Should This Freelance Writer Throw in the Towel?

Carol Tice

I got one freelance writing question Should this freelance writer throw in the towel?this month that kind of threw me.

It was about giving up.

Jennifer wrote to me:

Is there a point when a writer should “throw in the towel” so to speak?

I’ve submitted approximately 50 articles, to no avail.

Many publishers compliment me on my writing…that’s nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Any suggestions?

I think there are really two questions here —

  1. Should I stop writing?
  2. Why aren’t my articles getting accepted?

Let’s start with the big question — whether to continue writing.

Really, only you can answer this one. But I’d ask you this:

Do you feel compelled to write, or does sitting down to write seem like a chore you’re making yourself do?

Does the idea of stopping fill you with relief? Or instead, would you feel heartbroken?

Would you still write if you knew you would never be published in your lifetime? Many great authors of the past had exactly that experience, but it didn’t stop them from writing.

For most successful writers I know, writing is a calling. A compulsion.

It’s difficult. Scary. It makes us vulnerable to rejection and criticism. Still…

It never crosses our minds to stop.

I have no idea how I would stop writing. I wake up every day, and I can’t wait to write more.

I think if I were thrown in solitary confinement in a jail cell, I would probably be scratching in the dust with a stick, or trying to find a way to mark on the toilet paper.

Some of what I write is stuff I do just to pay bills, and it may not always be the most enthralling work. But I still love the challenge of it.

If you don’t love to write, it may be time to take a break, or to look for some other form of creative expression. But my guess is you’re just discouraged because you want to get published and start earning from your writing.

About those 50 rejected articles…

OK. You’ve submitted a lot of articles, and none have been published.

There are lots of reasons why that might be:

  • Not following the rules. Unless these are personal essays, many publications are not interested in pre-written articles. You usually need to submit a query letter first and get an assignment. When you submit an article without an assignment, you may be going wrong in a million ways — your piece could be too long, too short, not reported or written in the style the editor wants. The editor may have just assigned that topic to another writer. You have no idea. You’re like a blind man playing golf and hoping to hit a hole in one. As you’ve discovered, that’s hard to do.
  • Weak idea. It’s possible your story idea has recently been covered by the publication, if you didn’t research that, or it’s too similar to recent topics. Or it may not be well-focused. Most magazine articles need a pretty narrow focus to work. For example, “Wineries in New York” isn’t as good as “10 Best Small Wineries in Upstate New York.”
  • No “news hook.” A big reason articles don’t run is that they contain nothing new. You need to include something timely — a new study, a holiday that’s coming up, a news event that relates to your topic — to give the editor a more compelling reason why your story needs to run now. Otherwise, it may sit in that editor’s “interesting, could run sometime” pile forever.
  • Mismatch between article and market. You may have simply submitted to a market that doesn’t take freelance work, or that wasn’t a good fit for your story. The fact that you say “publishers complement you” makes me suspect this may be part of this writer’s problem. Your writing is fine, but you’re not finding a fit between what you want to write and a paying market.
  • Poor execution. If you did not study the publication closely, it’s possible your piece isn’t written in a way that fits their style. It may not have been sourced properly — some publications only use university professors as expert sources, others book authors, and still others like man-on-the-street types. Perhaps you didn’t get great interview quotes, or your piece is lacking research or statistics that would give it more credibility. One editor comment I’ve seen over and over through the years is that articles are frequently rejected due to “Swiss-cheese research.” You need to know how to document your facts, so the editor feels confident that publishing what you’ve written won’t get the publication sued.

If you’ve submitted a lot of queries or articles and not gotten a “yes,” try not to get down about it. At least you’ve got the courage to submit your work. When I did a study of readers recently, 60 percent said they lacked the confidence to send a single query letter.

If you’re missing that confidence, or having trouble getting your articles published, I’ve got a solution — 4-Week Journalism School. It’s the class I’ve put together with Linda Formichelli that packs a year of journalism skills into four one-hour trainings. We teach you how to find great ideas and experts to interview, then mentor you through how to write a compelling article that will make editors love you. Sign up for the waiting list to find out the next time we’ll be offering this class.



