Guest blogger: Bret Schulte
I recently climbed one of the towers of Old Main at the University of Arkansas to attend a workshop to help faculty win grants. I teach journalism, and I have a story idea that would benefit from a few bucks. It’s not like newsrooms have any money to spend.
So, I went and learned a few things. I learned you can call project administrators for help, and by that I mean, you can actually call the National Endowment for Humanities and ask them if your any idea is any good. (That would have saved me some time last year.) I learned to write simply and directly, basically like a journalist and not an academic. (Good news for me.) I learned that references really matter. (Not good news for me.) And I learned to take the elevator to the 5th floor. All useful.
But none of that really stuck with me. Except the stairs. Honestly, I had to go back and dig into my notes to find that stuff to share with you. What I did remember—what really, really got to me—weren’t any of the tips from the university’s most prolific grant writers and biggest winners. It was the number of times they’ve been rejected.
An acclaimed historian who is published by Oxford University Press talked about winning a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—which is like winning the lottery, but for way less money and only after a wretched process of writing and revision and begging for references. Still, she got it! Nevertheless, she cast herself almost entirely as a loser to the members of this workshop. Again and again, she had applied for grants and failed. She even lost most of her bids for funding in the somewhat-less deadly field of competitors for grants and stipends at the University of Arkansas.
Then there was the poet who won a Guggenheim Award, which basically makes him a secular saint in the academy, in this case the secular saint of great chest hair spilling from his shirt. He, too, mused about the tragedy of rejection to a swooning audience. If a poet with great chest hair has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous rejection what chance do the rest of us have?
Sadly, not much.
Journalistic freelancing, increasingly, is about coping with rejection as much as it about writing stories. In a sad, sadistic way, I liked hearing that other people who are literally, certifiably smarter and more accomplished than I am, also endure rejection and failure.
Perversely, I felt better about myself. Granted, the competition is less fierce and the criteria somewhat lower for most journalism, than say, the Guggenheim Award. But I needed to be reminded that failure is a common human experience, not exclusive to me, or to journalists in general.
The past few months, I’ve had a lot of story ideas rejected. Part of it is the industry’s contraction, which has meant more laid-off reporters competing for freelance gigs. Also, it means fewer freelance gigs. The competition is ferocious, which means the odds will never be in your favor.
And part of it is me. I pitched a “check-out-this-fascinating-Southern-subculture” story to a magazine that is way more interested in happy consumer stuff, like, “How to impress your guests with an amazing cocktail”—which if I was writing it, and knowing my guests, would consist of: Pour bourbon into a glass. In other words, I should have paid more attention to what the magazine actually published, as opposed to what I wanted it to publish.
After having a few ideas rejected by another magazine, I (accidentally) followed the advice of one of the really smart people at that workshop: Ask for help. I emailed an assistant editor for advice on pitching the magazine. Surprisingly, this friendly person wrote me back a thoughtful list of suggestions on what they’re looking for. Just as helpful, he admitted that not even he understands why some stories are chosen and others rejected.
The advice helped, but so did the confirmation that there is no order in the universe. Sometimes things go your way; most often they don’t. Although I don’t think it’s possible to take rejection personally, despite all the self-help gurus out there, I do think it is possible to remember that it is not just you. Yes, you can write a better pitch with better reporting and a better narrative. Yes, you can be smarter about where you pitch your stories. And yes, you can seek advice. But without getting too cosmic about freelance journalism, sometimes it’s just not going to happen. Sometimes the editor, or the panel awarding grants, just isn’t feeling it. Sometimes, there just isn’t any money. Sometimes, the competition is just better. All of that is true for everyone—even for a poet with terrific chest hair.
Bret Schulte is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. He has worked or freelanced for The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Columbia Journalism Review and others.