What 200 Rejections Taught Me About Being a Freelance Writer

What 200 Rejections Taught Me About Being a Freelance Writer

When I started freelancing many years ago, it was with great enthusiasm and very little knowledge.

I had a bachelor’s degree in journalism studies, graduating as one of the top students in my class. But whereas I could tell you all about the social meaning of news, I had no idea how to sell an article.

I graduated a year before my husband, and while I waited for him to finish his degree, I decided to take up freelancing on the side. We were living in a small coastal town with limited media outlets, and I supporting us by working as a breakfast waitress at a local hotel. I reckoned freelancing would be an easy way to get a foot in the door and start establishing connections within the industry.

I was wrong.There was nothing easy about it at all. I had a vague sense of the importance of market research, but decided I would be better off carpet bombing the whole market with ideas.

Determined to get my first few assignments, I would send out query letter after query letter, indiscriminately. They went out to local papers and national newspapers, to regional magazines and high end consumer magazines.

Each time I licked the stamp (Yes, really! This was at the time when SASE was still a familiar phrase) or hit the send-button, I did so with great confidence that this was a winner; this was the pitch that would land me an assignment.

I was wrong a lot that year.

In the course of 12 months, I sent out about 220 ideas. Around 20 of those ideas ended in assignments. In other words, I had a rather abysmal success rate of about 10 percent.

But being turned down 200 times in one single year taught me a thing or two.

1. Being rejected isn’t the end of the world

Heck, not even 200 rejections equals the end of the world!

I’m by nature introverted and conflict-averse. A single “no” could make me curl up in a corner, but being flooded by 200 of them? The sheer amount of them short-circuited my natural response and I quickly learned to just shrug them off and move on.

You’re gonna be better at dealing with rejection than any of your friends, since about 80 percent of your job is composed of running headlong into it, according to Jamie Cattanach. If you give up after a few rejections, you are probably not fit for the freelance lifestyle.

To survive as a freelance writer you have to get used to being turned down. And the only way to get used to it, is by trying and failing. Fail fast, learn fast, succeed fast.

2. You can save time by spending time

By the end of my year of rejections, I finally started to realize I was wasting a whole lot of time shipping out half-baked ideas that never got anywhere. I wised up and learned that you are better off pitching one good idea to the right market than a dozen mediocre ideas to whoever.

By studying the market, pinpointing the publication that best matches your idea and making sure you truly understand the audience they are aiming for, you will stand a far better chance of getting a yes from the editor.

It is always better to take the time to do the research that will get you a “yes” than to waste your time writing generic query letters that will only get rejected.

3. Get curious

The 220 ideas I submitted didn’t just teach me about rejections. They also taught me a lot about what it takes to get a “yes” and which ideas will end in an instant “no.” When I left freelancing, my acceptance rate had gone from the abysmal ten percent to being closer to 75 percent.  

So what had changed between the 10-percent and the 75-percent conversion rate? Mainly one thing: I had learned how to generate ideas that sell to paying markets.

If you find yourself being turned down continuously, learn from it. Don’t get defensive, get curious. Figure out how you could have done it better and then apply the lessons you’ve learned next time you submit your ideas.

It might take time to succeed, but it will go a whole lot faster if you are willing to learn from your mistakes.

What have you learned from the rejections you’ve received as a writer?

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Ashri Mishra says:

    It’s Very informative post.. For me thank… you..

  • Liz Froment says:

    As I’ve been working on honing my pitches, this a very good reminder to keep going. We can always learn something from rejections, even if they do sting a bit at first!

  • Sesselja says:

    Sorry for the late replies everyone. I am so grateful that you took the time to comment, and I would have like to reply sooner but I was away on a work trip, doing interviews up and down the country. I returned home to the frenzy that is looming Deadline Day – and suddenly a week’s gone by.

  • Lisa says:

    The links for your website and Twitter don’t work. Have you moved into another venture or has your own freelancing grown to the point where you no longer need any side gigs? Great post.

    • Sesselja says:

      Curious, not sure why the link doesn’t work, Lisa, but if you use the link simply saying Website under my bio (not the actual address), it should work fine. My Twitter handle is @nopeanutsthanks .

      I am currently working as an employed trade journalist. After my maternity leave (which is 10-12 months in Norway), I found myself having to start over as my main clients moved on while I was away. I decided that was as good a time as any to try the employment route, and I happened to hit the jackpot if you like the freelance lifestyle: I work mostly from home, have a great degree of freedom when it comes to the work I do and yet I get to have wonderful colleagues and a regular salary + perks.

