A writer e-mailed me the other day to ask what I do when I get rejection after rejection on a story.
Do I give up? Do I keep going? To what end? When do I know a story is a dud as opposed to something I need to keep plugging away at? Do I have a set number of rejections after which I’ll quit pitching an idea?
The short answer to all those questions is that I keep pitching (and pitching and pitching – seriously, check out 30 Days, 30 Queries) a story until I believe in it. But as will happen– frequently, in fact– after you’ve received about six rejections on an idea, it starts to lose the sheen. When a story starts losing sheen– whether that’s after six rejections or sixty– I put it away for a while. There are stories to which I’ve never gone back. And some that have sold after I’ve gone back to them and rewritten the pitch or simply tried again.
In fact, just last week I sold a story that I had put away in 2011 because it had come back rejected from about three major women’s magazines. They all liked it, but they all pretty much said that there just wasn’t enough to go on. A few months ago, a newspaper ran a 200-word story on that person I was hoping to profile, giving me some very key details. With those details, I’ve now been able to sell that story. (I could have gone out and found those details myself, but I got pregnant and my will to run around town trying to verify facts about a hard-to-get-hold-of subject went straight to hell.)
So, what should you do when a story comes back rejected and your ideas simply don’t sell? Here’s my advice.
1. Send it out again
When I first write my query letter, I don’t take shortcuts and I do the very best I can. That usually means that I have a pretty solid pitch that I’m sending out and that I have full confidence in. So when it comes back rejected once or twice, or even four or five times, I pretty much copy-paste it into a new e-mail and send it off to another editor.
(If you want to know how truly persistent I am, you need to hear the story of how I broke into TIME magazine. Read that case study and more by signing up for this free case studies e-mail series in which I share stories of breaking into TIME and The New York Times, among others.)
2. Heed the feedback
Sometimes, I’ll get feedback from editors about why they don’t want a pitch. I always listen to this. It could be something out of my control such as that they’ve just commissioned something similar. Or it could be that there’s a flaw in my idea like in the example above. I seriously listen to this line of reasoning and if I think I can fix it, I usually will before sending the pitch out to another editor. This isn’t an exact science– what works for one publication obviously doesn’t work for another– but I’ll make a judgment based on the kinds of publications and editors I’m pitching and go from there.
3. Let it sit
If after ten or fifteen rejections, the pitch starts losing sheen for me, I put it away. Sometimes I’ll have run out of markets to send it to. Sometimes I just lose the inspiration that got me connected to the idea in the first place. In some ways, I’ve pretty much given up on the idea. But the truth is, I almost always revisit ideas, especially when I come across a new market. In the end, the stronger the idea, the more chance there is that I’ll revisit later. Also, sometimes ideas are very timely. I have sat on good ideas for too long until they’ve just become too outdated. It happens. I’m never too attached to a single idea (for articles, books are different), so I don’t worry about it too much.
4. If you revisit, make sure you revise
If I revisit an idea after a few weeks or months, I always do a quick Google search to make sure there’s nothing new on the topic that I’ve missed. If there’s an update, I’ll revise my pitch. Sometimes I end up rewriting the whole pitch anyway, even if there’s no new update, just so that I can try again with a different way of selling, just in case my pitch itself was ineffective the last time around.
That, in a nutshell, is how my ideas get treated. How many times do you send out your pitches before you let the ideas lapse?
Of course, if you’d like to see how I’ve handled rejections in my career and how I’ve (sometimes) used them to my advantage, check out these free case studies that lay out, in detail, how I broke into top publications and turned my failures into successes.