Saying ‘No’ — A Successful Writer’s Must

There’s no one way to build a successful writing career, but there are essential ingredients. One of the most important, I believe, boils down to two little words: saying no. Think about it. How can we produce our best quality work and continue growing, day after day, year after year, if we’re bogged down by needless obligations?

If I sound harsh, don’t worry; becoming selfish writing-only ghouls isn’t the goal. And supporting others and taking time away from writing are invaluable. But there’s a big difference between saying ‘yes’ to every request for a favor, lunch date and job offer, tending to others instead of our craft and careers, and obliging when it matters most. Each time we say ‘no’ to obligations that detract from our success, we strengthen our commitment to our work and step further into our dreams. While it’s not always easy, it’s worth it. And it does get easier along the way.

Seven Ways to Say ‘No’ With Greater Ease

1. Swap guilt for gusto. It’s not easy to tell your pal you can’t meet for lunch or walk her ferret. But if doing so takes away from your writing, is it worth it—even to your friend? If she asked you if you could “please walk Snoopy instead of progress as an author,” declining would be easier. So view it that way. Once you’ve made your decision, make the most of that preserved time. Productivity breeds gusto and kicks guilt in the keister.

2. Feel the twinge. When someone asks you to take time away from writing, listen to your gut. As some of you may recall, ‘saying no’ played a big role in divorcing my acting career. The more auditions and offers I turned down, the more apparent the right decisions became. Now every time a question sounds, I feel the twinge—a no-longer-subtle stir inside that tells me exactly how I feel. Awareness and practice strengthen our ‘saying no’ muscle. So even if you can’t yet abide by it yet, start honing in on the twinge.

3. When in doubt, take time out. When we’re put on the spot, we are much more likely to yelp, “Sure! Anything!”… on the outside. When your palms sweat in the face of a time-sucking request, tell the person you need to think about it. Or call them later. Or say “hang on!” and rush away to your private cave. Whatever it takes to give yourself that privacy, which often brings clarity, do it.

4. Weigh your options. How much time and energy would fulfilling the request take? What are the consequences of committing versus declining? Is there a way to fulfill the request and still get your work done? How much of your desire to commit stems from guilt or perceived obligation, and how much from genuine desire? How important is the task to the asker? Looking at a situation from all angles can help clarify our decisions.

5. Speak your passions. Talking about our creative goals, progress and priorities gives them breath and deeper meaning. When we say “I’m now prioritizing my writing,” “I am a writer,” or “I’m stoked about my loaded work day” (referring to writing), we’re more likely to believe ourselves and take our work seriously. Sharing our priorities with others also helps keep us accountable.

6. Sleep on it. Ever wake up with an epiphany about your WIP? I know I have. Our brains work through questions and conflicts during sleep. Sometimes the best way to recognize the best decision involves catching those zzzs. Try not to stress too much just before bed, however. Not sleeping enough or well can have the opposite effect. For useful information on sleeping better, check out MayoClinic.com’s Sleep Tips.

7. Hold yourself responsible. No one can make us take on endless favors, tasks and responsibilities. Blaming the friend who calls or the ferret who needed sunshine won’t do anything but increase our grumpiness. And probably other people’s. And maybe the ferret’s. We make our own choices, so choose your goals and dreams. Go after them like the protagonist in your novel, and never, ever back down. You don’t need anyone’s permission but your own.

Do you overload your plate with non-writing commitments? Have you mastered your ‘saying no’ capabilities? Any tips to add or challenges to share? I’d love to hear your brilliant thoughts. 🙂

Leave a comment

72 Comments

  1. Excellent advice. My other half has trouble with this. Mostly to herself – she’ll find 101 things to do that keep her from writing, then she gets resentful when I sit down to write because I don’t think that moving the garden shed 2 feet to the left this weekend is urgent enough to get in the way. Sometimes I relent, and we go shopping for that urgent bedding! Then I end up writing until the wee small hours, which is fine by me as I’m a bit of a night owl.

