4 things to ask yourself when your pitch is rejected

Plus: New Zoom panels and workshops!

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Freelancing is a numbers game. Even the most successful freelancers among us get many more rejections than commissions, and the best ones know that rejection isn’t feedback on its own and to just move on.

But that’s much easier said than done, so let’s talk about exactly what you should do after getting a no.

First: There are tons of reasons editors will decline a story, and many of those reasons aren’t about you or your idea. There are budgetary concerns, the editor’s publishing schedule may be full, there could be internal changes at the outlet/section, they just don’t have the time this week, they’re not commissioning at the moment ... there are a lot. It’s a complicated process, and editors don’t always have the final say in everything.

All that said, a bad pitch is not the same thing as a bad story idea, and a no from one editor is not a blanket no to an idea. So let’s go over a few questions to ask yourself when an editor rejects your story.

Did I pitch this to the right publication?

Finding the right home for your story is just as important as nailing the pitch itself. In my years as an editor, I saw countless pitches that would make fantastic stories but that I would never commission because they simply weren’t what I published. In these cases, a no from me wasn’t a rejection of the idea, it was just a mismatch. So think through what the perfect outlet for your story is and go pitch it. (We’ll go over this in more detail in next week’s newsletter.)


Sign up for this Sunday’s free Zoom panels!

3 p.m. How to launch and host a podcast: Between logistics, gear, and personalities, launching a podcast is never easy. This will help.

4:30 p.m. How to write better personal essays: Want to sharpen your personal essays? Figure out where to pitch them? Learn how to pitch them? This is the panel for you.


Am I totally sure I know what my story is?

A few years ago I wrote a pitching guide for Harvard’s NiemanLab, and in it I wrote that one of the most common issues among pitches that fall flat is that the writer isn’t sure what their story is. Pitches like this often have phrases like, “I’m interested in covering [x topic]” or “I’d like to look into ....” Sometimes they also take the form of winding, meandering, 800-word passagese in which the writer is trying to find the story in the pitch itself. It’s fine, it happens to us all, but there are two backstops I like to recommend to protect yourself against this.

The first is that in the pitch, try to write a (very) rough draft of the story’s nut graf. This forces you to figure out what is important about your story, why it should exist, and, most important, what is actually happening here. Your nut graf will, of course, change drastically from pitch to publication, since you haven’t yet done the reporting, but having a compelling draft of it is a strong indication to the editor that you know what your story is.

The second backstop is to write a proposed headline for your story in the subject line of your email. If you find yourself struggling to write one out, it is probably a sign that you should go back and sharpen up the focus of your idea. (I cover this is more detail here: How to stop pitching ideas and start pitching stories.)

Is the pitch itself sabotaging a good story idea?

This happens all the time! To reiterate: A bad pitch is not the same thing as a bad story idea. If you find yourself getting a string of rejections to a story you sincerely believe in, take a step back and look at the structure of the pitch itself. Are you conveying what’s important about it in a compelling way? Do you have a strong nut graf and subject line? Is it too long? Too short? Have you included strong clips that show off your skills? Is there too little drama in the pitch? Too much? Are you addressing the wrong editor/publication? Are you too in the weeds for someone with fresh eyes to understand the wider context?

There is no “correct” way to write a pitch, but there are a few things that are common to most good pitches, so just make sure you have them.

Freelancing with Tim
The only pitch template you'll ever need
Hello friends! I want to share what I think is an excellent structure for a pitch. It’s what I recommend to most freelancers I talk with, and if you’ve ever joined a Sunday panel on pitching you’ve probably heard me talk about this. I’ve read thousands and thousands of pitches over the years, and let me caveat this to s…
Read more

The dreaded question: Should I just give up on this idea?

Maybe! Or maybe not. Only you know the answer to that. But if it’s been round after round of rejections and you’ve revised the pitch, refined your idea, gotten feedback from your network, and made sure you’re targeting the right publications … well, again, this is a numbers game, so don’t be afraid to move on.

October Zoom Panels

Oct. 19

6 p.m. Personalized pitch feedback roundtable: Bring a pitch or two you want feedback on to this limited-space roundtable, which will be structured as a grad-school-level class in which everyone is expected to participate.

Oct. 21

6 p.m. The art of structuring a longform feature: Join me as I lead a deconstruction exercise of a longform narrative story and provide tips on how to use those tools in your writing.

Oct. 24

3 p.m.: The business of freelancing: Contracts, rates, platforms and more: How do you set rates? Create your own platform? Diversify your clients? All of that and more!

Oct. 26

6 p.m. Everything to know about selling and writing a nonfiction book: Not sure where to start? Unclear on best practices for writing a proposal? How do you find an agent? We’ll cover all of that in this workshop.

(Founding Members to the Substack get a $5 discount on every paid workshop! Email me at tim@freelancingwithtim.com if that’s you.)

To view all of October’s sessions on one page, click here, and follow me on Twitter for panel updates throughout the week.

And, as always, please feel free to share this with and/or forward this to any journalists or organizations who might be interested!

Jobs Board

Here's a selection of job openings from Mandy Hofmockel’s Journalism Jobs and a photo of my dog newsletter. Check out dozens of other roles on her list, then sign up for weekly updates each Monday.

  • The City, New York | Multiple openings, including Editor in Chief, Director of Development, and Engagement Director (Source: @THECITYNY via Twitter)

    The Hill, Washington, D.C. | Copy Editor (Source: ACES)

    Fort Worth Report | Membership Director (Source: @FortWorthReport via Twitter)

    Polygon, remote | Curation Editor (Source: @andrewmel via Twitter)

    6AM City, multiple locations | Multiple openings, including City Editor, NOOGAtoday; City Editor, 608today; City Editor, PDXtoday; City Editor, BOStoday; and City Editor, SJCtoday (Source: JournalismJobs.com)

Oh, a few other things …

• I am now offering one-on-one coaching! This can include anything you need help with: pitch feedback, writing and/or editing coaching, story development, story editing, social strategy, and anything else. Book a timeslot here.

For paid subscribers: Just out is this huge roundup of what a bunch of publications pay freelance writers. There are also new videos in the full archive of recorded Zoom panels and workshops, and old standbys like the dos and don’ts of writing the perfect pitch and the only pitch template you’ll ever need. Coming out later this week: Find *editors* you like to work with, not publications. Click here to see options for subscribing.

Okay bye ily!

-Tim ❤️