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On not taking ‘no’ for an answer

Donna Ferguson

Donna Ferguson gave tips on pitching stories

DONNA FERGUSON is a multiple-award-winning freelance journalist for the Guardian Education, Weekend, Society, Money and books sections, and for the Observer from hard news to topical features to celebrity interviews. She is a committee member for the non-profit organisation Women in Journalism. She gave the 53 people who "came" to the June meeting of London Freelance Branch a masterclass on "how to turn rejection into a commission: why rejection should never hold you back".

Donna's presentation and the slides we quote below are based on the seminars she offers at womeninjournalism.co.uk/events - see below.

She reports that she "went freelance when I had a baby. I had been editor of the website lovemoney.com." Then "I was changing nappies and being called 'Flora's mum' all day," she recalls.

When her maternity leave was over, she decided to freelance so she could work flexible hours. "I had very few contacts after that year on maternity leave - and I had massive impostor syndrome because it was ages since I had written, having been an editor." But "within a few months I started to win awards - about 8, and I've been shortlisted for 25 or so others - all without previous experience on a national, and all from work appearing in the Guardian and Observer."

She talked us through a process that started with a pitch for an interview with TV presenter Cherry Healey:

First attempt to reach the editor

The editor didn't reply. Donna sent two more emails and then Tweeted the editor. Still nothing.

She tried a range of different pitches. Eventually the editor replied, saying that an idea was "too practical" for the section. At least that was a response. She made a point - as she always does - of thanking the editor for her time and feedback. And kept pitching.

Pitch: Interview with CELEBRITY X
Two days later

NO REPLY

So Donna tried some radically different angles, for example:

2 weeks later...

Finally, the editor replied that she's "not the right person to pitch to" with such proposals - and directed Donna to pitch to her deputy.

Donna re-checked that the section had not "done" CELEBRITY X, and tried that pitch again.

And she got an informative - if negative - response:

It was a no....

Donna thanked him, as she always does.

By now she was on her tenth email or so to this section. What was she doing wrong? Trying a different approach, she sent a list of 20 names she'd be prepared to interview...

...and she got back a response with actual pitching advice, including: "don't send more than two or three ideas at once."

She kept trying - and three pitches later, was finally commissioned. This led to a further 30 further commissions. The editor got promoted and continued to commission Donna regularly in his new role.

Later, Donna pitched an article on rejection - and it was accepted:

Observer Health & Wellbeing, 26 August 2018

How to accept rejection: why failure can be the first step towards success

Clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd says that the way you interpret rejection is important. "Most things worth doing take time and patience. Instead of telling yourself a rejection means 'I'm not good at this', you could interpret it as: 'I'm not there yet' or 'this is just one person's view'."

Jia Jiang spent 100 days seeking out rejection and then wrote a book about his experiences, Rejection Proof: How to Beat Fear and Become Invincible. "I realised my fear of being rejected was worse than the rejection itself. I started losing my fear and having fun instead." he said. "If you want to be successful and make an impact while you are on earth, you're going to have to face rejection. If you run away from it the whole time, you're going to have regrets."

Donna reports that "I also once interviewed Giles Andreae, creator of Purple Ronnie and author of Giraffes Can't Dance. He told me: 'Every creative thing I've ever done has been rejected before it's been accepted. Purple Ronnie was rejected by about 20 publishers. Every book I've written has been rejected, too. If you're trying to do new things, particularly creatively, rejection is a standard part of the process. If you want to be successful and make an impact you're going to have to face rejection."

About her own approach, Donna says: "relationships matter. Editors know that I don't view rejection as this horrible thing. I always thank them for their time - and then they're more generous with their feedback." In fact, "getting rejections can help you build up that relationship with an editor."

Turning a rejection into a commission

"I had a chance to interview Jacqueline Wilson about her latest book in the Tracy Beaker series. I had not put that much effort into the pitch, though."

The editor replied 6 hours and 50 minutes later. Donna "always notes the time a response is sent. You get commissions much quicker than rejections." And indeed it was a "no".

So Donna turned to the Family section, and "put much more effort into the pitch. I observed that I 'find it quite shocking that Tracy Beaker is still pretty much the only modern heroine in children's books who grew up in the care system. It's really awful how little this kind of family is featured in the books children are reading'."