    Reply
    • Funny how the trivial can seem crucial when there’s work to be done, right? (I’ve noticed the same during math classes and tax season… ;))

      Hunkering down to work isn’t always easy, but it IS crucial. Glad you’ve found ways to write during your brain’s prime time! I hope your other half learns from your example.

      Reply
      • I hope so too, she’s an excellent writer and has some fantastic ideas for books – I can’t wait to read them!! 🙂

  2. I am a chronic “say yes” girl. It’s been good in a lot of ways – I mean, there is a joy to be had in putting others needs ahead of your own. But with it comes a lot of frustration, and honestly, not everyone is as appreciative of it as you’d think. The hubs is the one that often reminds me that I have to pace myself in the “saying yes” if I want to have anything left for me.

    Because I am a tad bit compulsive in my need to do for/please others, I’ve managed to turn my writing into something that I don’t only do for myself. Knowing that my writing partners are excited to read more of my WIP, or my blog readers are waiting for the next post, makes me carve out the time.

    It’s a little backwards, I know, but…baby steps, you know? 🙂

    Reply
    • Totally! Baby steps are key, Amber, no matter how we approach them. I still feel guilty at times, telling others I’m busy. But the rewards are so great—increased productivity, sharper writing, emotional perks…—that I become a better friend, partner, etc. In other words, we have more to give when we tend to our personal needs first. And I think we SHOULD think of pleasing others to some extent while writing. Our readers deserve our best work, dontcha think? 😉

      Reply
  3. Lance

     /  April 26, 2012

    I’m a codependent mess. I can;t say no. Guest posting, social media obligations, life stuff, I never say NO.

    Get out of my head August…I fel like you wrote this about me and to me.

    Yes to all of your advice. Now, can this hypocrite leaving this comment do any of fit?

    Reply
    • LOL! I love it, Lance—minus the “pathetic mess” bit, which I’m guessing isn’t accurate. 😉 Now that you’ve said YES to all of the above, I expect you to follow through. Please keep me posted on your saying NO progress. I look forward to the report…

      Reply
  4. Stacy S. Jensen

     /  April 26, 2012

    The older I get the easier it is to say No and not feel guilty. Yesterday, I realized a conflict and will have to say No to an event I wanted to attend. Hubby said, “Can’t you change it.” I said, “Nope.” It’s all part of the moving forward plan.

    Reply
  5. gingercalem

     /  April 26, 2012

    I’ve been working this concept for a couple years. My ‘just say no’ policy, especially for school volunteering, etc. For me, it was a way to load up my schedule to avoid my writing, so that when I wasn’t making progress I had an excuse. Well, not anymore! 🙂

    Reply
  6. Errrmmm, still struggling with this one. Some days I am more successful than others.

    Reply
  7. Coleen Patrick

     /  April 26, 2012

    Still haven’t mastered it. But it’s definitely easier when I make a plan–or at least a list. Otherwise I am a little lost and then I feel like I have no reason to say no.
    Great, practical advice August 🙂

    Reply
  8. Karina

     /  April 26, 2012

    This is all so true – and I would add “train your friends and family not to ask”. It’s really important to set boundaries so that people know that working at home means you’re working at home, not sitting there ready to drop everything for the sake of a random phone call. Whether your writing time is 12 hours a day or 30 minutes, it’s your only commitment during that period.

    Now, if I could just figure out how to set boundaries with my cats…

    Reply
    • Excellent point, Karina. I’ve found that the more I set boundaries and turn down needless requests, the less often people ask. As for your cats, hmm… All I can say is good luck! 😉

      Reply
  9. The problem I’m having lately is saying “no” to myself! NO, I dont have to do all this and all that and right now! I need to prioritize and drop some things I would like to do and focus on only a few.

    Reply
    • Well said, Donna! Your comment made me realize that for me, too, it is easier to say “no” to a dinner party or some other event than it is for me to cut myself a little slack. 🙂

      And thanks, August, for another great post!

      Reply
  10. It finally just occurred to me that I am working full time as a writer and blogger. I feel bad about not being able to get more involved in other things, but I don’t have a cleaning service and I have to keep up with tennis so it doesn’t leave me a lot of time.
    Once I realized that my life has totally changed, I felt ever so much better!

