The Best Decline Letter of All Time: Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson, recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal for Literature, was one of the most prominent social and literary critics of the 20th century.

He realized, like most uber-productive people, that, while there were many behaviors needed to guarantee high output, there was one single behavior guaranteed to prevent all output:

Trying to please everyone.

He had a low tolerance for distraction and shunned undue public acclaim. To almost all inquiries, he would respond with the following list, putting a check mark next to what had been requested…

Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him without compensation to:

read manuscripts
contribute to books or periodicals
do editorial work
judge literary contests
deliver lectures
address meetings
make after-dinner speeches

Under any circumstances to:

contribute to or take part in symposiums
take part in chain-poems or other collective compositions
contribute manuscripts for sales
donate copies of his books to libraries
autograph books for strangers
supply personal information about himself
supply photographs of himself
allow his name to be used on letter-heads
receive unknown persons who have no apparent business with him.

But Edmund was no hermit. He was sociable. His writing, honed at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and The New Republic, also played a large role in introducing F. Scott Fitzgerald (a friend who referred to Edmund as his “intellectual conscience”), Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner to the mainstream public.

Though he was thought stubborn and prone to odd whims, a perception no doubt encouraged by his auto-response, he had his good friends and got more done in years than most will get done in a lifetime.

Is it time for you to craft your own Wilson letter? How much more could you get done if you eliminated even one type of request?

Question of the day (QOD): What is the best wording you’ve ever received or written in a decline letter?

Posted on: October 7, 2009.

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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

147 comments on “The Best Decline Letter of All Time: Edmund Wilson

  1. Not quite a letter, but as a programmer a particulary low moment was a rejection from a machine….

    “The server is unwilling to process the request”

    One of Microsofts more human but not very helpful error messages!


  2. Wow, Edmund Wilson must have been pretty sought after for him to have a pre-made letter of rejection. I have yet to see anything like that in my dealings with people. Maybe I’m just interviewing the wrong people.


  3. I’m surprised that someone who solicits spec work also thinks it’s a good idea to have a list of things you won’t do without compensation. Perhaps you should reconsider your stance on spec work?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Is it time for you to craft your own Wilson letter?”

    Absolutely not. That sort of brusque rejection letter is best for those who are in high demand already and at the peak of their success. The rest of us will probably get further in life by being more gracious than that.


  5. One of the greatest decline letter I ever received was from McGill University for graduate school. I had submitted my application before the advertised due date but the secretary in charge had set two dates, Feb 15th on the applications and Jan 15th on the main website, so I was denied based on not submitting my application in time for review. I called and was given the academic version of ‘tuff luck sucka!’ by the secretary. Fortunately my undergraduate supervisor was good friends with the department head. One phone call and 5 minutes later I was in, with funding for graduate school. I remember the secretary having to call me back up and ‘officially’ offer me my placement, priceless…

    On another note, the posts seem to be picking up Tim. Why so many so suddenly?


  6. David,
    If you’re saying its hypocritical you’re wrong. Obviously someone as established as Edmund doesnt need to work for free to get his name out there, however those of us trying market ourselves to establish our name as trusted are willing to work for free if it give us a better chance to accomplish that end.


  7. I like

    Hi. The person who sent you this link is a friend who likes you a lot but who wants you to respect their email address, their privacy, and their time.

    Chances are, this person asked you to visit this page because you did one of these things:

    * Forwarded a funny story, a virus warning, or a photo that you enjoyed
    * Sent email to lots of people using the “To:” line (instead of the “BCC:” line), thereby exposing your friend’s email address to strangers
    * CC’d your friend unnecessarily on something you had sent primarily to someone else

    In any case, you might want to go back and have another look at the email they’re replying to. They asked you to visit here because, while they love getting one-on-one, personal messages from you, they really don’t want to receive more messages like the one you just sent. Cool?

    You’re not a bad person, and no one hates you, but it would be valuable to learn the very personal preferences of your friends, family members, and co-workers before including them in unrequested email or choosing to expose their private address to people they don’t know.

    Thanks for understanding, and if this same thing ever happens to you, feel free to reply to an email you don’t want by pasting this in:

    Hi there, beloved friend of this email recipient:

    Please visit

    Because this person likes getting personal messages from you, but doesn’t want any more email like this, please.



