Why Good Writing Gets Rejected

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Writers are always told that to avoid rejection, they need to proofread, proofread, proofread. Follow the submission guidelines, be familiar with the publication, and things will go well. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes even a submission that a writer has rewritten, edited and polished until it sparkles gets rejected—but that doesn’t mean that the writer is a bad writer.

So what is going on behind the scenes that an automated rejection email can’t tell you? Why does good writing get rejected, and why should writers keep trying when it can be so hard to get traction in the industry?

The Acquisitions Meeting

Whether you’re submitting to a magazine, a journal, a publisher or another word-wrangling opportunity, even if an editor falls in love with your work, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can publish it. An editor’s job is to convince the rest of their team (including people working in design, sales, marketing and publicity) that they can make the rest of the world fall in love with it too.

Most of the time, especially in large publishers and publications, an editor can’t move forward with an article or a manuscript without approval. They need to be able to convince their colleagues that the work will turn a profit, that it is marketable, and that people will want to purchase it.

Publishing is a business, and it is constantly competing against television, films, music, theatre, games and other forms of entertainment for a consumer’s attention. The publisher is taking a risk with every piece that they take on that they may lose money. As much as we’d all like beautiful, well-crafted writing to immediately sell, publishers and publications need to make sure that they make viable investments—or they might not be able to publish anything at all.

The Competition

When you submit your work, you don’t submit inside a vaccuum. All editors are building a suite of publications, whether it is for an issue of a magazine or for a line up of books to be released at a certain time. If your work is too similar to another piece, or startlingly different, or the market is saturated with similar titles, it may be rejected regardless of its quality because it isn’t appropriate for that editor at that time.

Similarly, sometimes an editor is flooded with high quality works and has to choose between them. The deciding factor could be anything from which is the editor’s favourite, which the editor feels will impress their colleagues the most, which is more likely to be financially viable, or which writer they think they will work with best.

The Writer

Editing work is a collaborative process, and every editor has to be aware of the people they will be working with. Many publishers will arrange a coffee with a writer before taking them on for this very reason. If a writer is rude, resistant to change, or otherwise difficult to work with, the publisher may not feel the manuscript is worth investing in. This is why it is so important to be kind and open during every step of the way; while it is never expected that writers should make every suggested change, writers should be careful to treat editors respectfully. Your manuscript might be your baby that you have worked on for years, but this is their 9-5, and they have every right to want to work with people who will make their job enjoyable.

This is also why it is beneficial to have a publication history. Having previous editors that can vouch for you (even if it is not in the same writing form) shows that you have worked in this kind of relationship before, that you can work to deadline, and it will hopefully give you positive references in the community. However, be careful—literary communities are usually quite small, and if you burn bridges, the news is likely to spread to people you may want to work with in the future.

The Submission Guidelines

Sometimes excellent writers try to circumvent the submission guidelines in order to make their work stand out. They might change the font or text size, send their manuscript on pink paper, or submit to publishers who don’t publish that kind of work. This is almost always a mistake.

Editors read hundreds of manuscripts a month, and their requested submission guidelines are a plea to help them maintain sanity. A change of font or page colour can easily induce a headache, or pull them out of their focus, and knowing this, many editors will just discard manuscripts that don’t meet their submission guidelines. It’s also the first indicator that you will be difficult to work with or won’t follow due process. It may seem strange that they request loosely bound paper with font size 12 Arial and 4-inch margins, but there is a reason for this, and you will handicap yourself if you don’t respect. the process.

In addition, if you send an editor a genre or form they don’t usually work with, odds are they won’t know how or have the resources to publish it. Publishing is a specialised business and most poetry editors do not know how to edit fiction, and many romance editors don’t have a strong understanding of the current crime market. If an editor without expertise in your genre published your work, the publication would be less likely to be successful.

The Fit

When it comes down to it, a publisher has very little time to consider each unsolicited submission. If your piece doesn’t mesh with the person reading your query from the first few paragraphs, it is unlikely to get a second look. They could put it down for the same reasons anyone would put down a book—they could be in a bad mood (or the wrong mood for your story), they could be reading it late at night or right after a stressful meeting, or it could just be the wrong novel for them.

Don’t be discouraged by rejection. All writers get rejected sometimes (even the very successful ones), and most publishers have passed on something wonderful. If you want to get an idea of the quality of your writing before submitting, contact your state writers centre and ask about manuscript assessment services. For a fee, an industry professional can read your work closely and provide you with a written report on the writing quality, marketability, and any other questions you have.