    Reply
  11. Great advice August. For some reason, saying ‘no’ is so hard to do. Each day I have a set time to write. I do my best to block all distractions but life always interrupts. I keep my office doors shut and turn the volume to my phone all the way down. Phone calls and text messages are my worst interrupters.

    Reply
  12. Stellar post and WONDERFUL suggestions and advice. This is a HUGE issue for me. I really struggle with saying “no” to anyone and everyone. I always seem to tell myself that I can catch up on my stuff later once I just get all of this other stuff out of the way but then…I feel so resentful! Love your tips and I am definitely going to make good use of them! Especially number 3! 🙂

    Reply
    • Saying no can be especially tough for super-sweet lovelies like you, Natalie! It’s important to realize that doing so generally isn’t selfish. And those time outs can be SO useful. Knowing you, you could yell “Bathroom emergency!” and make a run for it at the precise right time. 😉 (Gotta find privacy somewhere!)

      Reply
  13. The older I get, the easier it is to say ‘no’ but things still slip in 🙂 Great list August!

    Reply
  14. mgedwards

     /  April 26, 2012

    Thanks for writing this, August. You are so right! One of the challenges I face is that because I work from home as a writer, people have this conception that I’m a stay-at-home dad/spouse who has plenty of time. I get hit up frequently to volunteer and help out with various community activities. I have to be very choosy, because I know that it will be so easy to become overcommitted. The only solution I have at the moment is to hide in my office and come out for those activities I’ve agreed to — even saying “no” can be difficult when the inquirer won’t take no for an answer!

    Reply
    • I definitely relate to that scenario. I’m thinking of getting a “Writer at Work” sign for my front door. 🙂 Making a point to be choosey, as you do, is vital. Glad this struck a chord with you!

      Reply
  15. Without pretense, I write, yet, do not consider myself a disciplined, goal oriented, educated writer. I write because it’s personally rewarding in so many ways.

    I appreciate the links, the insights, and the logical, and intelligent clarity by which this article was written. If I ever do wish to step it up, the knowledge is relative and easily applied at any level.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  16. mgmillerbooks

     /  April 26, 2012

    Some of the best advice yet. I’m just learning to say no, but when I do, the freedom it grants me overrides any guilt.

    Reply
  17. I noticed when I was younger, it was terribly hard for me to say ‘no’. I ALWAYS said ‘yes’.
    But I think I’m definitely maturing in this sense and I’m getting better at saying yes or no to the right requests.
    I also noticed that, even if you say ‘no’ at least once in your lifetime, people automatically stop taking advantage of you.
    Great advice August, as usual! 🙂

    Reply
  18. I did tons of volunteering in my youth. Now when I’m asked to do something, I say “I’ve used up my lifetime quota of volunteering.” I have become my own best advocate. And when I choose to do something (I just took over the treasurer’s job for my chapte) I do it with lots of thought and a consideration of my time.

    My biggest challenge is the marketing/para-writing activities, but they are slowly becoming manageable.
    Another great post, August. Thanks

    Reply
  19. Excellent advice. I’ve been trying to prioritze my writing by cutting back on non-important things and scaling back others (like blogging). But I wasn’t raised to say “no” when people ask for my time. It’s a hard habit to break.

    Reply
  20. You know, I never really thought about this and just assumed I was in the wrong when people complained about me “being distant” when I write. These are great, important tips. Thank you.

    Reply
  21. Raani York

     /  April 26, 2012

    Unfortunately even now it’s hard for me to say no. Being helpful is my second nature and far too often it’s used by people… That’s why I always end up doing things I don’t like doing or that keep me away from what I want to do… *sigh*
    Only when I realize someone really IS using me and my help, then I learn how to say no. – But that’s for good then…

    Reply
  22. Fine, fine post, August. For me, maturity has helped a great deal, and as you say, when people realize you will say “no,” they do not ask as often. It seems a key component. My animals rarely hear “no” for we seem to understand each other’s needs, as if we spoke the same language. Frankly, they have taught me well.