The message an hour and eight minutes later was: "much as 1 think Jacqueline Wilson is to be encouraged on every front I don't see this as one for me - a little too literary and kiddie-oriented. Sorry."

How about the Books section? They replied three and a half days later. So we know what the message was. Donna replied that she was impressed by the editor's dedication, replying at 10 at night. The editor responded that she was doing her email from a book launch.

And she tried yet another editor. And 22 minutes later: "I do remember your very nice Comment and often read your articles in the Observer and education pages. What a great idea. Yes, please do go ahead and see if she'd agree to an interview which we could time to run when the book comes out."

Donna Ferguson

Donna Ferguson on the Zoom

Building relationships is of course not just about thanking editors for their feedback when they reject your pitch. When Donna filed this piece she wrote in the covering email that they should "not hesitate to send it back to me if you want me to work on it some more". And she "wrote it a bit long and asked that if the editor did like it, please pay lineage for what you do publish".

An hour later, she received a message saying it was "wonderful" and replied: "I just can't get over that you liked it. I'm just sitting here feeling so happy. It meant so much to me to be able to interview Jacqueline about this subject. Thank you."

The following week that editor wrote to commission another piece.

And then management stopped printing the Society section. But "it was good while it lasted."

Donna also advises us: "do not underestimate the power of Twitter. Always follow the editor you're pitching to on Twitter - respond and re-tweet and respond to call-outs. You can build a really good relationship on Twitter even if your pitches are being rejected "

Lots of freelances Tweet "I can do this." Instead, "I replied to such a call-out with a tip and the editor emailed offering a commission."

And you don't have to take too long over it:

Remember: you don't have to write the perfect pitch
  • As long as you have tailored your· pitch to the publication, editors will respect you for that.
  • If you pitch and get rejected, you may still get useful feedback or a chance to start to get on friendly terms with an editor. Always be polite and thank them for taking the trouble to reply to you and say you welcome any feedback if they have time to give you any as you would really love to pitch to them again.
  • Try to seek out rejection. If you have a mindset that it doesn't matter if you get rejected, it's very liberating. And it's a good thing to show you are keen.
  • Ideas are not precious jewels. You can always come up with another one. There is always something else to write about!

In summary: "rejection is part of being a freelance. Dealing with it is like putting on shoes to go to work... Often the problem is not with your pitch: it's just that the editor is not looking for that kind of story right now..."

Donna recommends the "missed pitches" newsletter - a "home for rejected story ideas" at missedpitches.substack.com - and, for women, the Facebook group No 1 Freelance Media Women.

And in conclusion: "If you don't pitch you will definitely not get commissioned"

  • Donna's next Women in Journalism Masterclass is "How to overcome imposter syndrome and increase your earning power" on 13 July. It costs WiJ members £7.50 and non-members £12.50 - book here and note that recordings of past events are available to watch via this page.

Questions

A member asked how Donna approaches interviewees and their representatives when she has no firm commission. Simply ask Public Relations people: "can I put this person forward?"

Another asked whether she pitches an idea to several editors at once, or waits for a response before moving on. "I do one at a time... these ideas are not that topical. I don't really see it as that much of a big deal to pitch to one at a time. I don't think it often happens that two editors want the commission - if it does happen, pick one and offer the other a tweaked pitch or something on a different topic."

And how long does she wait to re-pitch? "If the editor's not interested, move on. In general, you have to decide what's more important to you - if you really care about the idea keep pitching, though it may not pay off. I've seen many journalists get attached to an idea and it's rejected and rejected and rejected and they get resentful - and that's not a good way to live or work. If you're going to end up feeling that way, don't put yourself through that. Instead keep on and pay attention to the feedback. Read a publication every week and tailor pitches to its audience and that editor, rather than getting attached to one idea."

And how much time does Donna spend pitching? "You have to pitch as a freelancer - but not that much. Now about half my commissions are the editor's ideas that they send to me because I have built relationships. So I pitch for maybe a couple of hours a week - that's enough to earn a living. I worked out that 96 per cent of my income is from commissions by national papers. I don't need to do copywriting and stuff."

During the break the Freelance asked about "pitching on the rebound" - recalling slamming the phone down (this was a while ago) on a Guardian editor and calling the Telegraph all fired up and getting twice as much. Donna muses that "I maybe don't do that often enough. There have been times I've been turned down and I see the idea appear somewhere else. Maybe I should be pro-active in pitching to other publications."