How to Find Your Writing Tribe

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Writing a book can be a big and scary process—and it can also be lonely and demotivating if you don’t have anyone to share the process with. Often creative people struggle to find people they can relate to and share their journeys with (and non-creative people aren’t always interested in their journeys).

Fear not, writerly friends! You can totally make writing and other-types-of-creative friends, and there are people out there who can’t wait to meet you. It’s not even as hard as you think it is; you already have stuff in common that excites you and you know what it is to be brought alive by art and there is no stronger people-connector than that.

Writing groups

Writing groups are an amazing way to get involved with the local writing community, get feedback on your work, and to encourage yourself to write regularly. Meeting other people who are as passionate about the craft as you are is exhilarating, and you’ll be surprised by how much you improve your craft through both giving and receiving constructive feedback.

To find a writers group that already exists, ask your local writers centre for suggestions. If there isn’t one that is suitable for you, ask them to publicize your interest and get anyone who might be interested to contact you.

Another option is to join a facilitated writers group or a long-term course. Again, writers centres may run these, or you could join something like the Australian Writers Marketplace’s online Year of the Novel course if you’d rather stay home.

Attending events (in real life)

If you’re willing to leave your house (and you don’t live in the middle of nowhere), there are lots of opportunities to meet other writers. Give your state writers centre or other local relevant organisation a call and ask what opportunities you might be able to go to. They will be able to direct you to writing workshops  on all different topics, networking events, book launches, festivals, poetry slams, and other events for the writerly minded.

Attending an event aimed at your interest areas is a great way to meet with other writers who may be at the same level as you, or be open to collaboration. Once you’ve mingled at a couple of events, you’ll start to get an idea of how the community in your area works. Generally speaking, the writing community is surprisingly small and everyone knows-someone-who-knows-someone—you just have to get involved, and before you know it, you’ll be completely bombarded with writerly people.

Attending events (from your couch)

It’s totally fine if you can’t attend events in real life—there are plenty of happenings you can join from the safety of your bed. While there are writing communities online year-round, the advantage of attending these events is the sudden influx of resources and the community around one specific goal or idea acts as an instant icebreaker between you and everyone else there. Plus, they’re just fun!

Take a look at events like NaNoWriMo (and Camp NaNoWriMo), Book-in-a-Week, and the Digital Writers Festival, and see if any of them tickle your fancy. Also pay attention to other events such as word sprints or writing festivals and track hash tags on twitter. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the people using the tag; the worst they can do is not reply.

The internet

Thanks to the internet, location and time zones are no barriers, and you can find yourself becoming writing buddies with people from all over the world. There are active writing Facebook groups and hundreds of Twitter hashtags (1, 2) for both writers and readers. While the NaNoWriMo forums are most active in November, they are open all year round for writers to commiserate.

Tumblr is another popular platform for writers to join as it is both an active social media platform and a blogging platform suitable for posting written work. You can find other writers using tags such as #writing, #spilledink, and #writeblr.

If you’re not sure where to start, and want to create a feed on Twitter or Tumblr of writing things, follow a couple of influential people in your interest areas (or people who post in the hashtags), and then take a look at who they follow. Look for journals and magazines as well. Then, as you go through your feed, look for opportunities to interact with the people posting stuff that interests you.

Reach out!

At the end of the day, whether they are at an event or online, people become part of the writing community because they want to meet other writers. Writing itself can be a solitary task, but the community brings many wonderful people together. Don’t be afraid to send someone a message or ask them about what they write, because they’re there for exactly the same reasons as you are.

How to Get Started with Freelance Writing in Australia

A little-known fact is that most Australian publications are open to unsolicited pitches. That means that emerging writers can find themselves in the same magazines and journals as big-name writers such as Benjamin Law. And you don’t need to sacrifice your whole life for it, either; you can build industry connections, find a niche of your own, and create a published portfolio while still working or studying full time.

Of course, the whole industry can be a daunting place for someone just starting out, with no understanding of the industry. This is a gentle, step-by-step guide on building connections, a portfolio, and a career.

1. Get reading!

It’s amazing how many people dream of writing and hardly read. Think of reading as an apprenticeship for writing; it’s a way for you to see how and why successful writers are successful! And think of it as market research.