    Really enjoyed this post.
    Karen

    Reply
  23. Yes. This. I am in a constant battle with myself over this issue. I’m a yes girl. I like to be helpful and want to do everything, but as my career ramps up and my deadlines get tighter and obligations more abundant, I have to learn to say no. And this isn’t necessarily to just non-writing things. There are lots of writing related things that can suck up, well, you know–writing time. So I can’t donate crits to every charity that asks, I can’t beta read my friends’ work, I can’t guest blog everywhere even though I know I need to promote my book. I want to do all those things, but there’s just not enough time in the day. I have books to write and a family to take care of–everything else has to fall lower on the list. But I still find myself slipping up sometimes and saying yes to piling on more stuff. I’m a work in progress. 🙂

    Reply
    • I hear you, Roni. (Yes too all of that. ;)) Ironically, I think being yes-people helps us become thriving authors, as long as we don’t let it go too far. We say “YES, WE CAN!” to opportunities and challenges others would shy away from, even when we aren’t entirely sure of ourselves.

      Great point regarding those writer tasks that take away from actual writing time. Some distractions come in writerly disguise… And many are necessary. I suppose maintaining our personal WIP status is better than reaching the top and staying stagnant. At least we’ll never be bored! LOL

      Reply
  24. I have a terrible time saying no. But I’m working on it. =) I’m getting the hang of #3…..

    Reply
  25. “Sometimes saying ‘no’ to others says ‘yes’ to our dreams.” That is a magical phrase that I’m going to embrace.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Reply
  26. Sometimes we need to take ‘time out’ and work on our wips for they take precedence over everything else.

    Being inclusive and helping others is wonderful and absolutely right but not to the detriment of our work. After all if we’re not writing what do we have to give to our readers?

    In fact, about to take a time out very soon to finish off work and to start on a new journey.

    Great post August!

    Reply
    • “After all if we’re not writing what do we have to give to our readers?” Such an important point, CC! Thanks for your wonderful insight.

      Reply
  27. Oh August, thou art so wise! And the comments all support your thoughts. Finding the balance is a perennial problem for most writers … I struggle with it constantly. Right now I’m in the final throes of my WIP and it owns me!

    Reply
    • Perennial Problems for Writers and the WIP that Owns Me. Sounds like a non-fiction book waiting to happen! 😉 Enjoy those final throes… Such a fun place to be.

      Reply
  28. EllieAnn

     /  April 26, 2012

    I really appreciate #3, waiting is usually involved when I am happy about my answer. Since writing comes second to family and is just a hobby for me (I have to wake up early early to write, and blog on Sundays while my hubby can watch the kids), I don’t say no to the family in favor of writing. But I have had to say no to several other obligations, because writing is so important to me. I LOVE this essay, so helpful. Thanks, August!

    Reply
  29. Le sigh.

    I normally have no trouble prioritizing.

    But.

    My son’s upcoming bar mitzvah has had to come first of late.

    So.

    It’s been difficult blogging, writing Manny, doing all my motherly & wifely duties which include shopping, cooking, cleaning & schlepping. I keep telling myself this will be much easier in July after the Bar Mitzvah is over. And it will, but right now, the juggling is tough. Great post.

    Reply
  30. I have weeded out non-essentials in order to have time to develop a creative life. It does get at bit lonely being dedicated to getting done what I need to get done in this lifetime, but the rewards(not always financial) make it all feel worthwhile.

    Reply
  31. I don’t have a problem saying ‘no’, but it’s normally to things the rest of my family thinks I should be saying ‘yes’ to. LOL Things like Bunco with the moms from school or a night out with a girl friend. When it’s writer related I put a time on it and let it be known where things stand as far as priority so there aren’t any misunderstandings. I realized the importance of setting my priorities a while ago and I’ve been doing my best to stay true.

    Thank you for this post. I know a lot of people need reminders and nudges like this. You’re always so good at this stuff. 🙂

    Reply
  32. BoJo Photo

     /  April 26, 2012

    Hey August,

    I’ve been thinking about canceling a contract to hang fine art as it takes away from my production time. The pay can be really good but perhaps detrimental in the long term to my career.

