It can be discouraging.

You’ve finally persuaded one of your firm’s experts to write an article for publication. You sent it off to the publication, and never even heard back from the editor. Even a couple of follow-up calls to the editor didn’t help.

So what went wrong? Here are my “Top Ten” reasons articles tend to not get published. These are based on my 15 years of experience helping clients all over the world – on six continents, in fact – to get published, PLUS my conversations with editors … PLUS my own experience as an editor, reporter and freelancer.

These tips are appropriate to both print and online publications – although as we’ll see, there are big differences between what each type of editor wants. So, my Top Ten:

1. Your idea was outside the publication’s area of interest

Most business and professional publications, those that your firm’s clients know about and trust, are narrow in their focus. Really, really narrow. They want content specific to their readers, and are likely to reject anything that does not directly address the issues their readers are facing.

As an example, I once pitched an idea to the editor of a global publication in London, reaching the natural gas pipeline industry. The article was about managing liquids sometimes found in the gas piped out of the ground. The editor wrote back to say that my idea wouldn’t work for her readers – her publication focused on the “midstream” market (big transmission trunk pipelines), not so much the upstream sector, which is where the liquids problem is more common. So, I talked with my client and we revised the idea so it was appropriate to the midstream, and we did get that article published.

This, by the way, is a good example of why Point #3 below is important – why you need to get the editor’s buy-in to your idea before putting time into the article itself.

Solution: Be sure that your idea is appropriate to the specific needs of that market. You can learn this through reading their “write for us” or “author’s guidelines” section, and also through taking time to read the publication (there’s usually some of the content online).

2. They don’t take contributed articles

Many times, a client has asked for my help getting published in the likes of Fortune or Fast Company. My first thought is, “Are you Elon Musk or Christine Lagarde? No?” You must be a very big, recognizable name to get published in a periodical of that stature.

But there are a lot of other publications, too, that don’t take contributed articles. From the viewpoint of thought leadership marketing, there are two main types of publications to steer away from:

  • Those that are written entirely by professional journalists, either on staff or freelance – as is the case with Fortune and Fast Company
  • Newsletters with a niche focus, that may charge north of US$200 a year; they don’t take expert-written articles either
Solution: Ask the editor if they take contributed articles. Better yet, look through the publication for articles that include an “extended byline” for at least some articles – “Janet Blogs is a Senior Principal with XYZ Engineering Inc.”, possibly with an author mugshot.

Free learning: "You need to get working on your book right now"

Discover why “having a book” is so important to your future
and about recent technology trends that put it within your grasp

Yes! Please sign me up!

3. You didn’t get buy-in from the editor before writing

Most editors don’t like to get an “unsolicited manuscript,” which is editor-speak for an article they didn’t ask for.

There are many reasons for this. One is that they’re concerned that the article has already been published elsewhere, and they want content their readers can’t get anywhere else. Another is that they’re usually pressed for time, and don’t want to take time to wade through a feature-length article to see if it’s worth publishing.

Solution: Get the editor’s buy-in to your idea first, by means of a query letter (see Post #74 for a detailed how-to on persuasive query lettersdetailed how-to on persuasive query letters).

4. Your article was too promotional

Editors of credible, respected publications – the kind that you should be targeting – draw a firm line between what appears as an advertisement or advertorial, and what is presented to be actual content. The credibility of the publication depends on this.

So, editors are reluctant to publish anything with a marketing message. This can be a challenge, when your sole purpose in doing the article is marketing your firm’s services. It’s even more of a challenge when editors show resistance to phrases such as, “Based on our firm’s ten years of experience in this field…”. They seriously don’t like that, and may turn down an article if it has too much of that sort of thing.

Solution: Don’t say it, show it. Demonstrate the expertise your firm offers, including insights they’re not likely to find anywhere else. The reader will understand that to learn more, they need to contact the author, and maybe become a client.

5. The article was too long or too short

The length of an article matters much more if it’s for print publication, because of the physical size of the page. Most publications can fit about 650 to 750 words on a page, giving enough room for headlines, sub-heads and some white space. If the article is supposed to be a page long, writing too much can mean that the article gets rejected – or it can mean that the editor takes out their “delete” key and starts cutting phrases, sentences and paragraphs to make it fit.

It doesn’t matter as much in online publications, but still, too much is … too much. If your objective is for the reader to take action based on your article, you need to make it consumable (more on that in Point Six) by keeping it to under 500 words.