    • this is absolutely fabulous and will be used frequently in the next few months…. should be quite the talking point at the next family reunion (because my family members seem to be the worst at cluttering my inbox with useless forwards that circle the web every 3-5 years)


  8. Hey Tim.

    I’d say this is what victory on a piece of paper looks like. That guy was doing the right thing because he knew that this information would be enough to repel people trying to use him for nothing. He uses the words to show that his time is valued by him, which then causes it to be valued by others.

    A decline letter like that could save loads of time today from requests that aren’t really fitting to a person’s value level. Some folks are bold enough to do things that are actually more healthy.

    I will keep this item created by Edmund Wilson in mind for if I make something like it, or use the concept from it in some way.


    • Extremely well said, Armen (and Edmund Wilson, for that matter.) The letter shows respect for the other person’s time by getting straight to the point too.

      He addressed a pet peeve of mine: people with whom I have no relationship expecting me to give them things without any type of reciprication, that they turn around and use to charge somebody else for.

      It’s not that I require compensation for everything I contribute to anyone, but why are you supposed to pretend it’s okay for someone to ask you for a favor while at the same time devaluing your input?


  9. Saying “No” is a critical skill. It is closely related to “de-cide” – Like homicide, suicide, pesticide….it literally means to “kill the alternatives.” I’ve found this to be THE essential key to productivity and dodging the “torpedoes” that life constantly serves up.

    With all the technology, we have access to unprecedented amounts of delicious interruptions. But alas we must “de-cide”; we must be committed enough to eliminate the alternatives. The best decline, is a gentle and quick “no.”


  10. Due to the irresponsible nature of some of his friends, Paul Romine regrets that it is impossible for him:

    Without compensation to:
    -Help you move in/out of your apartment
    -Give you a ride home from work because you lost your license
    -Give you a “hand” fixing your car
    -Drive you to an event that you invited me to
    -Be the designated driver

    Under any circumstances:
    -Watch your child
    -Do any school assignment for you
    -“hang out and play video games and maybe give me a ride to work later”


  11. I admire how Edmund Wilson is beyond the Bullshi*t and protects his time wisely.

    Heck yeah, it’s definitely time to craft a Wilson Letter. Indulge, peek at the curisosity of what can be improved than to see it as a selfish act.


  12. Ah, I’m looking forward to the day when my work will be in such high demand that I can no longer keep up with the requests without a checklist decline letter!

    The only decline letter I can think of right now that I’ve received was for a design job back in college. I was two years too inexperienced to even have interviewed, but I snuck my way through anyway. They checked my record and saw that I was too young and hadn’t had the correct level of traditional education, and told me so. I went back in 6 months later and got the job ;)


  13. Best professional rejection moments?
    One time during my web developer experiences, a client refused to pay certain fees claiming that the site was malfunctioning and then he instructed the Hosting company to deny me any further access. After talking with the Hosting company and finding everything was a lie, I really savored sending him a letter stating that the work I’ve done was going to be reverted and taken off the server and that the contract terminated. One thorn removed from my side.


  14. I think it is brilliant decline letter, and very much in the style of Edmond Wilson.
    A few years back, I was the president of a local trade organization, and until I learned how to say no, I was besieged with all kinds of requests for my time, (all for no compensation). I soon learned that I did a far better service to both myself and my organization by staying on mission and declining all these requests. The best part was that people actually respected me for my stance, and eventually only came to me to me with requests that I really wanted to handle. I could more politely decline, but one has to imagine the sheer abuse Mr. Wilson was subject to before he composed such a message. Don’t be afraid to say no.


  15. “So see every opportunity as golden, and keep your eyes on the prize – yours, not anybody else’s.” -Roberta Flack

    Hey Tim,

    If you’re selfish, you accomplish your goal sooner and get your value out to the world faster.

    Have your eye on the prize and ruthlessly deny any offers that will delineate you from your path. People will appreciate and get more use out of your unique value that you put your all into rather than a bunch of half-hearted projects.

    Here’s what I say to people who ask me to work with them:
    “Appreciate the offer but decline. I have my eye on my prize and don’t do anything that deviates me from it. Nothing personal. I know you have your own goals, and I hope you understand.”

    Thanks for sharing the smile-inducing Edmund Wilson decline letter,

    PS. This is my first comment on your site. Thank you SO much for the 4-Hour Workweek. The first personal development book I consumed, and it changed my life last year.

    Your introduction to the 80-20 Rule, automation, and location-independent living and mini-retirements turned my world on its side… and I loved it. I’ve started doing location-independent living (love having the “office” be laptop + wifi) and recently did my first mini-retirement. I now passionately recommend your book to everyone. Thanks again Tim, and all the best finishing up your new book.