How My Writing Career Thrived After My Article Got Killed

Dead Woman Hand on Computer Keyboard Crime SceneI’ve shared a lot on this blog about how I got started as a freelance writer. But here’s one thing I’ve never gotten around to mentioning.

Probably because it’s sort of embarrassing. I kind of blocked it out of mind.

It’s the story of how my very first assigned article got killed — and why that did not turn out to be the end of my freelance writing dreams.

Here’s how it went down…

First, I won an essay contest held by the L.A. Weekly. I was one of about ten winners, they published my essay, paid me $200, and my lifelong dream of being a songwriter changed forever.

I had found the kind of writing that paid you money. Not only if you became a huge star, but paid everyday people money, right away.

I was thrilled.

Then I did something crazy. With absolutely no journalism or reporting experience, I pitched the paper an article idea.

My first article and why it died

I was involved in activism around a particular hot-button political issue in L.A. at the time, and I wanted to know if they would like an article about one of the groups I was working against.

Being an alternative paper, they said yes. A daily newspaper never would have let me write about an issue I clearly had an opinion on! But in the end, that doomed the assignment anyway.

Takeaway: Never take a reported article assignment on an issue where you’ve formed a passionate opinion. It will not end well.

I also was too green to know I needed to write to length. Think they asked for 750 words or so, and I turned in 1,500.

The research went on and on like I was stuck in a quicksand swamp. I spend weeks looking into the ties between this group’s leaders and jailed terrorists. I uncovered their sketchy past careers. I went down a dozen offshoot trails to fascinating (to me, anyway) side points.

I completely lost track of the original assignment — to simply profile this group, who they were, why they had come to town, and what they were doing here.

In the end, I turned in a big mess. It was more like throwing in the towel than handing in an article.

The editor was apologetic, and said he knew there were probably some truths in there somewhere…but it was clear I had too much of an ax to grind against this organization. My piece was poorly organized, clearly biased, and beyond salvation.

As I recall, they gave me $50 or so as a kill fee and sent me on my way.

How I reacted

Looking back now, I realize this should probably have spelled the end of my prose-writing career. You’d think I would have slunk back to being a starving singer-songwriter.

But instead, I displayed a character trait that would serve me well all the rest of my writing life: I was naively upbeat about the whole thing. I was simply too ignorant of the business world to realize I was a failure.

It honestly didn’t occur to me that this was a sign I wasn’t cut out for article writing. I simply forgot to implode and feel bad about myself and curl up in a ball and give up and die.

I thought of it as an aberration. OK, I made a mistake.

I knew I was still a good writer. After all, I had won that essay contest!

That one article didn’t work out…and it felt like I’d burned a bridge to the paper that had liked and published my writing. That was definitely not good. And I never got up the nerve to pitch them again.

I didn’t know it then, but this was a major turning point that would determine the course of the whole rest of my professional life.

The hopeful thought I had: There certainly must be other places I could write for, right?

What I did next that made the difference

My eye traveled across the free-paper boxes outside my local mini-mart to the other alternative paper, the L.A. Reader.

I pitched them something. Something simpler. I think it might have been coverage of a city council meeting.

They said yes. I wrote something short and sweet, maybe 350 words. They bought it.

And I wrote for them for years. I wrote about communities and controversies and issues and did book reviews and whatever they wanted.

One of the editors there became a great mentor to me, and patiently taught me how to report and write a story.

Eventually, he let me write a 3,000-word cover feature. Ironically, it touched on that very same political group I had gotten the article killed on back at the Weekly. But by now, I knew how to keep my point of view out of it, gather my facts, and just tell a great story.

And it was optioned for a movie, for $10,000. Which at the time to me was an absolute fortune.

It didn’t end up getting made…most optioned pieces don’t.

But I built a thriving freelance career, found other clients including the Los Angeles Times. A few years later, I used those clips to bluff my way into a good-paying staff-writing job at a high-toned business trade publication based on Park Avenue in New York, despite my lack of a college degree. All of which led to my most recent freelance stint, starting in 2005.