  1. Lisa Frederick

    What about the fact that this writer hasn’t been published before? Does that play an important role in this puzzle? I know people say “I once knew an unpublished writer who sold her very first article to Parents magazine…” but that is not the norm, right? Do you think publishers take one look at the “experience” part of the query letter and toss it right away if there is nothing substantial there? This seems to be a problem for new writers. They want to be published but can’t get published without having been published!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Lisa —

      Good question!

      My experience is the fewer clips you have to present, the stronger your article or query needs to be to convince the editor they should take a chance on you. So the bar IS higher…and yet every writer working today broke in somewhere, and got that first yes.

      I don’t believe editors start by scanning down to the bio line. They start reading the query…if it’s shaky, they look at the bio and if it’s weak as well, you’re done.

      When you’re new, it’s about the idea and the writing. It has to be very, very strong. If it is, you can write your way right in the door.

      • Christopher

        This. Though I’m very new to this (so take my “insight” with a suitably sized grain of NaCl), writing to previous expertise is helpful. And in the era of free blogging platforms, there’s really ZERO excuse for not building your own portfolio without having to rely on editors and publishers.

        For myself, my background is astrophysics. I started a blog that explored various aspects of the science (Astronomy Word of the Week). Almost no one reads it, BUT I get to practice writing for a lay audience and it got me first (low-paying) gig. In my queries, by emphasizing that I am a working, successful astronomer – and, oh by the way, here’s a few things that I’ve written so you know I’m not a complete academic egghead – I was able to impress a couple of editors. That got me a couple of small opportunities, which in time will get me a couple more. Small steps, small steps.

        If the writer-in-question hasn’t done so already, start a blog tied to the ideas he/she is pitching. Use that as a base and then pitch, pitch, pitch! And then use that as the next stepping stone, then the next, then the next.

        • Carol Tice

          Great suggestions, Christopher. And — cool factor: astrophysics! Great example of how to leverage your life experience into paying gigs. Thanks for sharing that story. Everyone may not be an astrophysicist, but we all have passions and work history we could use in writing.

  2. Misti

    @Lisa, in my experience, the “requirement” that a writer have experience is usually a technique used to keep anyone with delusions of writing ability from sending in something scrawled in purple crayon. It’s standard in business for a company to have one “official” policy and one “practical” policy; if you ask the company their policy on something, you’ll probably be told the official version. If you ask about exceptions (or politely approach as an exception), you might end up falling under the “practical” one.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Misti —

      I think the experience requirement is a screen used to keep out a lot of problems from writers who don’t know the journalism basics and might get the place sued, and also just to cut the deck for the editor.

      But a great story idea and crisp writing can outweigh that requirement.

  3. Katherine Swarts

    Speaking partly from personal experience, I have a few insights to add:

    -Writers, at least those whose inclinations lean toward human-interest rather than technical topics, tend to be naturally “deep” emotionally–with which goes an ability to touch readers at heart level as well as the “can’t not write” compulsion, but also tendencies to discourage easily and take rejection hard. A support group or understanding intimate can help, as can counting the compliments along with the rejections.

    -Heavy discouragement and the desire to quit can be partly due to physical- or mental-health issues. Are you getting plenty of exercise, eating healthily, saving your leisure and social time–and have you had an overall physical checkup, and perhaps a mental-health evaluation, within the past year?

    -Some people are great writers but not great entrepreneurs. If you really feel you “can’t not write” but just can’t seem to sell on your own, look for a source of regular accountability: a publisher who works on a regular-assignments basis (they aren’t all content mills–try your community newspaper or lifestyle magazine for starters); a personal business coach; a “mastermind” support group; even a salaried or volunteer job, preferably one with regular networking opportunities. These are also useful for keeping your goals in perspective; another common error among writers is expecting too much too soon, from both themselves and the market.

