Why 212 Rejections in a Year Was the Best Thing to Happen to MeBy Courtney Kocak January 10th, 2019
A week before Christmas 2017, I got my first byline in the Los Angeles Times. It was the first brag-worthy print piece of my career. The day it came out, I bolted down to the corner store to cradle the physical evidence in my arms. I forced the stony-eyed cashier to celebrate with me. “I wrote this! Can you believe it, I wrote this?!” I shouted, pointing to my name in tiny newspaper print on the cover of the Style section. Even my family was impressed.
The thrill of seeing your words in print never gets old. But my reaction was outsized because it was such an anomaly. I had no idea how to replicate this major victory. Everything about my writing career to this point seemed random. I couldn’t crack the riddle of how to write professionally, though I was desperate to figure it out.
I devoured writing blogs and Medium articles for clues. I signed up for a pitching workshop. Then on the eve of 2018, I came across a Lit Hub essay entitled “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” In it, author Kim Liao recalled asking a more successful writer friend for help and being struck by the following advice: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances too.”
My mind was blown. As a lifelong perfectionist, it had never occurred to me that I should seek out failure as a means to level up. I felt both embarrassed and eternally grateful. This eureka moment—a trusty hand-me-down from Liao—inspired me to make rejection my New Year’s resolution.
I consulted the Google spreadsheet I’d created the previous fall to track my pitches. Through this new lens, I found quick evidence of my problem to date: I was failing at the numbers game. I was only published twice because I’d only sent out 20 pitches! If I wanted more bucket-list bylines, I was going to have to put myself out there—and get rejected—a whole lot more.
Using my 2017 batting average, Liao’s prescribed 100 rejections would yield me around 11 new bylines. Forever the ambitious masochist, my first instinct was to double it. The faster I failed, the faster I’d succeed, right?
So I set my sights on 200 unsuccessful pitches for 2018. I made a sacred vow not to overthink each submission. I’d put forth a solid effort, of course, but I wouldn’t agonize over subject line and sign-off. Most importantly, I wouldn’t be afraid to press send. For once, I wasn’t aiming for a perfect record. I wanted my pitch doc to be full of red-highlighted rejections.
And I did it! I got rejected—a lot. Now, basking in the afterglow of my profound failure, I’m proud to say that I surpassed my goal, amassing 212 rejections (about half of which were outright, the rest by default of no response), plus many more with the help of my screenwriting partner—and I’m not even counting the potential guests and sponsors we reached out to for our podcast.
What do I have to show for all this crushing rejection?
I was published 41 times in 2018, and I have a handful of other assignments on deck for the coming months, more than doubling my batting average from the previous year. But numbers are only half the story. I got a byline in The Washington Post, one of my goal publications. I took part in a week-long audio storytelling workshop that expanded my freelance repertoire. I’m on hold for my podcasting dream job. My writing partner and I were accepted into an artist’s residency in Helsinki, Finland.
With more bylines came more income—a whopping 1,495 percent increase the year before. Suddenly, growth has become an option. This year, I’m resolved to hit the $100,000 mark.
Striving for rejection has rewired my brain. The perfectionist in me used to think that a rejection meant a hard pass, probably forever, and a judgement on a grotesquely flawed and unworthy writer.
This exercise has made it clear that hearing no is okay. They’re fluid and almost never personal. A no from a cold contact may turn into a yes months later with a new idea and an established connection. Other times, what seems like a no at first turns into a yes on the second follow-up that you almost didn’t send.
I received at least 20 replies this year that were ostensible rejections, but were accompanied by positive feedback and an encouraging note to pitch again.
Rejections no longer define me, at least not negatively. They’re not about me—they’re about timing, fit, budget, the amount of food in an editor’s belly at the exact moment they opened my email, and thousands of other variables, most of which I can’t control. Paralyzing fear of failure, on the other hand—that is most definitely on me.
I’m certainly not the only writer who has recently reaped the benefits of resolving to fail. Writer Kiki Schirr made a similar resolution in May, and Emily Winter’s recent New York Times essay, “I Got Rejected 101 Times,” has been making the rounds since mid-December. Both rejection manifestos were met with enthusiastic responses in my online writer’s groups. One writer was so inspired that she created and shared a “100 Rejections” Google doc, guaranteeing a fresh crop of rejection essays a year from now.
Because this simple resolution has changed my freelance career in innumerable, invaluable ways, I want to do my part to pay it forward. Thus, I offer you this salve from the sting of rejection: The next time you agonize over a spreadsheet of lofty publications, ask yourself, what if the only thing standing between you and where you want to be next year are 100 denials? Does it still seem so insurmountable?