What should you do when a story comes back rejected and your ideas don’t sell? An award-winning journalist for TIME and NYT has some answers.
A writer emailed me the other day to ask what I do when my ideas don’t sell, when I get rejection after rejection.
Do I give up? How do I keep believing? When do I know a story is a dud? What tells me to keep plugging away at some pitches but not others? 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) a story until I believe in it. But as will happen– frequently, in fact– after you’ve received about six rejections, an idea can lose its sheen. If an idea doesn’t sell– 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 was able to sell the 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 your ideas don’t sell? Here’s my advice.
1. Send it out again
When I first write my query letter, I don’t take shortcuts. I do the very best I can. That usually means I have a solid pitch 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 email and send it off to another editor. More than anything else, pitching is a numbers game. Ideas don’t often sell the very first time. Don’t overcomplicate matters. Just send them out again.
(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 series in which I share stories of breaking into TIME and The New York Times, among others.)
2. Heed the feedback
Sometimes, I get feedback from editors about why they don’t want a pitch. I always listen. It could be something out of my control, such as they’ve just commissioned a similar story. Or it could be that there’s a flaw in my idea. I seriously listen to this line of reasoning and if I think I can fix it, I usually will before sending the pitch to another editor. It’s not an exact science– what works for one publication probably doesn’t work for another– but I’ll make a judgment based on the kinds of editors I’m pitching and go from there. If ideas don’t sell, look at them objectively. Do they have holes? If you believe in the idea and intend to pitch it again, you have even more reason to make sure the pitch is watertight. Make it the best it can be.
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 that didn’t sell the first time around. 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. Sometimes, ideas are very timely and become outdated quickly. It happens. I’m never too attached to a single idea, so I don’t worry about it too much.
4. If you revisit, make sure you revise
If I revisit an idea that didn’t sell 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 update, just so that I can try again with a different angle or in case my pitch itself was ineffective the last time around.
That, in a nutshell, is what to do when ideas don’t sell. 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.
How to Pitch: Pitching guidelines for 200+ publications
We know that finding markets to pitch your story ideas, understanding what they’re looking for, and making sure they pay an amount you’re comfortable with can be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the job. So we’ve tried to make it easier for you.
Here’s a list of publications, organized by subject and with a note of their pay rates, each with a link to their guidelines.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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