The Power of ‘No’ for Writers

As a writer, we must always seek the word ‘yes’. We want editors to say ‘yes’ to those painstakingly-polished submissions. We want a ‘yes’ from the grant application for that great project idea. We want readers to say ‘yes’ when making the decision to buy our books or read our work. Likewise, we have learned that we must shout ‘yes’ to commissions, ‘yes’ to projects and ‘yes’ to readings.

Event organisers only able to pay you in ‘exposure’? Oh go on, best say yes anyway…you never know who might notice you.

But then the calendar starts filling. Your email inbox explodes. You’re trying to read something but damn it, you’d better check your inbox one more time.

Your jaw clenches. The words blur. You’re not listening to the spoken word performer before you. You have no energy to touch those books you’d treated yourself to. You’re too tired to go to yet another poetry event and by 9pm every evening you want to throw your phone in the sea.

Sound familiar? 

You’re more than just a writer

No one wants to be a writer because it’s easy. After writing hard and editing ruthlessly, you then need to start submitting your work, possibly paying fees, waiting for months on end and then hoping it’s not a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ that lands in your inbox several months later.

It can be very easy to take these rejections personally after so much of ourselves has been poured into our work. The ‘yes’ or ‘no’ becomes emotionally weighted. Our whole sense of self-worth at times feels like it hangs in the balance.

Our identity becomes ‘the writer’. If we’re not saying ‘yes’ to opportunities, then we are not real writers. A real writer wouldn’t close any door to publicising their work when it’s so hard as it is to get noticed. Saying ‘no’, no matter how many projects you’ve got on or how many other commitments you have, must mean you’re not committed enough to be a real writer.

But guess what?

You’re not just a writer. You likely have another career. You might also be a parent. You might also have other hobbies. None of these things define you.

Not even writing.

Saying ‘no’ to the requests that don’t serve you will not strip you of your identity. It will not suddenly diminish that part of you that loves writing. Humans are multi-faceted. You’re still you, even if you decide not to take that prestigious-sounding opportunity, no matter how threatened your ego feels.

If a writing opportunity doesn’t serve you or align with your values, you’re still you. If it’s not the right time, you’re allowed to say no.

As a lifelong, exhausted people-pleaser, I’m giving you permission. The last thing you want is to lose your passion. If you need a break, take the damned break.

“But what if people won’t like me?”

We have an innate need to be liked and accepted. This is especially true of women, whose attempts to counter social stereotypes can be met with scorn. From a young age, women and girls are bombarded with the message that they should be compliant and likeable or face getting called the dreaded ‘b-word’. Sit pretty and don’t make a fuss.

For a long time, I felt the same. To say ‘no’ to someone who’d emailed me an entire manuscript and asked me to give them feedback on it for free in my own time would mean I was a bad person, surely? I’m a firm believer that we should be generous with our knowledge as writers.

However, there’s a difference between being generous with knowledge and taking actions that completely devalue the work of writers.

Working long hours on someone’s manuscript for free over the weekends when I’ve already been working my full-time job all weekend is sacrificing the precious time I need to recharge and reconnect. And guess what? Upon saying ‘yes’ to things like this, I begin to resent writing. I once did a reading that I didn’t really fancy, giving up a whole day to travel across the country, to an unengaged audience who were only there to hear themselves in the open mic slot. I’ve been turned down for funding for a great project, only to have the project organiser offer me an unpaid opportunity to ‘shadow’ and help out. They framed this as though they were giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.

I now realise they were purely taking advantage.

According to Sarah Krauss, Founder and CEO at S’Well: “There is value in being a ‘yes’ person, but saying it all the time delivers diminishing returns. You cannot physically be in four places at once, and you cannot mentally take on every project, problem, or opportunity that is presented to you.”

Saying ‘no’ is essential to protect your own energy. Your boundaries matter and your time is precious. And here’s the thing: you can say ‘no’ without being perceived as an awful person.

So long as you aren’t saying ‘no thanks, stick your offer where the sun don’t shine’, people appreciate honesty. People will understand if you’re tired. You can express interest for future opportunities for when a time is better for you; remember that you’re simply closing the door for now, not smacking it shut forever with a heavy lock.

Tell that person that you value being asked. Thank them, but explain honestly what it is that’s holding you back from it. Be polite and courteous. Try some of these examples for starters:

  • “I’m honoured you asked me, but I can’t take on any more projects right now.”
  • “I’m taking a break from these opportunities for a while to recharge. Perhaps in future?”
  • “I can do these services, but you’ll have to book through my website. Here’s the link if you’d like to take a look at what I can offer.” (A useful one if someone is trying to get you to work for free. If you haven’t got a price list or booking page on your website for writing services, get one.)
  • “I’d love to, but I’m currently booked up. I’d be interested if the opportunity arises again, though!”

None of those responses sound particularly aggressive, even if typing them or saying them makes you feel like you’ve just murdered a Care Bear.

Once you’ve turned down the offer, guess what? You’re still a decent person. You just did something empowering. You’re probably feeling a little bit of that weight lifting like mist from your shoulders. The day seems a little brighter.

People generally appreciate you being honest and show understanding. And if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours.

Setting boundaries as self-care

Learning to show compassion and kindness to yourself is crucial in setting healthy boundaries. You need that energy to maintain that passion you have for writing. You can’t engage with the things that inspire you if you’re constantly burned out because you’re too guilty to say no.

Sometimes, saying ‘no’ is the simplest but most powerful act of self-care you can do for yourself.

And I promise you it gets a little easier each time.

And guess what? Your writing will get a little easier too.

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