Want to get published? Don’t read this expert advice from a professional writer with 20 years of success with rejection.
When I was starting out as a writer, I studied publications like The Writer and Writer’s Digest for tips on getting published. I read books like Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript and articles like “What Do Editors Want?”, which were packed with do’s and don’ts for writing query letters and standing out in the slush pile.
- Do address a specific person.
- Do tease the article/book/story succinctly.
- Do mention any previous publishing credits.
- Do demonstrate that you’re familiar with the publication you’re submitting t0.
- Do include a self-addressed stamped envelope (and do party like it’s 1996).
- Don’t overpromise on a delivery date.
- Don’t write back asking why if you’ve been rejected.
- If you don’t hear back, send a follow-up letter, but don’t include guesses about what happened.
- If you get rejected, don’t write back with guesses about what happened.
- Don’t resubmit unless revisions are requested.
I spent years applying these and many more tips to my submissions—pretty much all to no avail. In one case, I learned the true meaning of “demonstrate that you’re familiar with the publication you’re submitting to″ when I submitted some Halloween cookie recipes to a Christian magazine for children.
I had studied the magazine and knew they printed seasonal cookie recipes, so I figured I’d done my research. But I think it was the editor herself who elucidated the rejection with a note that the magazine didn’t touch on Halloween.
Or maybe my gentleman friend figured out that Vile Vampire and Ghastly Ghoul cookies were shunned by religious folk.
Whatever the case, now that I think about it, I guess the title “Heavenly Halloween Cookies” probably seemed like an irreverent turnoff too.
So I kept trying, and I kept studying publications, and I kept learning. I went to writers’ workshops and conferences. I got my bachelor’s degree at what was essentially a writing school, which sadly no longer exists. Then I dabbled in that school’s MFA in Writing, which does still exist. And then I ended up copyediting Writer’s Digest books as a freelancer, getting paid to line edit how-to guides like the ones I had cut my teeth on.
Long story short, over the years I learned what to do and what not to do to get published.
And I threw that all out the window recently with a submission to Huff Post.***
Here’s what I did. Do this, and you won’t get published. Or don’t do this, and maybe you will.
It actually started off well.
I had heard at last year’s Content Marketing World that if you email Arianna Huffington directly, you will be published in the Huffington Post. So I wrote to her, mentioning that I’d heard this, and doing all the do’s mentioned above.
Well, all but one. I left out the SASE.
Arianna responded the next day saying that they would love to feature my voice on Huff Post about inner city students. She cced one of the blog editors so I could send that editor my first post, photo, and bio directly.
My coworkers and I were thrilled, not only because this was going to be big for my career, but because this was going to take our work to a new level. We have a blog that thrives by our standards, but this post was all about expanding our reach, potentially to millions, and sharing tips educators can use to handle aggressive student behavior.
So I built the post around what I’ve learned in copywriting and content marketing:
- Use storytelling to humanize your points.
- Write the way people talk.
- Tap into emotion.
- Demand a click by asking a question.
- Keep paragraphs short.
- Break tips into bold subheads for scan-ability.
- Offer, essentially, a free mini course of your product or service.
- Write to YOU the reader.
We thought this was all perfect for Huff Post’s Education section. Acknowledging reality, addressing something teachers deal with, and giving strategies to make their jobs better.
Plus, Arianna was down with the concept.
So how could I go wrong?
I received a form rejection letter from the editor. That old familiar “bugger off” that every writer knows all too well:
“We appreciate you taking the time to send this our way. Unfortunately, we are going to pass on it at this time and wish you the best of luck in placing it elsewhere!”
Arianna was down!
And that’s actually the worst kind of rejection note you can get because it doesn’t leave room for follow-up. Though it’s pretty standard for busy editors who don’t have time to tell you why your piece doesn’t fit or what you can do to make it fit.
But here’s the thing.
I’m busy too.
So I broke Cardinal Don’t #2 and #4 above, and offered to break Cardinal Don’t #5.