What you need to succeed

My whole writing career that followed — all the awards and great magazines and fun businesses I’ve written for since — would never have happened if I hadn’t had the guts to try again after that one screwup.

Freelance writing is not a game for the easily discouraged.

Know that we all make mistakes and have assignments go pear-shaped on us, as the Brits like to say.

The soft-hearted and sensitive will give up. You have to toughen up and be ready to take your punches and keep right on going.

If you can keep going, there’s no telling how your writing journey could turn out.

Ever have an assignment go south on you? Leave a comment and tell us how you kept going.

 

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37 comments on “How My Writing Career Thrived After My Article Got Killed
  1. Barbara says:

    I just got my first “not up to par” response from an editor on an assignment and so reading this is a boon this morning. Thank you for sharing some of your set-backs along the way. It’s encouraging and helping me to step up and move forward.

    thanks to Linda for forwarding it to me. You are both so supportive!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Glad this helped, Barbara! I’ve gone on to write thousands of published articles. One of them didn’t do the job. In the great perspective of your career, one killed article is pretty insignificant. So don’t let it get you down! Learn from it and move on…

  2. I once got some work on the basis of a proposal.

    The client liked the proposal and then sent me a number of documents, the content of which I was supposed to expand into several scripts.

    But, I just took off on the content and structure of the proposal; and I did it twice!

    Fortunately, the client hung in there with me and I finished the task within the deadline.

    But it taught me to read the brief and to make sure that I had all my questions answered before I started on a project.

  3. I’m a bit late to the game here but only just read this article Carol and love your candid honesty, as usual. This quote from Sylvia Plath often gets me through a few knocks and my fair share of ‘rejections’ so thought I’d share:

    “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

    πŸ™‚
    Kirsty Stuart recently posted…How to Make Money Writing for Travel BlogsMy Profile

  4. Josh Brancek says:

    Carol, an awesome and inpiring journey!!! I hope you will be closer to your success every day!!!
    Josh Brancek recently posted…15 ADVANCED RULES To Create Strong and Healthy RelationshipMy Profile

  5. Lauren says:

    I loved this! And I related to it so much.

    I actually had a similar issue with a story I submitted to the school paper when I was in high school. During my junior year, I wrote a “guest” story for the paper and it was rejected for being several hundred words too long. However, it was partly because of that story (which I turned in elsewhere and was accepted!) that I ended up becoming the head writer for my high school’s paper during my senior year.

    Even writing “failures” have a purpose. And, quite often, it’s a good one. πŸ™‚

    Fantastic article, Carol. Very uplifting! May we all continue to be “too ignorant” to know when we should quit. πŸ˜‰
    Lauren recently posted…The Truth About Freelance Writers: What You’re Really Paying ForMy Profile

  6. k. says:

    So, I’ve only really had one failure — thus far — where an editor didn’t like a blog post on a conference. He didn’t really know what he wanted in the first place; and with 200 words I think this kind of assignment could be difficult, even though it’s seemingly easy, especially when one is told to profile and contrast three different cos. He sent me a terse rejection note and I never knew whether to answer it in writing (get last word in polite way). Also, I didn’t know what to tell interviewees (I told truth). Thoughts?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ah yes, the deceptive ease of short assignments! It can be so hard to be that concise. Cramming 3 companies into that space is pretty tough.

      I probably would have responded with something brief like, “Sorry this didn’t meet your needs.” Just to let him know you got it and heard what he had to say.

      But what matters most is to learn from what happened. When I’m outlined an assignment that sounds unrealistic I try to raise the red flag immediately — “That sounds more like I’d need 600 words at least.” I try to refuse to do impossible tasks that are doomed to failure, or to at least warn the client it’s going to be tough to deliver what they want.

      Then when I turn it in, I note what I’ve done to accommodate what they wanted. Can sometimes help stave off the outright rejection if you talk them through it up top.

      • k. says:

        Thanks, Carol. it also didn’t help that he seemed to object personally to a technique one company termed environmentally friendly. But, I really didn’t know how to approach interviewees after . .

        • Carol Tice says:

          The way you did — “I’m sorry, the piece didn’t end up running.” Really out of your control, it’s the truth, and there’s nothing else to say. It happens sometimes.