Get your hands on as many publications as you can, and search for online journals. Great Australian magazines and journals that accept submissions include The Lifted Brow, Seizure, Voiceworks (which only accepts submissions from people under the age of 25, and provides editorial feedback for every submission including those not published), Frankie, and Meanjin. Look for small magazines and journals that are created locally near you, as well as ones in your niche. If you’re not sure, ask your state writers centre for recommendations.

Once you have an idea of the marketplace, you’ll also have an idea of the places that your work might be appropriate for. Look at the contents page of the publication, and if it doesn’t say that they don’t accept unsolicited articles, you’re fine to pitch. It is always a good idea to have read at least a couple of issues of a publication you want to submit to, so that you can understand the editor’s intentions and taste. You don’t want to waste their time (and yours) on a piece that just isn’t viable for that publication.

2. Build a portfolio.

It will help you in the long run if you start to build a portfolio of published work. This can be in blog form, or a website with links to online articles, or through building a publication history in smaller publications. Of course you can go ahead and start pitching to the big magazines right away, but if you can show examples of your work, it will certainly give your pitch an edge against the competition.

Remember that when you’re just starting out, you may need to work for free before finding paid gigs. Publications that can’t afford to pay their writers are usually run by passionate people because they love it, and often these publications are in the centre of a local (or online) writing community. The literary community, especially in Australia, is incredibly small and you never know where people will end up – writing for free can be a great exercise in networking.

There are lots of awesome indie publications that are constantly on the lookout for writers, and if you can get your work into one of them, you’ll have an article to add to your portfolio, and an editor that can vouch for your work. As much as the big magazines want to know you can write, they also want to know that you’re professional and easy to work with, and having someone in the business to vouch for you can make a huge difference.

3. Get networking.

As mentioned above, the literary community is much smaller than you think it is, but it’s also much more accessible than it appears. Magazine editors and prominent writers are generally just a tweet away, and they are almost always incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. If there’s someone you admire, reach out to them and ask them if they have any advice for you.

Also make sure that you go to literary events in the community. There are often free (or very cheap) events run by publications, literary collectives or writers centres, and the people who attend these can be valuable connections when building your career. In the literary community, everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows the person who could make or break your career.

For this reason, it can be useful to have an online blog or portfolio that you can direct people to so they can see your work and offer advice to move into the next stage in your career.  This is also a great way to keep abreast of opportunities to get more involved with the writing community.

If you have social media accounts, also make sure to share the work of other writers you admire. Often they will notice and tweet back, and they will always appreciate the extra exposure. Be generous and it will flow back to you tenfold.

4. Work your way up.

While it is easier to start by submitting to smaller publications, you can certainly work your way up to submitting to the big guys. Often magazines will have submission pages on their websites, with an idea of the content they are looking for. If they don’t have an online submissions page, find the editor’s email (and if it is a large publication with multiple editors, look for the relevant editor’s details), and send them a polite email with your pitch.

Read through a couple of issues of the magazine so that you can identify which sections are written by regular contributors, and which ones might be appropriate for you to submit to. Learn these sections by name and include them in your cover letter, along with a paragraph about your writing experience and publication history (and a link to your online portfolio, if appropriate).

Make sure to read through the submission guidelines carefully, and follow them exactly. If you don’t care enough to format your work appropriately, why should they care enough to publish it? Some publications will want you to send in completed articles, but most will want to you to pitch an idea (or seven). This is why having a publication history/portfolio is so important; you can show that you have the ability to follow through on what you’re promising.

5. Don’t forget the admin.

As a freelance writer, you are self-employed. This means that you may need an Australian Business Number, and once you earn a certain amount of money each year, you will need to register to pay GST. You will need to keep track of your expenses and tax deductions, send invoices to organisations that will pay you, and keep records of where you are submitting each piece.

If you check the submission guidelines page of a publication’s website, it will often say how long they will take to get back to you. If this amount of time passes, or this information is not there and a few weeks have passed, send a polite follow up email. Also, if you are submitting pre-written pieces, be careful not to submit the same piece to more than one place at the same time unless they allow simultaneous submissions.  Don’t waste anyone’s time with a piece they may not get to publish.

Make sure to keep an eye on all possible opportunities that you can enter! Don’t limit yourself to submitting to one kind of magazine. Enter competitions and submit to blogs with multiple contributors and ejournals as well. Make sure to research each avenue, of course, to ensure that they are reputable (especially if you are paying an entry fee).