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Red stoplight.

In November 2020 I got one of the most frustrating emails I’ve ever received. 

“We’re going to have to kill this story. Sorry, we just don’t have space for it in our schedule anymore.”

I had worked on this story for more than a year. I’d driven hundreds of miles, risked life and limb (literally) and written several revisions at the request of the editor. Now I was going to make less than half of the original promised fee and my story I was so proud of was never going to see the light of day. To say I was bummed out would be an understatement. In fact, even as I type this several months later I’m not really over it.

In an uncharacteristic move, after sitting on these feelings for months, I tweeted about this situation. A much more experienced freelancer friend named Matt saw it and shot me an email. He wanted to know about the story. I told him about it and explained all the reasons that I knew no one else would want to ever buy the piece. If we’d been speaking in person he probably would have told me to shut up and stop feeling sorry for myself. 

As he’s told me before, a good freelancer finds a way to turn rejections into successes. He then proceeded to list all of the publications that might be interested in my story, he explained to me all the different angles I could use to sell it, and told me what a great story I had on my hands. I had been so wrapped up in the rejection I forgot how valuable it was. 

Even though I’ve been freelance writing for years, I sometimes forget the distinct advantage that freelancers have when it comes to rejection. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned when it comes to creating a positive situation out of rejection.

No doesn’t mean the end

The beauty of being a freelancer is that “no” from one client doesn’t mean the end of an idea or a project. If you get shut down by your boss at a full-time job you have very little options to resurrect that idea. If a freelance client shuts down your ideas or rejects your proposals you can find other clients who might be better fits for that particular project. It will often take some tweaking to get the project to fit the next client, but in the course of that tweaking you might find that your project has improved massively. 

In the case of my story, I was so concentrated on making it work for a specific client that I didn’t even consider all of the other aspects of it that made it fascinating to a general audience. I was stuck thinking about the client who rejected me and not all the clients who might be starving for a story like this one. Matt was able to give me an outside perspective on it and coach me through ways to re-package the content for different audiences. If you ever feel stuck on something, bring in a friend or mentor and ask for their opinions. Often their insights will get the wheels turning in your head so you can salvage a rejected project and turn it into something great. 

Every rejection is a lesson

Some people say that freelancers have to “get used to rejection.” I disagree with the idea of just “getting used to” being denied. To me, that gives off an air of resignation and makes me think that you should just put in the minimum amount of effort into your pitches or proposals. Now in my role as an editor who receives pitches, I can always easily tell which writers are just sending the same things to hundreds of editors and seeing who might bite.  

I think of rejection more like striking out in baseball. The best baseball players in the world hit for a .300 average, which means that a whopping 70% of the time they fail. These are the best in the world and they are failing more often than they are succeeding. Yet, every time you see a baseball player strike out they get mad. Sometimes they go into the dugout and smash a water cooler with a bat. I don’t think a good coach would walk over to a player who just struck out and say, “Hey buddy, as a baseball player you need to get used to striking out.” On one hand, he’s right. Striking out is going to happen way more than hitting a home run. But getting used to it is not the goal. Instead that player will think about what he did wrong, he’ll watch film of the at-bat to find ways to improve, and he’ll talk to his teammates who had success recently and figure out what they did. 

The same is true with freelancers. It’s perfectly acceptable to be upset when a proposal falls through, or a story you worked on gets killed, or a client is unhappy with the website you built. Sometimes it can even be therapeutic to blow off a little steam, just make sure not to take a baseball bat to your computer. But don’t leave it at just anger, use this as an opportunity to find out what went wrong. Was there a communication breakdown between you and the client? Did your proposal miss the mark because you charged too much or your scope of work was too small? Talk to other freelancers who have worked with this client to learn from their experiences. You might fail more than you succeed, but don’t “get used to it.” Learn from it.  

It just takes one yes

A baseball player who strikes out three times in a game but hits the game-winning home run in his last at bat is going to rightly be celebrated as the hero of the game. In the same way, as a freelancer, all you need is one “yes” to make everything right. Unless you are some kind of machine, you likely can’t actually work with every client that you sent a pitch or a proposal to. In fact, if everyone says yes to you then you’re going to need to learn how to say “no” to clients. All it takes is one client to say “yes” to a proposal to make you totally forget about all of those rejections. Once you’re in the thick of working on a new project you rarely think about the frustrations of the other ones that fell through. And when the final product is seen by the client, and subsequently the rest of the world, you’ll feel even more pride knowing that some other client out there could have benefited from your hard work and didn’t. 

Rejection is part of life as a freelancer, but the freelancers who are able to succeed for a long time in this tough lifestyle are the ones who never see rejections as final. Celebrate every time you hear “yes” and learn from every “no.” 


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