  • Just me says:

    I used a different approach. I got my FIRST piece published in a newspaper. They loved it so much they ran it as a whole page weekend feature. Then I leveraged that success into the next one and the next one! WRITE the piece. Make it damn good. Make them an offer they can’t refuse; offer them their first piece for free. That’s how you jump straight into freelancing. It wakes editors up!

    • Sesselja says:

      Congratulations on your great start!

      I don’t think a free piece alone would wake up any editor, way too many people are willing to write for nothing for that to be an offer that stands out. But a great piece tailored to their publication, yes, that might just do the trick.

  • Wendy says:

    How do you figure out what you could have done better when the best you get is a form reject?

    • Sesselja says:

      It’s a tough one, I know, but it can be done. You simply have to analyse your own work. Look at what sold and what didn’t. Was it the strength of your idea that captured their attention? Was it specific, well-targeted, relevant? Or was it the hook in the query won them over? Was it more tantalizing, attention-grabbing or intriguing? Could it be the way you explained your process, the experts you would talk to, the cases you had? Or maybe how you introduced yourself?

  • MG says:

    I agree, this was a great post. I worked in sales selling advertising. In any sales job, we sell the product and ourselves. Similar to your story, I learned that when I understood what the client wanted, then I sold myself and product much better than when I was stressed and not being targeted in my approach. No one ever told me “why” they didn’t buy, I had to figure that out by being determined to turn the No-thank you replies into YES, I want to do business with you. Sure, rejection hurts, but at the same time it makes us stronger if we have FAITH in the end result of where we want to be. AGAIN, thanks for sharing.

  • Logan says:

    20 assignments generated by 200 queries to ‘cold’ prospects? Truthfully, that’s not bad. Good for you for believing in yourself and staying the course.

    • John says:

      I agree Logan. I my experience, one or two per cent is more the norm. The advice is good to target your queries, but the overall truth remains – with any direct marketing, the response rate of one or two per cent leads to one starkly simple conclusion: you have to do a lot of it, and keep doing it!

    • Sesselja says:

      I think the difference in numbers probably comes down to the difference in markets. If you are a freelance writer doing copywriting, you are probably targeting “colder” prospects than I did as a freelance journalist. My prospects were editors, who per definition almost are in need of material to fill the pages.

  • Bren Murphy says:

    Hi Sesselja,
    Overcoming rejection – whether as a writer or in sales or even doing cold calls on the phone – is one of the breakthrough moments in any person’s development. I can see how much you have grown through patient acceptance of your rejection experience.
    This is a brilliant inspirational read, very grateful, thank you!

  • Harish Desai says:

    For me, there was no scope to learn too much from my rejections because seldom did anyone tell me the reason why I was being rejected and if at all they told me, they did not give any justification for the same. therefore, I had to just be satisfied with hearing that “I have not been selected/shortlisted to write with their team”.

    I am still hunting for well-paying writing gigs, even after seven years of persistent effort at honing my craft. Should I call it a day? Should I hang up my writing boots? I have already created a fence between me and my mother by pursuing freelance writing. She wanted me to earn money, but I was more interested in seeing my work in print, whether that would pay me or not. In the process, I burnt precious power and phone, at her cost.

    She still gets wild at me when she sees me sitting endlessly on the internet and asks me whether I have started my writing gigs once again. I have to lie at that time. But, really do not know how long this will continue.

    • John says:

      Harish, As you have a strong desire to write and your mother’s desire that you make a living must also be taken into account, what about finding a part-time job in any field that pays as well as possible and using your spare time to keep writing, even if the writing does not pay, or does not pay well. A friend of mine became an awarded poet that way. The poetry still does not pay in money, only in satisfaction. He always worked part-time, in advertising, as a bookshop assistant, in many ordinary jobs. It was the solution that worked for him. One of his fellow poets was a leading tax lawyer and consultant, but still managed to write a large volume of poetry during his career, and was a well-recognised writer. Many writers have had to have other vocations. The great British poet Philip Larkins worked full-time as a university librarian, throughout his writing career

    • Sesselja says:

      You are getting some sound advice from John here. When I sent out those 200 queries, I wasn’t a fulltime freelancer. I first worked as a breakfast waitress at a local hotel, trying to get my freelancing off the ground in the afternoons. And later I worked full time as a sales assistant, while freelancing in the weekends. It took me two years to earn a proper living from freelancing, but I made sure to support myself by other means in the meantime.

      As for how you can learn from your rejections when you are not getting any feedback, see my answer to Wendy below.

      Good luck!

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