    -Finally, many people can’t see their way clearly because they’re focused on the obstacles. When you think positive and surround yourself with positive influences, when “my life’s passion” becomes the center of your thoughts, it’s surprising how often the right path becomes quickly obvious.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Katherine —

      Great point about doing a physical/mental assessment. I always think of this career as sort of like an Olympic event…and not the sprint. More like the Marathon! And the endless training required for that. You need to stay in shape, do self-care and stay fit and healthy to sustain it.

  4. Karen

    I like the sentence in this post that read:

    “I think if I were thrown in solitary confinement in a jail cell, I would probably be scratching in the dust with a stick, or trying to find a way to mark on the toilet paper.”

    I’ve often said if I were stranded on a desert island I’d write stories in the sand (though of course it would probably be a better idea to write ‘help’ in forty foot letters in the sand).

    If you love writing you never consider giving up completely. I wake up ready to write and always start the day with free writing. I wouldn’t consider not doing it any more than I would consider not brushing my teeth.

    As far as this writer goes though, fifty is a lot of rejections, without even one or two acceptances thrown in. I wonder if she is pitching at too high a level? Every writer I know got their first break with a small publication (and a small paycheck), but that’s how you build up clips, and move on to higher paying markets. Maybe she’s pitching the nationals instead of starting with local/regional and small press pubs.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, I would love to know where those 50 articles were sent — online sites? Redbook? Magazines that don’t use freelancers? It’s probably time for more research — and maybe more networking to actually MEET editors and get a sense of what they’re looking for.

  5. Carrie Schmeck

    As a writer who has started and stopped and started again, I understand this question. For me, it came down to the fact I just didn’t want to put in the marketing work. Where my life was at that time, it just didn’t work for me.

    When I finally got hungry, I realized that I didn’t have a choice. Either suck it up and do the work or go get a job that would dictate my hours, throw me boring work and cramp my lifestyle.

    Yes it is discouraging sometimes. But the alternative is far more discouraging, in my opinion. As a freelance features and copywriter, I get to partner with new businesses, delve into new topics, talk to interesting people, go get my hair cut when I need and slip out for a lunch with my friends. What could be better?

    And I know that 50 queries sounds like a million. But you’ve got nuthin on the one who made something like 500 cold calls to get her writing moving (her name and blog escape me but she has been a HUGE inspiration whenever I start to whine).

    In the end we have to decide: are we hobbyists or professionals. Either one is fine but we must accept realistic outcomes that match the input.

    • Carol Tice

      You’re thinking of Sarah Maurer — here’s her guest post on here:

      And yeah…writers underestimate the amount of marketing that may be required to get those wheels to first start to turn. If you put your marketing energy in the wrong place — say, sending out unsolicited, completed articles — it can take even longer.

      • Carrie Schmeck

        Yep. That’s who I was thinking of. Thanks.

  6. LindaH

    Lots of thoughts come to mind when I read this blog. First I think of the 600 publishers Alex Haley is said to have sent “Roots” before it was accepted. It took 601 to finally get published; the rest is history. How would our world today be different if he’d stopped at 599?

    Then I think of Stephen King who tossed his manuscript to “Carrie” in the trash because he was frustrated over it. His wife found it and forwarded it to a publisher; the rest is history.

    I read about how Maria Shriver honed her reporting skills by getting pounded by an editor repeatedly until she worked out the kinks and became a worthy reporter. I have to learn to accept the editorial pounding and keep moving forward. The more I write, the better I get.

    It’s true that sometimes mental and physical issues block our creativity. It’s important to take timeouts, exercise, eat right and take care of yourself. When you do, those creative juices seem to ooze from the pores, at least for many I talk to.

    I’ve been following a forum where writers are moaning and groaning about low pay and not getting published. Many spent more time complaining than looking at the rejection, learning from it and writing again. Mary Kay Ash said “Success is learning to fail forward.” As writers, if we can learn from what an editor didn’t take and make it better, we’ll find an editor that likes what we “fixed” and publishes our work. That’s when you realize the hard work and extra efforts paid off; that’s when you realize stopping was never a good option.

