Lessons from Rejection

I was turned down for an ongoing editing project recently, which hasn’t happened in a while. I’ve been focused on building Club Ed for the last year or two, so I haven’t been pursuing other projects. And most of my editing work has always come by referral and word-of-mouth, so potential clients tend to already know who I am, what I charge, and why they would want to hire me. So it was probably good for my ego that this happened.

But it made me think that a post about getting turned down for projects might be worthwhile. If you’re surprised that someone with more than twenty years’ editorial experience still gets turned down, well, let that be takeaway #1: There is no amount of experience in this world that will guarantee you get chosen for any particular project. This is just a thing to get used to if you’re a freelancer/contractor/gig worker.

Takeaway #2: Don’t spend too long on post-mortems. Earlier in my career I would have been worried about how I presented myself, or whether I’d quoted too high a fee (if only I had quoted a lower price. . . ). I don’t do that anymore.

You can learn some things from the projects you don’t land, but not that much. I mean, even if someone says, “Yes, we went with someone who had more subject-matter expertise in this particular field,” does that mean I should from now on only go after projects for which I have significant subject-matter expertise? Of course not. Some clients are going to place a higher value on this than others. Some clients are more concerned that you’re a good editor and subject-matter expertise is less important to them. I don’t want to miss connecting with those clients just because I wasn’t a match for this client.

Similarly, if they went with the lower-priced editor, does that mean I should lower my fees? Again, of course not. Earlier in my career I did a lot more compromising. In this case, I knew my fee quote would be at the upper end of their range, and ten years ago I would probably have discounted my fee to compensate. I don’t do that anymore. I know what this type of job entails. I know if I offer my services too cheaply, I will regret it and grow to resent the project and the client. Maybe you don’t do that, but I do. So I have to be sure that the fee I quote and the parameters I set are ones I can live with for a long time. I want ongoing clients that will last for four or five years, not a few months.

Takeaway #3: Of course it’s personal. People try to argue that rejection isn’t personal, and in some ways it isn’t – I mean, it’s not like my boyfriend told me I’m fat and I smell funny. But we are talking about my skills and experience. It was my project quote. I was the one who wrote the emails. I was the one who had the phone conversation with the client. Pretending the “No, thanks,” had nothing to do with any of that is a weird kind of denial.

But even so, that doesn’t mean there is anything I could or should have done differently. Sometimes other people have biases. Maybe this client wanted to go with a male editor, this particular project being in a male-dominated field. That’s not fair, but it does happen to freelancers. Clients can reject you for any reason, fair or unfair.

Maybe I came across as too direct. That’s who I am. I’m not going to pretend I’m not direct. Maybe the parameters I set around how I work weren’t the ones the client wanted. A lot of times clients are looking for employees—staffers at their beck and call—but they don’t want to pay the costs associated with employees, so they seek freelancers. That’s not how I roll: if I’m freelancing for a client, I’m not at their beck and call. I will do the project as agreed but that doesn’t mean being available to take their calls whenever they want and dropping everything to attend to their needs this minute.

What’s up to me: Being as clear as possible about who I am and what I can offer. What’s not up to me to me: How anyone else responds to that.

Takeaway #4: Sometimes someone else is a better match. That’s okay. When freelancers talk about losing out on a project, their colleagues often say (out of loyalty): “Well, they’ll be sorry! You were perfect for the job and they’re just fools not to see that! I bet they come crawling to you in about six months.”

Or, you know, not. I’ve always thought this kind of thinking was childish. You’re not four. There are other people in the world who are just as competent as you are. There are people who are a better match, whether because they have more subject-matter expertise or charge less or for some other reason. This doesn’t mean you need to wallow in self-doubt and wonder if your old job will take you back. It does mean making sure you’re staying competitive—learning new skills if you need, staying on top of the issues—but there’s no need to drive yourself crazy over this. You don’t have to diss your competition to make yourself feel better. The world is full of opportunities. Go find another one!

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