Freelance Journalist

October 13, 2023 (Updated )

“It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are, the person who will always have work is the one who has all the ideas.” So I was told by a veteran journalist and editor early on in my career — and I vowed to be that person.

I have diligently researched publications, carefully packaged feature proposals, profile pitches, and news reports, and approached contacts politely and professionally. Yet, time and again, pitches were met with a “not for us” or, worse — silence. After two decades as a freelancer, despite regular work and an extensive portfolio, it doesn’t feel as if it’s gotten any easier; more articles are turned down than are commissioned and each time it feels like a punch in the gut, an overwhelming sense of failure, a personal slight. Why is it so hard to hear no?

‘It Was Impossible Not To Take Rejection Personally’

“When I started freelancing a decade ago, it was impossible not to take rejection personally,” says award-winning journalist Amelia Tait. “I used to sob and sob and sob. I felt cursed when I started out; I felt as though I knew my ideas were good but there was no way to prove it and get a chance in an industry that was fundamentally broken.

“Today, I’ve accepted it’s part of the game and, indeed, a rejection can be preferable to just being ignored.”

Journo Resources
“I take [rejection] on the chin, as I understand regular editors' time and budget pressures. Professional self-worth and validation shouldn’t be outsourced to responses of strangers.”
Susan Gray, Freelance Journalist

Despite her undoubted success writing for The Guardian, New Statesman, The New York Times, Wired, and many more, Tait says that she’s rejected almost as often as she’s commissioned. “I would say a lot more [ideas] are rejected and ignored than people think [when] looking from the outside in.”

“It’s part of life for a freelancer and it’s not something you should fear,” says Donna Ferguson, an award-winning writer for The Guardian, The Mail on Sunday, and The Observer, among others. “It’s easy to look at someone who seems very successful, writing for the nationals, say, and think they don’t ever get rejected — but obviously we all do.”

How To Become ‘Rejection Resilient’

Wanting to highlight this experience, and to share what can be learned from it, Ferguson includes a session on rejection in her masterclass course for freelancers she runs for Women in Journalism. She cites trainer and entrepreneur Jia Jiang as having a particularly powerful message.

In his TEDTalk, book, and website Jiang shares how he has taught himself to be “rejection resilient”. He decided to spend 100 days actively seeking rejection in the hope that he would become so used to the experience it would no longer affect him. His conclusions are fascinating.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Donna Ferguson (L) and Amelia Tait (R)

By repeatedly putting ourselves in a position where we are rejected, we become less afraid and gradually bolder and stronger. “I realised my fear of being rejected was worse than the rejection itself,” he says. “I started losing my fear and had fun instead.”

If we don’t send out ideas because we persuade ourselves they’re not suitable and want to protect ourselves from the rejection we believe is inevitable, then we reject ourselves before the world has a chance to do so. Yet this is a numbers game, Jiang says, so we will eventually get a “yes”.

Rejection Can Be Redirection

What’s more, it’s not always about the idea you are putting forward. Many freelancers can quote an instance when a pitch was rejected by an editor who then offered them another, different commission. “Even if you’re getting rejected, that editor may be taking note of your work,” says Ferguson.

“Pitching is the first step in a relationship with an editor,’ says Susan Gray, an arts writer who regularly contributes to The Telegraph Weekend, Art Quarterly, and Church Times. She says that nothing is wasted. “Broadsheet arts pitches require a fair amount of research before pressing ‘send’ and if it’s a ‘thanks but no thanks’ or stoney silence response, it can feel that all the time and effort has been wasted. But it hasn’t, because the research feeds into my wider pool of knowledge.”

“Rejection can be a useful thing that can spur you forward,” agrees Tait. “If it deflates you and you think the editor is right, listen to that instinct — don’t let ego get in the way. But if you allow it, it can make you even more sure of your idea. Use that!”

Quick Tips For Managing Rejection

• Try not to dwell on the negatives and instead focus on the positives. Save the great comments you’ve received about your work and read them when you need a boost. At Journo Resources, we have a Slack channel called “nice things people have said”.

