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What 347 Rejection Emails Taught Me About Failure

Wait until email number 348.

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BY John Brandon - 19 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I don't have the emails anymore, but I remember counting them.

It was way back in 2001, a few weeks after losing my job in the corporate world. I was morally against spam, so I crafted each pitch to a magazine editor one by one, customizing them to the target audience (in my case, it was the editor).

My technique back them was simple.

I kept it short. My emails would be so easy to read they'd rise above the rest.

"Dear so and so, let me skip right to the point. I'm a freelance writer, and I've been studying your magazine. I've created a few story ideas to look over. Let me know if you like any of them!" I'd list out a few ideas, and send the email. That was it.

In the early days, being so inexperienced, I sometimes emphasized my corporate background as an IT Director with journalism school training. I figured it was a dynamic duo, but the truth is--no one noticed. I remember sending around one thousand emails in one week that fall. In those days, it wasn't as common that a "no reply = no" so a few editors did take the time to give me a full answer.

The next week, I kept sending more emails. In most cases, no one bothered to respond, but every so often an editor would list out the reasons, some in great detail. I still remember a rejection email from Chris Anderson, the former editor at Wired Magazine, listing out what was terribly wrong with a pitch. He made some good points. I even remember a rejection email from Inc. Magazine (I wish I had saved it).

I wasn't ready to give up. I kept trying.

I stored the rejection emails in an Outlook folder (this was long before I switched to Gmail) one by one as they arrived. I didn't have enough writing experience. My pitches were too generic. My pitches were too specific. I should read the magazine or website. No thanks. Have you tried pitching this other lesser known publication?

One editor said I was annoying. Sorry?

A theme developed. My pitches weren't quite working, so I customized them even more. I studied magazines and websites in more detail. I learned more about the assigning editor and how long he or she had held the post. I read every article in every issue.

Still, one-by-one, the rejections poured in.

One reason I remember counting all of these emails--I was hungry. Literally.

The severance pay from my corporate job was only going to last so long, and I had decided to become a writer. This was it, my only chance. My wife kept encouraging me to keep trying. That Outlook folder totaled 200 rejection emails, then 300. I wasn't going to give up, so I kept sending pitches one by one. I'm not sure how many I sent that month heading into the holidays, it might have been more like 2,000.

One of my lessons from way back then? Keep trying. Don't give up. I kept studying magazines, kept crafting emails. I preferred email at the time ironically enough, and never tried calling anyone, and I kept to my system of short emails and quick pitches.

Then, it finally happened.

In that fall of 2001, when the total had reached 347, a new email arrived--number 348. I remember how the editor took pity on me, but she was also interested in my IT background. She gave me one assignment. It was a feature on smart cards. Then, she gave me another, on biometrics. I became a feature writer at that magazine and a reviewer, and it lasted for at least five years, from 2001 to 2006. Another lesson? I kept pitching, leveraging, and adjusting my pitches. More writing gigs followed, one by one. In 2008, I became a regular contributor at Inc. Magazine.

And, here were are.

It's been a wild ride these past 16.5 years. All of those rejections so long ago taught me a vital lesson about perseverance, about never giving up. It stuck with me. It changed me. It made me realize, when you really want to attain a goal, keep trying until email number 348.

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