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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.