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Monday, December 13, 2010

What to do When: Your Story Gets Killed

You got the assignment. You slaved over your piece, turned it in on time, and your editor responded with the dreaded phrase, “You’ve got a great start, but…”

So, you revised the piece to the editor’s specifications, or so you thought. But now, for reasons beyond your control, the story has been killed. What do you do?

First off, welcome to the club. I don't know of any longtime freelancer who hasn't had at least one piece killed. Sometimes the story you write isn't what the editor decides she wants--or the story her boss wants. Sometimes the editor who assigned the piece leaves the magazine, leaving the piece "orphaned." Sometimes the editor decides the piece is no longer timely, and no longer wants it. Regardless of the reason, your piece has been killed.

Years ago, I had two stories—$2,800 worth of work—killed during a regime change at a national fitness magazine. The editor who had assigned the pieces had left along with other staffers. Now the new editor-in-chief seemed determined to get rid of anything that had been assigned by her predecessor. My stories--which were already finished--got caught in the middle.

I argued that I should be paid the full fee, not the 25% kill fee the contract paid for. After all, there was nothing wrong with the stories themselves--it was simply an arbitrary decision on the part of the new EIC not to use them. But the editors at the magazine refused to pay me the full amount, opting for the kill fee provision. I was...well, way more than peeved.

After I cooled off, I thought about how to make the best of a sucky situation. I called an editor I’d worked with at another fitness magazine. I told her I had two great story ideas to pitch her, and sold both of them in five minutes. (I wish all my ideas sold so quickly.)

Did I tell her that they’d just been killed by one of her competitors? Nope. When she asked what kind of deadline I needed, did I say “Oh, about five minutes?” Absolutely not. I turned in one piece two weeks later, the next piece the week after that. My editor loved both, and accepted them. She paid me $1,750 for the stories—which, combined with the $700 kill fee, left me only $350 in the hole on the deal. (And that's not counting the reprints I made on both pieces after they first came out.) That was a much smarter decisoin than if I would have simply accepted the kill fee and let the stories languish on my hard drive.

Bottom line: a story getting killed doesn’t mean your work is substandard or that you can’t hack it as a writer. Every freelancer will face this issue at one time or another. It’s how you respond to them that matters.

For more smart advice about how to address freelancing challenges, check out Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide to Making More Money, or Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money.


  1. Totally agree, Kelly. After getting the shaft at one publication, I turned around and sold the same piece about a year later for more money at another publication and sold several other essays following that.

  2. Wow, I just had this happen for the first time. My beef was, they didn't even tell me they weren't using the piece. I got all excited when the pub was out and then my piece was not in it; even after I bent over backwards to take extra photos for them. No kill fee. I can't turn around and sell it, either, cause it was a Christmas piece so I will have to wait before resubmitting. RRRRGGGG.