Learning to say no

If you haven’t read Christie Yant’s great article about volunteering, shame on you. Just kidding, but you absolutely must read in its entirety before you continue. Yes, I’m assigning homework. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

There was a day, not that long ago, that I’d jump at any opportunity for volunteer work in the speculative fiction field. I was eager, willing and capable, even when my workload was already spilling over the edges like a good bowl of french onion soup. I told myself that I would make the time. I sacrificed sleep, time for family or writing, or paying work for the opportunity to learn from experience. Over the years, I had successes doing work for places like Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine, but there were also failures along the way. Overcommitment, well-intentioned or not, was one of my many achilles heel until I learned when and how to say no.

When to say no

I became very aware of the spoon theory earlier this year, and in addition to my energy level, I use it to manage my work load. Call it my pen theory. I only have so many pens to write with on a given day. Most of those are spent towards my primary career goal of being a writer (reading, writing, researching, and critiquing all fall under that umbrella). My work now as Creative Director of Electric Velocipede works towards my interest in eventually launching a zine of my own so I also budget pens for that. Any other work I do is weighed against a variety of factors before I throw my hat into the ring for consideration:

  • How much time is required per day/week/month? Knowing what your limits are is more complicated and worthy of a post of it’s own. I still don’t have my process down but I will point out Things for you Mac/iPhone/iPad folks. That is one key piece of my work flow that keeps me sane.
  • What kind of exposure is there? I imagine some people might raise an eyebrow about exposure. It’s the last thing I usually thing about but it needs to be considered. Early in your career, the last thing you might be thinking of is publicity and exposure, rightly so, but you should still get appropriate credit for the work you do. If you design a logo for someone, copyedit an article or read slush, it’s job experience. The bigger the exposure, the bigger the potential reward, but you also increase your risk.
  • What is the opportunity to learn, personally and professionally? Any work I’m going to do should be both interesting, challenging, and relevant to my primary and/or secondary career goals. If the opportunity doesn’t fit that criteria, the decision is easy.

How to say no

Saying no is really easy. If you’ve been specifically asked for help, the simplest thing to say is, “Sorry, I don’t have the time.” You don’t need to give an in-depth explanation to justify yourself. You are the one in control of your schedule and priorities. Don’t feel guilty about putting your foot down.

If you know someone who might be able to help, and this is where your budding social network can come in handy, you can offer to recommend someone, but only if you know of someone you think would be a good fit. All you’re doing is offering to make an introduction, nothing more.

If it’s an open call for an intern/minion you’re thinking of responding to, don’t! It’s that easy.

Random thoughts

Presentation matters. Be as professional in your volunteering as you would be in any job. People will take notice and pay more attention to you.

Realize that what you say about your work as a minion will be dissected and overanalyzed, especially in your social networks. If you are a slush reader, you will likely attract followers who are submitting to your market, hoping for some insight. If you are too specific in your complaints about slush, you might say something that identifies the work to that specific author and that can generate complaints about you to your overlords.

Knowing what your limits are is more complicated and worthy of a post of it’s own. I still don’t have my process down but I will point out Things for you Mac/iPhone/iPad folks and the Spoon Theory, both of which are key to my work flow.

The risk of failure is greater as a writer than in other professions I’ve worked in. As a programmer, if the project I’m working on misses a deadline or fails for whatever reason and I part ways with my employer, the industry is big enough that I can find another job. Genre fiction is a small, close-knit community. We talk. We gossip. If you screw up really bad, chances are it will get around.

Try not to screw up. If you do, be graceful about it. Don’t make excuses. Admit your mistake(s), offer realistic solutions to fix it and follow through, damn it.

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  • Erika Holt

    Great advice, Adam. It *is* easy to over-extend, which can both damage the quality and timeliness of one’s work (thereby harming one’s reputation), and limit the time one has for his or her own writing. Maintaining balance is important, and something every writer/editor/volunteer should think carefully about.

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  • Excellent post, Adam.

    I went through the same sort of over extension of time and energy within the fitness industry. It’s the same, it’s about getting your name/face out there by volunteering, by doing photo shoots for different sites and companies, writing non-fiction articles, helping at shows, and most of it’s for free. I had to back off to focus on priorities (like things that actually made money) and so that I wasn’t giving all my energy away, leaving nothing for myself.

    I really like your points on when to say no. Thanks for sharing!

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