• Create a positive support structure so you’re not dealing with setbacks alone – connect with other writers, listen to journalism podcasts, go for a walk or take a break when you’ve had a knockback.

• Talk to yourself as you would a friend, a colleague, or a mentee. What advice would you give them? Try to consider rejection as merely a temporary setback and try to learn from the feedback.

Certainly for Tait, this is what encourages her to keep pressing on. “If I really believe in an idea, I keep going,” she says, “and some of my favourite articles I’ve written are actually things that were rejected by one or two places before publication.”

“My reaction to rejection varies according to how much I want to write that story, and how keen I am to be in that particular publication or work with that editor,” says Gray, who has been freelance for 25 years.

She acknowledges that it’s easier to get a “no” from an editor with whom you’ve been working on a number of articles than it is from someone you’re approaching for the first time. “I take it on the chin, as I understand regular editors’ time and budget pressures.

“Approaches to new contacts tend to be a step up from my regular work so a rejection can feel more of a knockback. But this is illogical because professional self-worth and validation shouldn’t be outsourced to responses of strangers.”

Tait, who in 2020 was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30, acknowledges that now she has a name and an extensive portfolio, it’s easier to approach new contacts. “I mean, that’s what I worked hard for, that’s great, and I am obviously pleased for myself, but I still wish we lived in a system where it was the best ideas that got made, not just the best ideas from so-and-so. I wish editors recognised that a good idea is a good idea, not a good idea because it came from someone with ‘x’ many followers.”

Separating Rejection From Self-Worth

It’s important to recognise how rejection can affect us emotionally and have strategies in place to counter it, says psychologist and memoirist Vanessa Moore. She refers to psychoanalytic literature which describes any loss as “a blow to the ego that creates what’s referred to as a ‘narcissistic injury’: a wound to the self that lowers our self-esteem and can result in a range of emotions, including shame, humiliation and rage”.

In a survey by Mslexia magazine, women writers stated that “past rejection makes it hard putting things forward only to have them rejected again,” and with women in academia and commerce, too, it was found that “women who have been rejected, whatever the context of the rejection, are reluctant to try again.”

Journo Resources
“See [rejection] as an investment. Tell yourself once a week I’m going to spend an hour trying to pitch to publications you really want to write for. This isn’t about feelings, I’m allocating time for investing in myself.”
Donna Ferguson, Freelance Journalist

But seeing others succeed should be an encouragement for us to persevere, says Ferguson. “I can get into a comfort zone of only writing for editors that I know will get back to me — but that isn’t always challenging. The people who succeed are braver and don’t let rejection knock them back. Most successful writers, journalists, and artists, have been rejected. Get that fire in your belly! No one’s going to come to you and say ‘you never pitched to us — please, please pitch’.”

If we are serious about this being our business, when we have a good idea and have put together a coherent pitch, then we need to keep working on it, refining it if necessary, and taking it to another publication if appropriate.

“Anything that puts you off pitching is bad,” says Ferguson. “See it as an investment. Tell yourself once a week I’m going to spend an hour trying to pitch to publications you really want to write for. This isn’t about feelings, I’m allocating time for investing in myself.”

“Becoming a commissioned writer may not be instant,” says Gray, “but it won’t happen at all without offering ideas and being prepared to have them turned down.”

Catherine Larner
Catherine Larner

Catherine Larner is a freelance journalist, editor and presenter. She regularly contributes author profiles and features on lifestyle issues for a variety of publications including The Guardian, Country Living, Country Life, Psychologies, and Suffolk Magazine.

She was the co-host of a monthly book club item for a local BBC radio station for 10 years and also hosts author talks and on stage panel discussions, interviews and ‘in conversation’ events for book launches and festivals. She is an avid reader of forthcoming and newly published books and publishes a weekly newsletter giving carefully selected recommendations.

Header image courtesy of Ben White via Unsplash