The Great and Terrible Power of No in Your Writing

One year before the pandemic hit, I backed out of a girls’ beach trip I’d had planned with four women I’ve been friends with (and vacationed with) since high school. I had been looking forward to the trip like crazy—our last chance to get together was in 2016, and I missed them…plus we’re beach lovers, and we had a lovely seaside rental all lined up.

But that week a hurricane formed out in the gulf and looked to be traveling my exact flight path. Having lived through Hurricane Charlie in Florida in 2004, I got nervous about getting stranded mid-travel, or being unable to get home and missing work deadlines…so I canceled.

The hurricane wound up blowing right past where we were staying and petering out. Not only would it not have impacted my trip at all, but even if it had…so what? Worst case I would have stayed an extra day or two at the beach, or driven back to one of my best friends’ homes with her till I could get a flight. I could have worked from either place—and even if I couldn’t, a couple of days’ missed deadline due to a hurricane (in a 25-plus year career of never missing one) would have been just fine.

I was heartsick to miss the chance to see my friends, to have a girls’ beach getaway. Even worse, when we rescheduled the following year, we had to cancel that trip too because of the pandemic.

I said the wrong no.

The pandemic cancellation was the right no—it was unsafe for us to travel and get together, and while I was disappointed to miss it, we all agreed it was for the best.

The cancellation the year before was a no for all the wrong reasons, one that cost me a lot of happiness not just in missing out on my gals, but in how I beat myself up for the decision…for months. (Ask my husband.)

What you say no to is a big part of what creates the life you live—and this applies especially to your writing career. “No” shapes your life as thoroughly as “yes” does.


“No” shapes your life as thoroughly as “yes” does.

But there are good nos and bad nos.

As a freelance editor I’ve built a career on being what I literally call “the yes girl”—the one publishers know they can call who will accept the project and get it done on time.

But too many “yeses” have often meant I work long hours, eating into nights and weekends. It meant stealing time from other pursuits that were important to me—my husband and family and friends, my own writing, time off and travel, personal projects, simple unconstructed downtime that’s such a big part of charging the batteries.

Always saying yes has indeed helped me build my career—but what’s it for if not all the rest? Sometimes turning down projects when I know I want that time for other things—or even no specific thing, just time for myself—is much healthier than a yes would be.

That’s a good no, and I have a host of this kind of healthy no that has helped me shape a life and career I want:

  • No to a “regular job”
  • No to judging myself by my writing output
  • No to working on stories I’m not passionate about–as an editor or a writer
  • No to “kickback” relationships with other writing professionals
  • No to traditional publishing for my book Intuitive Editing; but also no to small-press or indie pub for my most recent two novels.

I said all of these nos consciously, deliberately, to achieve an outcome that felt right for my values, priorities, and goals. I’m learning to say no to saying yes to overbooking myself with work and taking time away from my family and my life, and to give me the room to pursue other professional projects that I’m passionate about. Those are good nos.

Bad nos are the ones we make out of fear, or self-doubt, or because of outside pressures or expectations:

  • No to submitting your writing because you fear it’s not good enough
  • No to writing the book of your heart because it’s not “marketable” or a hot genre
  • No to the writing retreat or conference or class you were excited about because of guilt or duty or self-doubt
  • No to taking time away from your writing when everything in you is screaming for a break, because you “have to hit your word count” or because “real writers write every single day”

Use your nos instead out of a conscious desire to shape your life, to choose your priorities, to take care of yourself. Use them positively and deliberately and without a scrap of guilt to reclaim your life—including your writing—from any definition but your own.

I’ve written before about knowing what your “why” is as a writer. That’s the only real authority to consult when deciding between yes and no—your North Star to check in with in choosing which doors to walk through and which to contentedly walk away from.

Use your nos to give your yeses power and meaning—and free you to consciously create the life you want.

What do you say no to, writer friends, that lets you say yes to the things that matter most? What nos keep you from saying the yeses your heart wants?

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Terrific post! I often work grueling hours at my freelance writing job when I’d rather be writing my fiction. It’s a habit I’ve been in for years. Always saying yes. Always ready to sacrifice my weekends. Your post has helped give me permission to say no in the future!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      April 8, 2021 12:41 pm

      Thanks, Shari! I get you entirely–especially as a freelancer I think “no” can be hard (there’s always the worry of when the next job is coming). This is something I have to stay mindful of all the time–“yes” in this context seems to be my default setting–but it gets a little easier if I take a beat and think really concretely about the time I’m giving up, and what else I won’t be able to do that I wanted to if I say too many yeses. (It helps to have a partner who reminds me!) Glad to hear you’re contemplating more good “nos.” 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  • Cordia Pearson
    April 8, 2021 9:09 pm

    What do you say no to, writer friends, that lets you say yes to the things that matter most?

    No to anything other than writing & yoga, first three hours of my day.
    No to trad publishing, because I haven’t the nature to trust a faceless corporation.
    No to writing that doesn’t take my breath away, steal my heart and expand my process.
    No to work that doesn’t serve my clients.

    Much love for your ‘no’s’ Tiffany!

    Reply

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