A lot of people think the worst thing that could happen to a freelancer is rejection. No, the worst thing that can happen is silence. We’ve all been there: mouse hovering, a sharp intake of breath as we finally hit send. We want to know the time we spent on a pitch was worth it, but all too often, editors don’t have the time to tell us it wasn’t.
Few of us push for a satisfying answer to a rejected or ignored pitch. Even fewer of us ask for the feedback that may help our pitch—or our piece—improve. According to Jordan Teicher, The Freelancer’s founding editor and currently the senior editor of The Content Strategist, that’s the wrong approach.
“My advice is to follow up with the editor to learn if there was a disconnect,” he said. “Most good editors will try to get back to you with useful information. If an editor rejects your pitch and you just move on, how are you supposed to improve?”
Unfortunately for most of us, good editors are still busy editors, making them difficult to connect with even if you’ve written for them before. That’s why we’ve done some of the work for you, interviewing editors at Travel + Leisure, The Atlantic‘s CityLab, and Kinfolk, as well as a few successful freelancers, to discover some of the recurring reasons behind pitch rejections. Here, according to them, is why your pitch failed, and what you might be able to do about it.
1. Your story has already been covered
Each of us may be a unique little snowflake, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true for our ideas. If you pitch a story that seems obvious, you should expect that someone has probably already pitched it.
“I recently got a great pitch about Paris bistros from a wonderful writer,” explained Nikki Ekstein, an associate editor at Travel + Leisure, “only to find someone else on staff was already developing a similar idea. That’s out of anyone’s control and, if anything, proves that your idea was spot on, if poorly timed.”
Instead of giving up on Paris as a subject, however, you can use the rejection as an opportunity to reframe the story, take a different angle, or write a follow-up piece. Most destinations change quickly, with multiple openings and closings per month or year, so there’s always something new to introduce or something old to update. Try magazines that are close to the one you’re pitching, which may target a similar audience with a tone that matches yours. As Ekstein said, this type of rejection implies you’re on the right track. You just have to figure out the next step.
Maybe it’s about about finding the story within the story—the angle the article didn’t cover. If there’s something you feel the author missed, you can be the one to jump on it.
If you disagree with the author’s take on an issue, prepare your own counter-argument and submit again. Don’t shy away from the piece that’s already out there. Reference the earlier article when you pitch again. This shows editors you’re familiar with the original piece, yet still have something unique to add to it.
2. Your article is no longer newsworthy
We all have opinions on the topics of the day, but sometimes it seems like commentary on the latest headline news is online within seconds. Some freelance writers have the ability to punch out 1,000 words that quickly. If you aren’t one of them, you may find that by the time you’ve pitched, followed up, and heard back from the editor, today’s news has become old news.
“Story ideas that don’t have obvious, immediate news value might need a longer explanation of their relevance,” explained Amanda Kolson Hurley, who is finishing up her tenure as a project editor for The Atlantic‘s CityLab series. Anticipate an editor’s request for newsworthiness by including it in your initial pitch. You only have a few sentences to grab a busy editor’s interest, so do anything you can to cut down on back-and-forth emails and inspire an editor to give you that immediate yes.
It’s also important to keep in mind that your definition of “newsworthy” might be the same as your editor’s. “Different editors and publications have different definitions of ‘fresh,'” Hurley said.
If your editor tells you your piece isn’t newsworthy, you can try to refashion your piece as an op-ed, or a personal essay with a more focused take on the issue. The next best thing may be to play the waiting game, shelving it until the next newsworthy piece of information drops and you can add a proper peg. You can also use the extra time to do more reporting, keeping your piece as fresh as possible for when the right moment comes. Who knows? You might even uncover an important bit of news that will make it timely once again.
3. Your topic is over-covered
As the editor of City Makers, a series on urban innovation for CityLab, Hurley was on the lookout for pieces about cities—but they couldn’t all be about the same one
“The intent of the series was to represent as many parts of the world as possible,” she said. “I would often get great pitches from the same region and have to say no because I didn’t want to overrepresent that part of the world at the expense of others.”
Georgia Frances King, editor of the design and lifestyle magazine Kinfolk, keeps her writers on topic by directing them to a theme guide produced for each quarterly issue of the magazine, and by only allowing a two-week pitching window for each issue. “As a result, all the pitches that cross my desk are on-topic and come in at a time when I’m actually assigning stories,” she explained.
But what to do when an editor simply can’t be that direct? It’s an old cliché, echoed on many an editorial submissions page, but reading several back issues of a magazine can give you the right impression of editors’ favored topics and style of coverage, as well as which topics they’ve run too often. What’s more, if you find that the last issue published a piece on your topic or similar, you can save yourself time and pitch elsewhere.
4. You didn’t fit the publication’s vision
As often as your pitch garners a rejection because it was over-covered, it can also be problematic simply because it doesn’t fit into the publication’s larger editorial plan. Confused yet?
“I always liken putting together an editorial plan to a game of Tetris,” said King. “It’s a lot of juggling of different pieces, and just because your piece might be my favorite doesn’t mean that it’s actually going to fit in the gap I need it to.”