    Honing your craft means taking the hits. It’s part of what we do… we grow from overcoming the hits and keeping on keeping on. I’d hate to think of all those who might have stopped writing and how much we would have lost if they had.

    • Carol Tice

      You bring up an interesting point. I’ve kind of always been a masochist for editors who want to push me and push me to do better. One of them I truly hated…and he helped me win a national award the paper had never gotten in 25 years of its history!

      You do really need to be tough, and committed to self-improvement. We can always write better. Be drawn to people who will help you polish your skills.

  7. khaalidah

    I think that the question this writer posed was both frightening and brave. I’ve contemplated giving up before and could not stay away permanently. Writing is hard. Writing is hard. Did I mention that writing is hard? Rejection aside, there is a great deal of toil and sweat involved and even when we’re spent, we may not receive the accolades we believe our writing deserves. I think the next question to ask is this: Can my own satisfaction with my writing be enough for me?
    I really like my writing. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, because I know I’m not the best. Despite knowing I’;m not the best, I still love how my words sound after I’ve wrestled and wrangled them into the shape I want. Can that/should that be enough?

    • Carol Tice

      You’ve hit the crux of it, Khaalidah — why do you write? See Jon Morrow’s great post today about Steven King and his book On Writing about the key to our success — writing for the joy, not outside approval. Writing because it’s what we DO. It’s a high. It’s our crack. We can’t stop.

  8. Dawn

    Quitting writing is so much harder than it sounds. I know I’ve tried. About a year ago I threw in the towel and didn’t write until late last year. I think the writer is experiencing the same thing I did. You work & you work & you work, but don’t seem to get anywhere. It is so frustrating.

    My best advise is to take those rejected articles and sub them someplace else. What doesn’t work for one magazine may work for another.

    • Carol Tice

      I think when you define success by outside approval, it’s easy to get discouraged. We have to write for the love of it, and to improve and get better…and also, we have to keep marketing our butts off, until we find the place our writing belongs.

      My philosophy is that writers need to be an unstoppable force of nature in pursuing success in this field. If giving up is an option, you very well may.

  9. Pamela

    Wonderful advice here – and the comments are great too. How does one NOT get discouraged? And yet, if writing is in the blood (or more like ‘in the brain’ always) stopping is not an option. Rejection should be seen as a closed door that needs to be opened somehow; it’s not an immovable wall…

    • Carol Tice

      I like that analogy!

  10. HP van Duuren

    How about just become
    a Blogger/Affiliate Marketer instead..?

    For example Writing Product Reviews, like for example – Book Reviews –.
    That way you can be your own Publisher with your own Writing Assignments.
    When you like you can even combine it with Freelance Writing when you happen to find Writing Projects that Inspire you.

    You can even ‘Test Drive’ writing ‘Book Reviews’ yourself if you like by Commenting on my – Book Review – Blog.

    • Carol Tice

      You have a point, HP — even if it is couched in a fairly obvious bid for traffic to your own blog.

      If we’re not getting published elsewhere, we are always free to build our own blog-based businesses, publish ebooks, and try to find our own paying audience. We live in great times that way.

  11. Dianna O'Brien

    I’ve had the same problem – I get started, hit a molehill and think of quitting. So what’s helped me keep going AND give up low-paid markets? 1. The freelancewritersden; 2. Having a coach (Thanks, Linda Formichelli); 3. making a commitment NOT to go back to the lower paid markets; 4. Developing a support system in terms of subscribing to uplifting magazines, i.e. The Writer, The Writer’s Digest. Reading those magazines helped me see that persistence is the No. 1 skill I needed to hone. I was once told I was not a “real” writer because I did not write when times were tough. They were wrong. I was a writer who needed a wife to take something out of the garbage for me and send it to a publisher. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so the above supports helped instead! 🙂

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