The rejection letter has always been a tumultuous topic for writers, even for some of the most well-respected authors of all time. The New Yorker turned down Sylvia Plath; The Atlantic denied Kurt Vonnegut three times. To this day, grainy copies of type-written notes still circulate the Internet every so often with a hint of “I’ll show them” schadenfreude.
But the digital iteration—the rejection email—might as well be a fantasy in the age of overstretched editors and anemic publishing budgets. For freelancers, especially those first starting out, a lack of response to a carefully crafted pitch can range from disheartening to confusing. Meanwhile, what’s happening on the other end of the inbox remains a mystery.
Ann Friedman, a freelancer and columnist at New York magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review, said that in the modern freelance economy, the notion of an editor explaining the thought process behind each and every rejection is simply not feasible.
“It’s not an editor’s job to say, ‘This was a great pitch, you seem like a great writer, but for all of these reasons, I have to say no in this moment,'” Friedman said. “That is a dreamy journalism grad school world where everyone gets their hand held. In reality, though, all those things could be true and an editor just wouldn’t communicate them.”
It’s no secret that the realities of online publishing and a 24-hour news cycle leave editors with less time than ever before. However, even though publications increasingly look to commission stories to outsiders to compensate for shrunken mastheads, the economic reality of trying to shop stories in a timely manner to non-responsive editors can be crippling. Following industry practice of waiting to hear back from an editor before you pitch elsewhere can be a complete waste of time if, unbeknownst to you, the editor in question has adopted the “If I didn’t respond to your pitch email, I’m not interested” approach.
General reminder that if I don't respond to your pitch, it's because I am not interested. Please don't send and send and send.
— veronikelly mars (@veronikellymars) November 11, 2015
While many editors try to do their best to address emails from freelancers, one thing is for sure: If you haven’t gotten the basics and etiquette of pitching down pat, don’t expect a reply.
Matt Skenzay, associate editor of Outside magazine, said that if he doesn’t respond, it’s because the writer hasn’t done enough work to warrant feedback. “If I don’t respond, it is almost always because a writer very clearly doesn’t know Outside or the types of stories we run in the various sections of the magazine,” Skenazy said. “If they haven’t done the research, I generally won’t take the time to explain our coverage area to them.”
For freelancers who already have experience working with editors, a lack of response on an idea can mean any number of other things. Nona Willis-Aronowitz, an editor at Fusion, explained that her response time often correlates with her interest in a story, but an initial delay doesn’t mean she’s definitely going to decline a pitch.
“When I get a really exciting pitch—if it’s bull’s-eye, it’s perfect, [and] I need this piece right now—I’m going to respond right away,” she said. “But often, it’s more like: I like [this idea], I think it might need a little something, and then [the writer] follows up and I’m like, ‘Oh right, this was interesting, but I had to give it a bit more thought.'”
In deadline-driven worlds where weekly demands fluctuate, the follow-up email can often be the deciding factor. And though many freelancers may worry about badgering an editor—this is particularly true, according to insiders, when it comes to females and pitching—a polite one-line follow-up a week after your pitch shouldn’t damage a future working relationship, according to Willis-Aronowitz. Though she also added, “If it is a completely cold pitch, I don’t think you should follow up more than once.”
Hannah Gould, who edits the sustainable business section at the Guardian, echoed this sentiment: “When you’re juggling commissions and edits and meetings for often quite different topics, it might be that you get a fashion pitch, but your head that day is in food. So I find follow-ups useful reminders.”
Friedman, who used to be an editor, relies on her unique perspective to inform her pitching process. “I’m grateful to know from being an editor that a lot of pitches I said no to were due to circumstances outside the writer’s control,” she said. “The writer didn’t know that we had a similar article planned, that we already had four profiles for that issue and they were pitching a profile, or that we have a staff writer who already covers this topic… I tend to take a rejection as ‘This was not the right fit’ as opposed to ‘This was a bad idea,’ which really also helps you re-pitch.”
When it comes to the freelancer’s quest to speed up their pitching pipeline, both Friedman and Willis-Aronowitz still hold to one steadfast rule: Don’t double pitch. It can damage relationships if you haven’t been transparent about what you’re doing.
“It’s absolutely reasonable to say that you’re waiting for a response from a particular editor before you pitch this elsewhere,” Willis-Aronowitz said. “But the the only time it’s acceptable to double pitch is if it’s super time-sensitive, and you should put full disclosure that you’re doing that.”
A better understanding of the demands that editors work under will ultimately make you a better freelancer, and the faster you stop taking rejections personally, the better off you’ll be.
“Think of the busiest person you know—that’s your editor,” Friedman said. “Once you know who you’re dealing with, it becomes easier to follow up [and] not feel bad about not having an answer.”