    Great post. I have trouble saying no! 🙂

    Reply
    • Those decisions can be tough, especially since we need food on the table. Going with our instincts and weighing out the pros and cons can really help. And when we make a “wrong”—less wise, really—decision, I say make the most of it, make it temporary, then move on with lessons learned. (I used one of my last modeling gigs as a character study and spent the funds on a writing conference… ;))

      Reply
  33. LOVELY post, August!

    I’m with Roni – I’m a work in progress. My natural helpful/joiner attitude gets me in trouble sometimes, but I’m trying to learn to prioritize better. 🙂

    Reply
  34. Awesome subject and a great approach, as always, August. I love your list of advices. After all, the commitment to our carefully set goals must be a priority. Or why to even bother?

    Reply
  35. Ugh, I’m with many of the others and a “work in progress” – wish I could say I have a handle on saying no but not quite there. Love your advice though, it will help a great deal and I’ll be applying it to build the “saying no muscle”.

    Thanks for a great post, August 🙂

    Reply
  36. prudencemacleod

     /  April 27, 2012

    I’ll admit saying no to friends or people who want my attention or to share time with me is very hard to do. I love people and just chatting or hanging out. Guess I’ll have to bookmark this one and re-read it often. Thanks for a great post August.

    Reply
  37. Well in my case I once said “YES I do” and that put a full stop on lot of my dreams. So yeah you got a point there.
    (And yeah coming back to wp after a long time.)

    Reply
  38. I need constant reminders to turn attention to my needs. But with each no to them and yes to me, I get better. And then a great opportunity comes around that takes me away from my writing and I do say yes . . . and am glad I did.

    Reply
  39. Good advice, August. I don’t like to lose sleep to get everything done, but I don’t mind being under pressure (let’s not call it stress). Deadlines help me focus, and I’m shortsighted, they have to be close so I pay real attention to them. Once the school holidays start I should have some more time and hopefully put it to use!

    Cheers

    Reply
  40. This is an important post August and you did it beautifully. I’ve pretty much mastered the art of saying no, but it took time, effort and a lot of slapping myself on the forehead for saying yes to things that took me away from my writing. One thing that’s on your list that I only started doing in the past year is “speak my passions” I’m an introvert at heart but I found that people take me more seriously now that I’ve given them a glimpse into my world.

    Now my struggle is with social media balance but I’m determined to “get” it.

    Reply
  41. Excellent suggestions, August! If we can strike a reasonable balance between each of these areas then we can attain an optimal performance.

    Reply
  42. Very good points, August. I have done a really good job on saying no to family and friends so I could write. However, since I started blogging I learned that there were other things I needed to say no to – like being a compulsive house cleaner (does it really have to be that clean?) and I have more recently said an important no. I have decided to step down from management responsibilities in my current paying job. (Still have to have the regular income, but …) Those management responsibilities had me working 4 12 hour days a week that left me exhausted. Once my replacement is trained, I hope to have more energy and time to put into my writing.

    Reply
  43. Kourtney Heintz

     /  April 28, 2012

    Terrific advice, August! I have one of those faces that betrays my inner thoughts so my face will always say no before my mouth. It helps because the person clearly knows I don’t want to do it before I say a word. I find people prefer a firm no to a maybe that is never going to turn into a yes.

    Reply
  44. Karen McFarland

     /  April 28, 2012

    August, I think that is wonderful advice. As a person grows older, you do figure out, even if it’s the hard way, what must take priority. Type A people have the hardest time with this. And also people pleasers. It take true modesty to know your limitations. 🙂

    Reply
  45. lynnkelleyauthor

     /  May 14, 2012

    It’s pretty easy to say no these days since I’m sneaking my writing in at every possible free moment I can find, when grandbaby is sleeping or in the playpen. I’m already overwhelmed with my schedule, and it eases those guilty feelings that I used to get when I’d say no.

    Reply
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