          And so often it’s not about you but the editor’s own predelictions, as this story seems to indicate.

  7. $50 kill fee? I’d like to think of it as gentle euthanasia.

    I’ve been fortunate so far to not have any of my newspaper articles killed, but I have struggled with getting lost in telling a story. One in particular clocked in at 2500+ words and I had to cut it down to 350 in order for it to run in the paper. I felt like crap knowing I had let down this passionate Mom and the story about her struggle with her son’s autism. In the end however, she ran my entire article on her son’s autism blog.

    Thanks for writing about your early years and having such an incredible community (I love reading everyone’s comments.) I’m confident now that if my work ever does gets killed, I’ll know how to channel my inner Carol and keep trucking.
    Colleen Conger recently posted…The Potent Blend of Inspiration and FearMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Writing overlength just leads to sadness, doesn’t it? It’s great you were able to find another outlet for the long version. πŸ˜‰

      The first 3000-word feature I wrote for the Reader I think was twice that length when I hit the wall…and my editor helped me chop it down. Learned a TON in that process that I still use today.

  8. Lisa Baker says:

    I just love this story. I don’t even need a rejection to feel like a failure. Some days, I just wake up feeling like all my writing sucks. Or a really kind, clear revision request sends me over the edge. But — I’m definitely getting good at ignoring the voice of failure and writing and pitching anyway.
    Lisa Baker recently posted…16 Chores Your Toddler Can DoMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Lisa — man, I’m the same. An editor asks me for a revision and I see all their notes and then I just have to go lay down and take a nap. Then I can only look at them one at a time and have to go do something else in between reading each comment.

      Which is why I try to work hard on my first drafts so I don’t get much back in edit. πŸ˜‰

  9. Chris Peden says:

    Carol,

    I thought about the scene in Rocky Balboa when he is telling his son about life.

    “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It’s about how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

    Thanks for showing that success isn’t automatic, and all that you do in The Writer’s Den. It has been a big help in starting my writing business.
    Chris Peden recently posted…Lowering The Tax Bill For Your Small BusinessMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      We should do a “trade our most inspiring movie sayings” post sometime! My husband is a UCLA film school grad so we’ve seen a load of them. πŸ˜‰

      Glad you’re finding the Den helping, Chris!

  10. “I was simply too ignorant of the business world to realize I was a failure.”

    That one sentence describes my writing life. A smart move would be to give up, but that’s not in my DNA. Yours either.

    Thanks Carol
    David Gillaspie recently posted…LeBron’s Fuel HeadbandMy Profile

  11. Ashley N. says:

    I am the opposite of naive when it comes to writing – I struggle with a failure complex. My default position is to assume I will be rejected, so I might as well be ready for it. Then I would allow that assumption to keep me from doing my best work – no sense putting extra time into something already doomed for failure, right? As I geared up to write my first book and propose it to a publisher, I recognized that I really needed to change my tune. During this time, I stumbled upon Stephen King’s pre-publication journey, and I made a decision: When I get my first rejection letter, I will frame it, as proof that I have arrived in the company of the Greats. Now that book is due for publication in the Spring!
    Ashley N. recently posted…New Theme: WireMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for sharing a great story of how you changed your attitude. And just think — if you never snapped out of the defeatist attitude, that book would never have come out.

  12. Dana Cortez says:

    I feel like this happening to me right now. I used
    to get regular work with a local newspaper, but
    I had a falling out with the editor I worked with.
    Since then, I’ve been struggling to get work elsewhere
    and I’m feeling defeated. I just can’t seem to get
    out of my funk and move on.

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s not good. I know a lot of writers like this, where there isn’t good closure but a rift, and then they can never quite get over it and move on. That is DEADLY to your career. You’ve got to move on anyway.

      You know, my husband and I recently discovered Mad Men on Netflix and are inhaling the whole series.

      I love when Don goes to Peggy in the hospital after she has her baby and a nervous breakdown, and tells her, “Do whatever they tell you to get out of here, and then this never happened. You won’t believe how much this never happened.”

