like a lot of listeners, where this is how you pay your bills, you have to be careful not to constantly pursue things that are difficult. If you need some quick wins and you know you have a brilliant approach to businesses that almost always works, then send some of those off as well, even if it’s not your dream work. You have to keep moving forward rather than stagnating, otherwise every rejection will affect you really badly. You’ll get downhearted, wonder what the point is, over-analysing everything. It does you no good – both in terms of work and emotions. It’s a dangerous state of mind. It can stop you writing, stop you working and make you scared of trying anything new if your last thing went down badly. If you want this to be your job, you can’t stop – you have to keep going.
The final key piece of advice for dealing with rejection is that much as all I’ve said about keeping positive and rejection not being person – all of that is true and important – but what you can’t do is get complacent and stop questioning your own work. If everything you send off is rejected or if you’re getting the same feedback every time, you might be doing something wrong. It might be that your emails aren’t snappy enough or don’t grab attention; it may be that you’re sending off a first chapter that really isn’t good enough. It may be that you’re not sending enough work to give them an idea of what you can do.
Much as many rejections aren’t about you, it doesn’t do to live in a bubble and believe that everything you do is perfect when all the evidence points to the contrary. It’s hard work, as a career, and if the work you send off is sloppy, or doesn’t present you well, or you’re just not working hard enough on it, that could be why you’re getting rejected. So, if you’re finding that almost everything you send off is getting rejected, find someone you trust and get them to look over what you’re sending – your approach email, any documents you’re sending off with it, your previous examples of work. Find someone who knows the industry and get them to have a look. Listen to their feedback. Have a look at what other people send to agents, what others write in magazine pitches – there are blog posts all over the net with examples of successful pitch emails and you can learn a lot.
You think perhaps that your genius will shine through and, if there are a few typos in your email, but you’re the undiscovered genius of the 21st Century – and maybe you are – but some of these people get constant submissions; you have to stand out so learn from other people, ask for honest feedback and pay attention. Apply what you learn and keep improving.
I found an interesting article on this topic by a woman called Michelle Seaton, at a site called The Review Review. And I’ll link to it in the show notes, of course. And she was writing about submission phobia and, in this post, she wrote:
In 12 years of teaching at Grub Street, I’ve learned three truths about students:
They don’t submit enough, especially the most talented ones.
Many of my most talented students never submit anything.
The students who publish most often submit constantly, as though it’s their job or their final year on Earth. And guess what? It works.
And that’s the key thing to take away – if you stop submitting work, you’ll never get published. Keep going, stay positive, don’t take it personally but if there do seem to be issues, be sensible and pay attention. And KEEP GOING! It’s the only way it’ll work – you’ll have good weeks, bad weeks; good months and bad months, but if you don’t ask people for work, you’re very unlikely to get it!
It’s now time for my Little Bird Recommendation of the Week. In case you’re feeling a bit down because you’ve just had a rejection, then this week’s recommendation is perfect for you. It’s an article called, “Why Freelancers Are Saving the Internet”. As you read it, you find out that we’re not just saving the internet – we’re actually saving the planet!
And it’s a very positive article. When you read it, it refers to freelancers as the backbone of the internet. It says, “Small and medium-sized business are the ones creating the majority of everything on the Internet. Basically, freelancing is the backbone of those businesses.”
They discuss what would happen if freelancers stopped working: there’d be no Huffington Post, no phone apps, and no great blog posts. And it’s just a lovely article, especially if you’re feeling like it’s all pointless or you’re just having one of those days, it might just make you smile. So head over to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com for the link to Why Freelancers Are Saving the Internet.
I hope that’s been helpful and that you go over to our website and subscribe – you don’t want to miss next week’s episode. Like us on Facebook, say hi on social media. In the meantime, I’ll see you next week.