Ekstein was more specific: “I was recently pitched a story about a part of Ethiopia that’s beginning to open up to tourism. This sounded interesting, but it would be unsatisfying as a short, front-of-book piece and [it’s] too esoteric to spread across any number of whole pages.”
Again, this is where reviewing a publication ahead of time can help. Of course, without a direct view into an editor’s head, or into the meeting room when pitches are being thrown around, it’s difficult to know what the specific needs of a publication, or even a single issue, may end up being.
As tech writer Nicole Spector recounts of pitching a publication she was already familiar with, “I had become a ‘favorite’ so I felt comfortable being somewhat direct [in asking why my pitch was rejected]. [Sometimes] the story was totally up their alley—or would have been, say, a week prior—but [sometimes] they were changing their vision.”
“Your pitch might be the wrong Tetris piece for what I needed that issue, but that doesn’t make it a bad Tetris piece,” King said.
5. You went too weird
While many of us think we need to stay as formal as possible with a potential contact, other freelancers try to catch editors’ attention with an unconventional pitch. Even if your story is bizarre and unusual, that doesn’t mean you have to get super weird.
“Don’t get too zany,” cautioned Hurley. “Yes, you want to pique the editor’s interest enough for her to keep reading, but sometimes writers go overboard on the color. When the prose gets purple, I start to wonder if the idea behind it is shaky.”
Simply put, there is a tone to strike in every emailed pitch, just as there is a tone to strike in every job interview. You’re trying to appear unconventional, likable, and easy to work with; your editor just wants to know if you’ll get the job done.
“Even if the idea sounds intriguing, I don’t want to have to drag it across the finish line,” said Teicher.
6. You went too costly
Like it or not, cost is definitely a factor when it comes to accepting stories.
“A writer may have an idea for a beautiful travelogue retracing their roots in Mongolia,” said Ekstein. “But even if it sounds like a compelling story, the cost of travel plus the cost of photography might make it impossible to squeeze in. Gone are the days of frivolous spending.”
Of course, those of us scraping by on the pennies most online publications pay these days will have little sympathy for an editor forced to reckon with a budget. But we can still take a good long look at our pitches and figure out how to trim costs. Will an editor see you as a price risk he can’t take? Will you have to take a pay cut to bring your story to life?
Some freelancers may laugh at the prospect of ever being too costly for an editor, but it’s still a factor worth considering before hitting send on your pitch. An editor may have been enchanted by your story idea, but sometimes “We have no budget” is actually true.
7. Your portfolio didn’t back up your claims
A lot of us might not want to believe it, but editors will do their research on you. Once they’ve decided they like your idea, they’ll start to get their own ideas about what your article could look like on the page. Then, they need to know you’ll deliver.
When it comes to evaluating a pitch, “I primarily care about two factors: Will it interest the audience [and] will our editors have to do too much work to get it publishable? For first-time contributors, we check writing portfolios for any red flags,” Teicher said.
Making sure an editor doesn’t find any red flags can be as easy as keeping a website or portfolio clean, accurate, and up to date. It can also mean making sure you’ve represented your background accurately, and highlighted the points of expertise that will make you the ideal person to write a story. If you don’t have the background they might be expecting, be upfront about it—in all likelihood the editor will appreciate your honesty, and it will help decrease the likelihood of headaches further down the line.
Another way to reassure a doubtful editor of your legitimacy as a writer is to send a lede, the first paragraph, or as much of a draft as you can muster, along with potential sources. (If you’re worried about showing your hand too early, simply describe the sources instead of naming them.) If your writing intrigues them and your reporting reassures them just enough, editors will no longer feel they’re taking a gamble on a finished product they haven’t seen. Your work will be there, proving itself.
8. You didn’t follow up
You’ve heard it before: Editors are too busy to remember to answer every email, even the ones with story ideas they like.
“There are all sorts of reasons editors might not immediately (or even promptly) respond to a pitch,” Hurley said. “[For example,] they’ve mentally filed it away to decide on later. Unfortunately—although I try to be as responsive as possible—pitches in this ‘maybe’ zone are, for me at least, the most likely to go unanswered.”
To take the fear out of following up, create a template email to send to each and every editor after a week, or two weeks, or more. Be polite, but unapologetic. Add “follow up” to the email subject line and forward your original email along with it, making it even easier for the editor to reference your original idea.
If the answer is still “No,” take Teicher’s advice and (politely) ask the editor to elaborate. You may not get the clarification you were hoping for, but you might get lucky: Some pointed advice could show you the holes in your idea, helping you whip it into shape for the next pitching attempt.
When New York Times bestselling author Susan Shapiro had a piece that never ran, she asked the editor why: “He said the piece was great but they no longer had room for it… I should try elsewhere because it had been ‘officially killed.'” One timely hook later, it was picked up by The New York Times Magazine.
“Don’t take it personally,” Teicher said, “but think about it subjectively. If you really love your idea and want to pitch it around elsewhere, then you can take the feedback and tweak your new pitches.”
As King put it, “Love your pitches, and let them go free.”