Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rejection is a Two-Way Street

Writers become accustomed to rejection, but we can overlook the fact that we’re also allowed to say no. Sometimes it’s a wise move to reject a potential client or publication. When I first started out, I accepted every writing gig I was offered. I quickly discovered this is a poor strategy. Fortunately, I learned from my mistakes. Here are some of the specifics I’ve learned to examine before accepting a gig.

Rejection Reason #1: A Poorly Focused Publication

Writers are consistently told to narrowly focus their work. How often have you heard, “If you can’t describe your piece in one sentence, you’re not focused enough”? The same goes for publications. I’ve found this to be a larger issue with websites than print publications.

In my early freelance years, I answered a call for submissions to a new graphic design website. The site had one or two articles posted when I pitched them, but not really enough to give me a good idea of their editorial preferences. Since I know a highly successful graphic artist, I pitched a profile piece on her. I got a green light. I interviewed my friend and wrote a standard profile that described her background and accomplishments, the big-name accounts she’d done, and her creative process. Between my submission and later communication (and I use that term loosely) with the editor, I noticed that none of the work they were posting had any congruity. The site was an eclectic mish-mash of articles and photo essays tangentially related to graphic design in a very hard-to-define way. When I didn't hear anything, I followed up with the editor. All she said was that they weren’t sure they could use my piece. She gave absolutely not a shred of suggestion, direction, or their desired angle. I re-wrote the piece, doing my best to make it fit their website... except that I couldn’t get a good handle on what they were looking for. Her one-line response to my re-written article? “We cannot use this piece at all now.”

A few months ago, I answered a call for submissions from a writing-related website. The editor responded positively to my e-mail and expressed her willingness to see my work. When I read the website—and I read it closely three times—I could never get a handle on what they were looking for. It was an odd collection of stories about fashion, writing, and health tips, among other things. I decided not to pitch any pieces to them (for more than just this reason, which I’ll explain below).

Rejection Reason #2: Difficult Individuals

One of my early gigs was working with a lawyer who wanted me to create copy for a promotional folder. This seemed like an easy assignment. I met with him and thought I understood what sort of image he was hoping to convey. I saw him as an honest, down-to-earth person whom people could relate to and trust. That’s how I wrote the copy. I sent him the draft and made sure to tell him that it was a first draft, and that he should let me know if the direction was right, if the tone was correct, and so on. Despite repeated attempts to contact him, I didn’t hear from him until the day I received a fax from his office. It was a mutilated version of the copy I’d done for him, full of egregious grammatical errors. When I finally got him on the phone, he explained that he’d given it to his secretary to correct. I’ll admit I did a poor job of customer relations at this point. After I told him that his secretary had done nothing but put errors into my work (along with asking him a few other questions about why he had selected this English-challenged person to rewrite my work in the first place), he finally blurted out, “You made me sound like I was picking hayseed out of my teeth! I wanted to look more polished!” With that finally established, I re-wrote the copy to make him sound more sophisticated and sent it to him. I never heard another word from him, but I did notice that he switched his firm’s focus from estate planning to personal injury not long after.

Around the same time, I co-ghostwrote a memoir that turned into a nightmare. The client refused to accept any direction, editing, or suggestions about the content of the book. She also had a thick accent that made transcribing interviews with her almost impossible. Not surprisingly, no agent was interested in representing her book. She decided to self-publish. Since our contract only covered taking a percentage of the profits from traditional publication, my co-author and I received no money from the few copies this woman sold on her own.

Since that time, I’ve worked successfully with many individuals as an editor and coach. My guidelines for working with individuals are non-negotiable.

First, I don’t take ghostwriting jobs for book-length manuscripts. Unless you’re working with a celebrity, most clients don’t have the funds to pay you for the work this involves. I was approached by a woman who wanted someone to ghostwrite her book about being the unacknowledged originator of a well-known award show. I did a little research and found that she’d been peddling her story to newspapers for a while. She exhibited several signs of being a difficult client, so I declined.

Second, I don’t argue over grammar. I do not have the time to explain why ending a sentence with a preposition is not necessarily an error, why the punctuation marks almost always go inside the quotes, or why the placement of serial commas depends upon where you went to school. I tell people which dictionary and grammar guide I use, and if they insist on putting errors into their work against my advice, I simply tell them it’s wrong, but that it’s their call.

Third, if a client can’t be a partner in the process, I don’t want to work with them. Whether that means contributing part of the writing or simply returning phone calls, we have to establish a good working relationship that’s acceptable to both of us. If a client can’t (or won’t) communicate about what they want changed or done differently, our business is done. I make it absolutely clear that a first draft is meant to be changed, and that I need them to tell me what they like and don’t like about edits or suggestions. I’m a good writer, but I’m not a mind reader.

Fourth, I do not take deals for a future portion of profits. I don’t care how fabulous a story is, unless you can show me an agent or publisher who is willing to take the manuscript immediately, I require something up front for my time. Non-writers have no idea how much work a book entails, or how long the process to get it published can take. After ten or twenty rejections, they often decide to self-publish their book, which pretty much eliminates any possibility of a profit. I don’t know about you, but I’m not usually in a position to work for free.

I worked with a novelist a few years back who had dreams of selling his book as a screenplay. I made a deal for a per-page charge and a percentage of future profits. After he decided to self-publish, I at least had been compensated for my time. If you decide to take a project without any upfront payment, be sure it’s a project for which you’re willing to be unpaid.

Rejection Reason #3: Mysterious and/or Error-Riddled Publications

A couple of years ago, I was delighted to get a call from a woman who had found me on the Web. What writer doesn't love it when the client contacts you first instead of the other way around? She was a PR person looking for general interest articles for her direct-mail magazine/adverzine that was allegedly being sent to high-income households. She described it as a real estate and lifestyle magazine, but I can’t really say what kind of publication it was because she never sent me a copy. Although I was puzzled by her insistence that due to high printing costs they couldn’t spare even one extra copy for me to examine, I went ahead and took the assignment because she agreed to my rate without any fuss. A few months after I had been writing for her, I discovered she was trying to get a website started. Some of my articles were on her fledgling site, and I was horrified to find that not only were errors inserted in my work ("petroglyph" had been changed to "petro graph," for instance), but that her publication was filled with poorly written religiously-themed articles. I cringed at the thought that an unknown number of people had seen my byline in this publication.

Remember that poorly focused writing/fashion/health website that I decided not to pursue? It was also filled with errors. Clips from our work are part of our payment as writers; without good clips, we can’t pitch bigger and better publications. Any publication that makes you embarrassed to admit you wrote for them isn’t worth your time. Any publication that I have to chase down for copies (or payment) is also not likely to get repeat pitches from me.

When you’re just starting out, you’ll be tempted to take every offer you receive. I’ve found that waiting for the right offer is usually better than taking gigs that are headaches. Remember, rejection is a two-way street that you get to drive on, too.
Photo courtesy of Svilen Mushkatov at and


Tom said...

I love your last paragraph on this subject. It reminds me of what I heard at the LA Press club when I was there for a Toys For Tots party. "When all else fails, you can paper your walls with rejection slips."

I think that means even rejection slips have a purpose.

TH Meeks said...

Thanks, Tom! I think rejection slips are a way to show that you're not afraid to hear that awful word, "no," and, like the old saying goes, "You can't get accepted if you don't get rejected."