Solution: See what the common lengths in the magazine are, and write to that. Or, ask the editor – or check their “write for us” or “author guidelines” section.

6. It’s not written in a “consumable” way

Articles for print can be just straight text, with some sub-heads added. Articles for online publication need to focus more on “consumability” – how easy they are to read. Bear in mind that people online tend to skim, not read in depth, so your message has to stand out.

This may mean a complete overhaul of how the article’s message is presented online, and anyone who tries this may get pushback from people who think that the content needs to be presented in an appropriate-for-print way.

Online writing needs good headlines – actually, GREAT headlines that answer the burning questions faced by the audience. My favorite tool for creating good headlines is the “Headline Analyzer” from Cosential – a free app with a dialog box into which you type your headline, and get a score for it. Cosential then offers suggestions on how to make it better. The headline for this article earned a “”68” score, which is pretty good – about the highest I’ve ever come was 75.

Writing online needs more sub-heads, bulleted and numbered lists, and it helps to set out essential phrases in bold.

Solution: Study up on the techniques of “consumability” and incorporate them into your online content. Go one further and make your text match the requirements of “Accessibility,” which make the text work better for everyone.

7. No graphic interest

Ever since the first print periodicals (In Italy, I understand – since they cost a single coin -- a Gazette -- in price, that’s what they were called, and that name has lived on ever since), graphic interest has been important. Pictures, charts, graphs, info-graphics all bring life to a page.

Because of this, editors are more likely to accept an article that has graphics to go with it, than one that doesn’t. This makes it worthwhile to provide pictures – despite all the hassles about model releases and client approval on the images.

 It’s important to note that pictures for print use need to be high resolution – probably one MB or more. Pictures for print don’t need that, but since even today’s smartphones can produce images with good resolution, it’s not a problem.

I’ve gone into the question of photographs in Post #36 – Boost your article’s effectiveness and placement with photography.” One of the key points is to avoid stock photography, because editors are concerned that even if you’ve bought rights to the image, those rights may not cover publication. So, I make a point of having my own images, which I’ve taken with my own camera.

8. Poor quality: grammar and spelling errors

Editors are willing to fix a limited number of errors. But if too many mistakes crop up in your work, they’re more likely to take a pass on your article in preference to one that’s not such a problem child.

Spell-check and grammar-check programs help. But don’t let a subject matter expert’s inability to produce perfect prose, hold them back. You can always get a writing professional’s help.

Solution: Consider bringing in a ghostwriter to help. That’s a large part of how I work with my clients – I ask questions, they answer, and I write the article from a blank screen based on that (see Post #90 for more on how to work with a ghostwriter). Or it might involve a copy-editor to massage the text, or a proofreader who will correct grammar and spelling errors.

9. You’re too late

Periodicals are called that for a reason – they are produced on a regular schedule, periodically. This means that in print, there is a “press date,” which is the date on which all the articles, ads, graphics and other content must be pulled together to go onto the press. The editor will work back from that date to determine when the articles must all be in, to be edited and laid out, to meet that press date.

This means that articles arriving early tend to get slotted in first, and late arrivals may not find a space in that issue.  Do yourself and the editor a favor, and have your article in on time.

Online publications tend to be renewed on an ongoing basis, but they still have a schedule to follow; deadlines matter here too.

Solution: Ask the editor for a deadline (and the word-count they prefer). That way, you show your willingness to help them put out a high-quality issue every time.

10. You’re not fitting in

Matching the purpose of the publication is important – so go one step further and find a way to fit into the publication better. Most print publications have their regular sections – there’s a “front of the book” section that is often short new items, a section for longer features, and often also a “back of the book” section which may have a one-page opinion piece.  

Also, many publications have themes to each issue. Some of the mining publications I write for might have issues devoted to “Mining in Africa” or “Mining in Canada.” Or, a legal publication might have issues devoted to “Personal injury” or “Real Estate.” If you can fit into that schedule, your idea might get more acceptance.

Solution: Read through the publication to find out what sections your article might fit into, and note the name of that section. This means that your query letter might read in part, “This idea might work well for your regular “Regulatory Review” section.”

So those are my Top Ten ideas. Getting published isn’t as scary or hard as it might seem. Avoiding the errors in this Top Ten goes a long way.

If you have other ideas to offer, based on your experience, please let us know in the Comments.