Very early in my career, I got a big break. Or so I thought. A dream publication had assigned me a major feature. Suddenly, sources were returning my phone calls at unprecedented speeds. Sources I didn’t even contact were calling me.
Then, all my writerly fantasies came to a halt.
“It’s not something any writer likes to hear,” the editor emailed me, “but the story is being killed.” No explanation was given.
Freelance long enough and it’ll happen to you. You’ll submit a story, go through the editing process, and just when you’re getting ready to add that clip to your portfolio, the disappointing email comes. The media industry labels it as a “killed” story, probably because it feels like your career just died.
There are financial implications too. If you’re lucky, the publication will pay you a full kill fee. However, many kill fees hover between 25 and 50 percent. Some offer nothing at all.
I’m not the only one with scars from killed stories. Many writers have had a story killed at some point; here are a few who have lived to tell the tale.
It’s not you, it’s them
Until recently, freelancer Jen Karetnick had avoided the guillotine. “But within the past year,” she said, “a cover story I wrote for a restaurant trade magazine was killed when the editor-in-chief discovered that the photography that had been promised to her for exclusive use had been given to a competing magazine.”
The publication had been scooped, and in an unethical way to boot. The editor was livid and pulled the cover story. But she still paid Karetnick the full fee. The piece ultimately ended up running six months later as an internal profile, but “it certainly didn’t get the same amount of attention,” according to Karetnick.
“I didn’t really know what a kill fee was until this happened,” recalled another writer, who wished to remain anonymous.
After getting a pitch accepted about a paper-mill closure in her hometown, the writer spent nearly a month working on her story and submitted it to the editor.
“Within a few days, I got an email back saying she couldn’t use it. No negotiation, no reason why, nothing. It was just that she couldn’t use it,” the writer said.
Later, a colleague of hers suggested that the paper couldn’t run the story because it was getting newsprint from the company that owned the mill and didn’t want to risk the consequences of running a negative story about the supplier.
“I’m not sure if this was the reason,” the writer said, “but it seemed plausible.”
A self-inflicted kill
It’s not always the commissioning client that kills a piece. As a professional writer, sometimes you have to fall on the sword. That’s what freelancer Beth Skwarecki did after a story that sounded fascinating at first glance turned out to have a weak scientific basis.
Skwarecki tried to get feedback from two outside researchers, neither of whom was willing to go on record. The scientific paper she was basing her piece on “sucked,” they said.
“I knew what I had to do,” Skwarecki recalled. “I went to the editor and said, ‘I think we have to kill this,’ and I told him what I’d learned.” He agreed and gave her a kill fee. “I wasn’t embarrassed. I actually felt proud of my professionalism.”
And her good relationship with the editor remained intact. As writers, you’re judged on the quality of your work. If you think the story isn’t as good as you previously thought or is based on bunk facts, it can ultimately be beneficial to request a kill fee and move on rather than forcing the byline.
Taking advantage of a killed story
Freelancer and sometimes writing teacher Susan Shapiro had written a profile for Penthouse on one potty-mouthed editor by the name of Judith Regan. Regan was enjoying a moment in the spotlight after having worked with Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh on their books at Simon & Schuster. When Shapiro asked Regan how she knows when a manuscript is a future best-seller, Regan responded: “I read it and it makes my nipples hard, and that’s when I buy it.”
It was a dream interview. “She just had such a mouth and she was so hilarious,” Shapiro said, “So I write this piece, and I think it’s the best piece I’ve ever written.”
At 2,500 words, and with a $5,000 fee, it was the most important work of Shapiro’s career so far. Only it wasn’t running. Tired of waiting, she reached out to the editor to see if there are any problems with it.
The editor eventually replied: “I thought it was great, but we’re overbooked.”
He killed the piece and eventually told Shapiro she could try and sell it to another publication. But the extra time ended up working in her favor. Regan let her in on a scoop that she was leaving Simon & Schuster and being lured by Rupert Murdoch with promises of her own imprint at Harper Collins and a TV show.
With this news in tow, Shapiro eventually got a story placed in The New York Times Magazine. The editor in charge accepted the piece by saying it “made his nipples hard.” Factoring in the pay from Penthouse, the Times Magazine, and syndication, that one story went on to make Shapiro $10,000.
Shapiro’s story is a reminder that just because an editor kills an article doesn’t mean the story is dead. Writers should use the extra time to find more information, new angles, and improve based on the feedback they’ve already received.
As Shapiro put it: “One thing I always tell my students and other writers is that if you have a piece killed, if you can spin it, if there’s any new information you can find that nobody else has, that’s a perfect way to resell a piece.”