Thanks, But No Thanks: Alumna's Advice on Overcoming Rejection


Lauren Smiley
Lauren Smiley

Pitching an idea, creating memorable content, and getting published can be downright depleting. Rejection hurts and the truth is writers get turned away more often than they get accepted.

Lauren Smiley (BA ’05) knows this process all too well. But this professional freelance journalist has lived to tell the tale. Now, she helps students and other colleagues navigate the often challenging world of freelance journalism.

Smiley has made a name for herself in the field, having work published in Wired, Atlantic, San Francisco Magazine, Fast Company, and the Atlantic and New Yorker websites. At the time of publication, she was also slated to have a piece appear in the New York Times in May.

Before freelancing, Smiley worked at the San Francisco Weekly for five years, which she says was like the equivalent of grad school. Smiley first suggests working a journalism job for a few years before pursuing freelance. She did so because she realized most of the skills acquired at San Francisco Weekly could transfer to national level pieces.

“It really helps to have a strong track record somewhere,” Smiley says. “[Freelancing] is  kind of an inconsistent way to build your skills if you don’t have them. By the time I went freelance, I was drawing on a lot of experiences.”

“Find a buddy or group who have similar ambition—people who are publishing at the same level,” says Lauren Smiley (BA ’05).

Smiley also developed a network of peers that help her discuss stories, edit, revise, and basically serve as “co-workers.” A lot of her work has been published in Wired, a technology magazine. Here, she focuses on stories that cover humans in a technological world. Smiley has also written many stories on the court and prison systems, but has experience in many topics. One of the stories she most connected with was a story published on Wired, “A Murder Shatters the Dream of Immigrant Tech Workers.” The story covers a hate crime on an Indian engineer who was murdered outside a Kansas city bar.

“This can be a very isolating thing to do,” Smiley says of freelancing. “Find at least a buddy or little group of people who have similar ambition—people who are publishing at the same level. They’re invaluable.”

These people can introduce you to more editors, too, she says. Establishing solid connections with editors is essential. Cultivate a rapport with them through networking or introduce yourself at mutual events. When you do, be ready with a well-researched pitch.

“One big thing is that people don’t want to be pitched broad topics. They want a specific lens into this debate,” Smiley says. “You kind of get a knack for what a good pitch is.”

It helps when a writer understands a particular magazine’s format, style, and voice before approaching them. Staying well-read is key to creating new pitches. Find ideas in daily life that are worthy of a deeper look, Smiley says. It can help when a writer has an area of expertise because then editors will reach out on their own.

“You have to be pretty strict with yourself. No one is going to give you a performance review at the end of the year,” says Smiley. “Know what you need to do each month. In freelancing, you have to be your own cheerleader—your own coach.”