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08 June 2012 @ 02:32 pm
Red & Write – A Better Class of Problem  

This month’s R&W column is about saying no, and meaning it.

When I first had the idea to pen some columns about my experiences of being a writer, one of the things I really wanted to do was cover the kind of stuff that never turns up in “How To Be A Writer” books or those expensive seminars chaired by blokes in nice suits in some city centre hotel. I did one a while ago about how to sign autographs because that’s the kind of little thing they never tell you about in writer school.

And this column is about something else they don’t teach you: What happens when you have too much work?

I turned down three jobs in one month. They were not no-dice poor earners or dull make-weight work. They were good gigs, all of them, the kind of stuff that at any other time I would have said yes to, in a loud, clear voice. But I simply could not take them on, not without building some kind of time machine or learning to go without sleep.

Now at this moment, the people reading this who are struggling to find work or to get published are thinking “Fuck you, Jim. Fuck you, you lucky bastard with your I’m so cool I get to throw jobs away bullshit.”

I accept that in the spirit it is intended, and I’m sorry things aren’t going your way right now; but keep at it, stay strong. Things will improve. (Oh, and before anyone out there thinks about getting in touch with me and saying, “Hey man, I’ll take anything you don’t want!”, don’t bother. Because unless I know you and I know you have skills, I’m not going to stick my neck out to recommend a stranger; and if I do know you, and you do have the skills, chances are I have already said “Hey, I can’t do this but you should talk to this guy, he’s good.”)

Anyhow. Where was I?

It’s an important lesson to learn that you can’t say yes to everything. One of the problems that comes from the freelancer mindset (and I think it’s worse for people like me, who come from journalistic experience) is the abject terror you have at saying No. It’s like you fear that the moment you turn down a job, that’s the end of your career. You say NO and it explodes out of your mouth like a massive shockwave, rippling out across the world, forcing every editor and producer to turn away – and suddenly you are terrified that the phone will never ring again.

But if you’re good – competent, even – at this writing thing, people will keep coming back to you and asking you to do stuff for them. It may not feel like it at first, but the ability to refuse is actually empowering. You may pass up an opportunity, but there will be another one out there, a better one – or even one you create for yourself.

Taking on too much is hard on you not just in terms of your career, but also personally speaking. It can disrupt your health and your family life. Overcommitting can screw you up a hell of a lot worse than just passing on a job. You may find yourself with more work then there are hours in the day, and then that leads to you disappointing your editor/producer, being forced to ask for deadline extensions or underperforming in terms of quality. It’s important to know your limitations, to know how far you can push yourself as a writer. Why is this blog three weeks late, you may wonder? Figure it out.

It’s a hard thing to take on, but sometimes a no is the best answer. If someone offers you work but you can’t do it, that’s still an open door you may be able to walk through at another time, perhaps when you are available. Don’t dance around the issue and pretend you can take it on, when you know you really can’t. Chances are that, yes, you might miss out on something very cool – but the alternative is that you end up promising everything and delivering nothing. Worse still, if you drop a project you may have accepted in exchange for another, you won’t do your reputation any favours; and unless that other gig is a multi-million dollar movie deal, it’s probably not worth it.
And it may not seem like it at first, but if you say yes to every job you are offered, you lose control of your career and let the work decide where you are going, instead of making that choice yourself.

For writers just starting out, or those finding it hard to market their work, it might be difficult to imagine a time where there’s an embarrassment of riches; and its true that some people go through their whole careers without reaching that level. But if you are in that zone, with a strong wind at your back, it can be oh-so-easy to take your hands of the tiller and just the sails take you – right into the rocks, if you’re not careful. 

This industry needs good writers; if you are one of them, you will always be able to find work.