On Rejection, and Rejecting

Because something is better than nothing, and it’s not hard to be kind.

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Here’s a great thing about the Pipe Wrench model: we get to be picky, always selecting for the stories that are too specific or too off-kilter or too (insert adjective here) for other publications. The story doesn’t have to fit into a larger issue, because it IS the issue.

Here’s a hard thing about the Pipe Wrench model: we have one big story per issue and issues publish every two months, which means we can assign six stories a year (although we hope to be able to grow into a monthly).

Which means saying no. A lot.

In the past four weeks, and before we’ve published anything to show what we can do, we’ve gotten 80-something pitches, the vast majority of which were solid, thought-through, well-written concepts that are worthy of an assignment. Even if we were going to assign all our 2021 stories from these first few weeks’ pitches — which we can’t and won’t, for reasons both financial and editorial — that’s a lot of rejections. And we’re committed to responding personally to every pitch, so it’s a lot of contacting, hopeful, worthy writers to say: “no, thank you.”

I get a knot in my stomach every time I send a “no, thank you.” Partly because I am a people-pleaser. Partly because I love writers and I want to give them all piles of money. Partly because I feel a lot of pressure to assign just the right stories, and what if I get it wrong? I get things wrong a lot. At this stage, I’d estimate that 50% of my work on Pipe Wrench is reviewing and responding to pitches. Fifty percent of every day, psyching myself up to say no to people.

And then, I get a lot of responses: thankful, appreciative responses. Now, I’m gonna give myself some credit for sending useful feedback and suggesting better outlets when I can, but relatively speaking, the labor that goes into even my most constructive rejection pales in comparison to the labor that went into the pitch. The fact that so many writers are so happy to get that response says more about other pubs’ lack of acknowledgement and follow-up than it does about ours. I recognize that different publications are dealing with drastically different volumes, but also: pasting a polite pre-written rejection into an email takes three seconds. Automate that shit; even a rote “We’re passing on this, thanks” is preferable to silence. The bar, she is low.

Treating contributors well isn’t just about good contracts (although: YES GOOD CONTRACTS PLEASE). It starts with how you treat pitches. Responding. Saying “thank you,” because writing a pitch is work.

If you’re a writer and you’ve pitched us in the last week or so: I’m almost up to you, and your response is coming soon. If you’ve been thinking of pitching us: please do, I’m waiting to read it. I’m going to have to say “no, thank you” to a lot of you; I will try to be helpful when I do. And I am legitimately sorry both that I have to, and that it’s not the norm at many places.

The week in Pipe Wrench

  • Michelle did a Q&A for Britany Robinson’s “One More Question” newsletter for freelancers on what she looks for in a pitch and how to become an editor of award-winning journalism. (Key advice: “Don’t be a dick.”)
  • We sent out four more contributor agreements to four more people who will add conversation pieces to our first issue. Rave reviews from contributors include “Yay!” and “This is the prettiest contract I’ve ever seen.”
  • We welcomed another editorial partner: nice to have you with us, Eye on Design!
  • Texans are freezing and without power or potable water and Catherine made it through the week with her mental faculties 98% intact, and that is much more than enough.

And now, tweets.

It’s entirely possible to be too On Twitter. But when it’s good, it’s good.

Michael Harriot, a writer at The Root, profiled the nearly 400-year history of a plot of land in Charleston, SC. What began as a plantation for rice worked by enslaved people turned into a regional office for the Freedman’s Bureau, and the land that had formerly been sweated on and worked over for no pay was now owned by nearly half of the city’s Black citizens. It’s a tremendous Twitter thread that is both micro and macro in scope, and was the best thing Matt read on the internet this week.

Have you seen the Jim Henson commercials for Wilkins Coffee from the late 50s and early 60s featuring two early-days muppets, in which in one muppet (“Wilkins”) murders the other muppet (“Wontkins,” ha!) for not drinking the right coffee? Michelle is pleased to report that the entire history of these spots has been helpfully uploaded to YouTube as a single 15-minute video, so you can watch, and laugh, and then feel horrible for laughing because seriously, so much murdering. If you’re like her, you’ll follow that up with extensive “Jim Henson childhood trauma coffee” googling.