      And that’s how we have to be when a writing assignment bombs. Like this just didn’t happen. Go on as if you’ve had a brain operation and all memory of it has been erased from your brain.

      You may know that I’ve been fired as a writer in my life…more than once. It happens. Gotta keep moving on.

      • Dana Cortez says:

        Thanks, I appreciate the advice. It’s interesting that you mention Mad Men and a breakdown. I got into writing due to a mental and physical collapse a few years ago. I told myself back then if I can get published, I can do anything. Writing helped me overcome my breakdown and it transformed my life. This editor that I had the fallout with, gave me my first writing assignment, even though I had never been published. She became a friend and a mentor, so the break has been really hard for me.

        Right now I’ve been sending queries to many different publications and working on a e-book. Hopefully, I ‘ll get a positive response soon. Again, thanks for the advice.

        Dana

  13. Erica says:

    This is a terrific post. A real-life example of pushing past failure.

    As a copywriter, some of my best work has been on projects that were just killed. And often, I’ve put my best foot forward only to be told “no” time and time again. But here the thing: I’ve learned to keep enough pans in the fire and to start looking for my next shiny object before I even get that “no.” That way, my world does not hinge on one single outcome.
    Erica recently posted…Writing in the stormMy Profile

  14. Suzanne says:

    Thanks for being so honest Carol. It’s inspiring to hear how successful writers like you began. Sometimes I forget that you all weren’t born successful. You worked your arse off to get there. I just spent waaaaay too long writing my first magazine piece, and I’m just trying to take a step back and allow myself to learn again.
    Suzanne recently posted…Work when you work, play when you playMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ha, I do that too every time I write for a new market. Get a HUGE complex and then it takes forever. Still trying to stop that bad habit…

  15. Rohi Shetty says:

    Thanks, Carol.

    This is exactly what I needed today.

    On a lighter note, I have a cartoon in which Snoopy the dog is reading a rejection letter from an editor, “Please don’t send us any more stories. Please. Please. Please.”

    Snoopy smirks and says, “I love to hear them beg.”
    Rohi Shetty recently posted…My Ten Favorite Humorous QuotationsMy Profile

  16. Terr says:

    This post contains several life lessons:

    1. Develop resilience.

    2. Believe in yourself.

    3. Surround yourself with the right people.

    4. Sometimes timing is everything.

    5. Sometimes life comes full-circle; Things will happen if they’re meant to be (Speaking of the time when you gained the opportunity to write about the same topic again…when you were a lot more seasoned).

  17. Lou Wasser says:

    History is rife with writer’s who submitted something and were rebuffed. Acclaimed playwright, David Mamet, was fired for the script he submitted for what became Paul Newman’s iconic movie “The Verdict.” As it turns out, they had to call back Mamet to put the pieces back together so that the film could get off the ground.

    When a NYC editor told William Faulkner he’d have to cut a third of his novel, the legendary writer didn’t flinch. He simply confronted the editor quietly by asking him “which third?” It takes unshakable self confidence and persistence to make it. Obviously, Carol you have both qualities.

  18. “I was naively upbeat about the whole thing.” Love this! I think more writers need to have this attitude, especially me. It’s soooo hard not to get down on yourself after a rejection, but being upbeat about it is the only way to pick yourself up and keep trying.
    Jessica Flory recently posted…Michael Jordan’s Guide to Writing a BookMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Honestly, I was just too stupid to know I should be embarrassed! I look back now and think, “Well that should have been devastating…”

      But after doing songwriting and live performance, anything where I didn’t have to present it live and be there when my reader consumed it to me was so easy and unstressful. I just wanted to find another place to get to do that again. I figured there must be more fish in the sea…and there always are.

  19. Hey Carol,

    This is really inspiring for us new writers.

    When I was hesitant and scared to start before, one thing I kept asking myself is, “How many success stories do you need to start?”

    There are so many stories, both our past successes as well as others’ who were just like us, to draw inspiration and lessons from. There is simply no excuse not to try anymore.
    Chiara Cokieng recently posted…How to Stop Getting Frustrated With Yourself (Even When You Never Seem to Learn)My Profile