Me vs. Fear of Rejection (with a happy ending)

crushed paper - writer´s block - crumpled paper with unfocused background

A couple years back, in quick succession, I submitted three essays to a well-respected website, all of which were snapped up.  My fourth attempt didn’t fare so well—Not for us, my editor said—and I haven’t sent her anything since.

I am the first to say that this is patently ridiculous—a fact of which I was reminded this week as I read writer and writing coach Linda Formichelli’s wise and practical reflections on the submission process.  Here is what she said in a Facebook post excerpted from her upcoming e-book:

I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty: Between 1996 and 2012 I sent out 200 queries—each one to multiple publications—and sold 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate—or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)

So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?

It’s because I was too stubborn to give up, even when I was failing most of the time. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.

So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing: Rejection isn’t about you. If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.

When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product itself?

No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.

The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.

It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”

If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from trying, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!

The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. Easier said than done, I know. But the ones who get rejected the most are the ones who succeed, because it means they’re putting their work out there.

Yes, easier said than done—and for some of us more so than others. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I have an absurdly heightened (and self-defeating) response to perceived rejection.  I really can’t say why. Temperament? Childhood experiences? Cultural messages? For whatever reason, I quail at the prospect of pushing myself—or my work—forward when I have even the faintest glimmer that interest may be lacking.     

But you know what? I’m getting better. The most helpful thing has simply been being aware that this is a thing I do and that the mere fact that I am thinking something doesn’t make it true. Sometimes it also helps to play with gamifying the process. So what if I send this here? I wonder what will happen?  I also try to focus on actions and measure success in those terms. Submitted the essay to three outlets? Excellent! I win. Whether it’s accepted or not has nothing to do with me.

I had a chance to deploy all of these strategies a couple weeks ago, when an essay I’d sent to two editors went into a media black hole. One editor never responded at all. The second, just back from vacation, said she didn’t know when she’d get to it and didn’t want to hold me up. I almost gave up then, but for some reason, I decided to first reach out to another writer, someone I’d met on Twitter who I thought (I’m still not quite sure why) might have another idea. And, as it happened, she did. The piece went to her editor at Forbes.com who got back to me super quickly. “I’m blown away. I love this piece, and I’d be happy to publish it as a guest post,” she wrote, before going on to offer me a paid blogging contract.

To say this email made my day would be putting it mildly. The piece went up this week. It’s called The Day Job Is Having Its Moment, and you can read it here.

So in the end, I was lucky that the first two editors passed on this piece. It doesn’t always end this way. But remember: It sometimes does.