Rejection for writers can be as hard as being rejected by a potential lover. You send out a query, only to get turned down with a form letter or worse—total silence. Ugh, just thinking about it turns a writer’s stomach sour.
However, the reality of writing for publications is more complex than a simple yes or no. It’s actually much more complex than you think. Instead of taking it personally, there are probably other reasons than the strength of your submitted ideas.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the reasons why your query may have been rejected.
7. Wrong Market
If you’ve done your necessary due-diligence beforehand, you should have at least read a few articles to get a feel for who the intended target audience is for the publication. This is especially true for the subject matter; nothing gets you a “we don’t think this is right for us” quicker than a mismatch.
Even the tone of the query should match what the publication regularly puts out. If you’re tailoring your query in the ironic style of Vice magazine when it should read more like Cosmopolitan, the editor may reject your query on grounds that you article won’t be a good fit for their publication. And rightfully so!
6. Did It Really Send?
This might sound really obvious, but when I get into “query-sending mode,” I go for volume, sending out ten or so in one session. But I’ve made the mistake more than once of not-sending out the finalized email to the appropriate email address. Worse, I’ve misspelled the address quite a few times, only for my sparkling query to wallow in email limbo.
My advice: Don’t make this mistake.
5. You Screwed Up
Spelling and grammatical errors are indicators that your finished product is going to take time out of an editor/copyeditor’s already-busy schedule. If you’ve hastily dashed off a query and haven’t taken the time to scrutinize it, you may have squandered your shot in the near future.
To combat the impulse to get your name out there, write your queries beforehand and keep them in your “Drafts” folder. Then, when you’re ready to submit, read the query with fresh eyes. Some email services (*cough* Gmail *cough*) don’t always have the best spellcheck and grammatical references. Editors live and die by having a legible, 99% error-free publication—you should strive for the same.
4. Your Idea is Stale
Publications can’t really bet on tired content to bring readership. If you’ve queried a topic that’s been done before or that doesn’t address the current zeitgeist, your query may be rejected. For instance, writing about “ten ways to lose weight” is a cliché; reframing your query as “ten ways your smartphone can keep your diet on track” is better.
Aim for modern and cutting edge. You might be able to get away with it for regional newspapers or smaller publications, but if you’re aiming higher, keep it fresh. Remember that the wider the audience of the publication, the more it pays—and thus the more competition. Other freelancers may be rehashing the same topics, so make your submission stand out with buzzwords.
3. Got Clips?
Slugging it away in the minor leagues is key to developing your skills. It is very rare that you can jump to national publications without having a track record—specifically, clips. Clips (and up-to-date links) that feature your byline demonstrate indirectly that someone else had enough faith in your work to publish you. It’s social proof and reinforces a new editor’s faith in your yet-unproven abilities.
The exception to this—and it’s a rare exception—is if you’re a known expert in a relevant field, or you’re recently published a work that’s demonstrative of your talent (like a book, podcast, etc.). These can work in lieu of having clips, but even these are no guarantee. Not everyone can string together sentences despite their other qualifications.
As a side note, it can be frustrating to create work for your clients only to not have proof of your abilities. This is where ghostwriting work may be the writer’s equivalent to a dead-end job (unless the work is lucrative in and of itself). The upside to all of this is that you may need to take a paycut in exchange for a byline. Once you have the byline, you’re in.
2. They Haven’t Gotten Around to It Yet
As a freelancer, you may not be familiar with the deadlines and stress that editorial staff are subject to. Simply put, regularly creating a cohesive publication is a lot of work. If you’ve sent a query, don’t be surprised if it got lost in the shuffle. An editor’s priority is to finish what needs to be done and what goes beyond the abilities of the writers they have.
Timing is everything, so be sure to read the submission guidelines. If you read between the lines, you may even be able to sense a bit of the fatigue in the wording. Take note of this and make note of when the best possible time to submit your query. As a rule of thumb, wait a few days after the current publication is produced and avoid the week before “crunch time” to talk about how your unwritten article will contribute. There may not be enough time.
Courteous editors may recommend that you submit your query again (even an exact duplicate), but take that as a good sign of working in the future. It pays to follow up on queries, but don’t be annoying. If they don’t respond, cut bait and submit your query to a similar publication. After all, there’s other fish in the sea.
1. Good Composers Borrow, Great Composers…
Before we get into a subject matter that can be a slippery slope down a rabbit hole, let’s first establish a few ideas:
Great minds think alike. If you think about how you source your greatest ideas, chances are they were formed by taking an amalgam of your subjective experiences mixed with a myriad of stimuli from the outside world. In other words, nothing happens in a vacuum—and your life experience may be very similar to others who share the same worldview. You might even absorb the same types of media that people others regularly.
Why the long preface to this topic? Well, an opinion like this is only a few steps away from donning a tin foil hat and putting duct tape over my phone’s camera. Or, not.
If you’ve submitted a query, only to not have it only rejected/ignored but later written by someone else at the same publication, you’re not alone. These things happen and I’d hate to say it, but your chance for recourse may be slight, unless you’re writing a full article on-spec.
You’ll also have to ask yourself if you would have handled the article in the same way. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do legally unless you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your query was stolen (there, I said it). And even that’s a dubious claim unless parts were stolen verbatim from your query. This’ll probably lead your freelance career towards a litigation-heavy side that’s probably not worth the money/time in the long-term.
The best consolation I can offer is that good ideas are like busses: as soon as one’s gone, there’s usually another about to arrive.
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These seven reasons are just the beginning for reasons why your query is tottenhosen. Be sure to look at the accompanying article, “7 MORE Reasons Why Your Query Was Rejected”. As if there weren’t enough reasons to begin with…