I had to know why the post was rejected, because, frankly, it rocked. Not because I’m an amazing writer, but because it’s based on an amazing true story told by an amazing educator.
The only thing I could think of was that it was too promotional—maybe my mention of the educator using my company’s training came off as too self-serving. So I wrote to the editor thanking her for considering my post, and saying…
(This is humiliating to share, but I’m doing it anyway, just as I knew it was humiliating to send, but I did that anyway. That said, it’s also one of the keys to not getting published, so if you don’t want to get published, do this):
As I read it again I wonder if it wasn’t a good fit because it felt too promotional. I’d be happy to revise it to focus only on how Maria talked the boy down from violence. I think the takeaways will really help anyone who works in education, so I’m willing to make any changes it would take [oh God!] to give your education readers a step-by-step how-to.
Never do this.
Because it’s desperate, stupid, and it elicited no response.
Naturally. All the tips tell you that if the door is closed, don’t try to open it. But I kept wondering:
Did Arianna accidentally send me the address of an editor who doesn’t deal with education? Or was my post too promotional? Or did it take too long for me to send it?
I have to admit—it took a month, because I’m a busy editor too. (Tip: if you do want to get published in the Huffington Post or anywhere, don’t let work or life get in the way for more than a week after your query is accepted.)
I knew the value of that tip I just provided, but I figured that they weren’t waiting on the edge of their seats for my post. They didn’t mention a deadline, they have content coming out of their ears, and I have 126 more excuses I could list that could aid your efforts toward not getting published.
So then we considered other content channels, and I submitted to a different blog for educators, but received no response. That made a bit more sense, as that blog is more politically oriented than strategies oriented. So I could live with that.
But the Huff Post thing still didn’t make sense to me.
So I did some research and learned that the editor who was my contact was likely not (if my research was accurate), in fact, the education editor. So I found the education editor and followed her on Twitter. I retweeted her articles. I retweeted other Huff P articles that were related to my topic. I demonstrated that I love reading, writing, and sharing quality content on education.
And then I sent her a revision.
Never do this.
Because they had already rejected the post, they didn’t ask for revisions, and they weren’t interested.
But I had little to lose. And though I don’t know exactly what Huff Post wants and doesn’t want in posts about education, I have a strong editorial sense about what works and what doesn’t and where. I’m an editor for God’s sake.
Never think this.
Because no matter what your own experience is, you don’t have the full picture about a publication that its editors do.
But even knowing this, I resubmitted anyway.
The body stayed the same, but I changed the intro a little. I removed the possibly-too-promotional mention of the fact that the educator uses our training.
And I changed the title. I put “How to” in there, because you learn how to handle difficult behavior.
And then I didn’t mention that I had submitted the article before. I did this even though I pictured the two editors—the one who wasn’t the ED editor and the one who was—reviewing submissions in a morning meeting with the rest of the editorial team and saying, “Wait, we already decided that this doesn’t fit, right?”
But I did this because a wise friend said, “You don’t know if they review stuff like that, so why hurt your chances. Assume they don’t know each other, and let her consider your post on its merit.”
This didn’t seem likely—the not-knowing-each-other thing–because I work on the CPI blog closely with a colleague, and we often bounce submissions back and forth. But our operation is much smaller.
And I thought “funk it” anyway—if anything, not mentioning to the ED editor that she might have seen a previous draft of my post would save me space in my email and her time in her reading.
And I never heard back, probably because I broke about 50 of the rules of getting published.
My post has since gotten picked up by an education publication with thousands of followers, and it’s gotten some decent engagement.
Stay tuned and I’ll share how that happened and how—despite the hilarious title of this post—you CAN get published somewhere, even if it isn’t the Huffington Post.
Because even with all the rejection we writers get, this is the best time in the history of the written word ever in the universe to be a writer.
***By the way, the reasons I’m giving here for not getting published are total assumptions and are exaggerated for humor . . . I was never told that the reason I got nowhere with my HuffPo submissions was that I was breaking 1990s rules for submitting work.
Image: Thinkstock – zakkum5