The Best Decline Letter of All-Time: Edmund Wilson

140 Comments


(Source: Crooked Timber)

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
broadcast;

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?

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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)

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

  1. @ Erika Awakening

    Hi Erika,
    If you mean by ‘triggering’ you mean provoking – not at all, I thoroughly enjoy the debate and was not intending to be ‘triggering’ myself.
    What I mean is that some commenters are applauding this letter because E.W is valuing his time by saying ‘no’. And many have said that to be successful you have to do that. Smart people will not dispute either of those 2 points. My point; and Eliza’s I guess, is that you don’t have to be rude and unpleasant to either say ‘no’ or be successful. And, it surprises me that some seem to dispute that?

  2. @ Erika Awakening.
    Hi Erika,
    Isn’t ‘triggering’ part of the fun of a healthy debate? :-)
    Although we’d all like to flip the bird to the world some days and dash off a letter like this to the entire planet – isn’t it quite disturbing that some people seem like they really, really would send something like this?

  3. @ Lynda

    I totally appreciate your comments. I also find it a bit disturbing that some folk would be quite happy to act in this way.

    It seems to me that whilst the planet appears to be tailspinning towards its demise the last thing we should be doing is acting in such an individualistic manner. There’s the idea that if I know 30 people, who each know 30 people you already have 900 connections right there. If I can’t help someone, surely I can pass it on to someone who can?

  4. Lynda,

    yes, I find a lot of value in provocation, actually. I use it at times with my clients to bring more awareness to a situation.

    speaking of which, I am all for saying yes to helping someone else whenever we can do it and also meet our own needs. however, I have found that sometimes a “rude” no can also be helpful. sometimes people are acting very unconsciously and stepping all over other people’s needs, and what helps them the most is being woken up. sometimes abruptly.

    it’s all about intention. I never have an intention to hurt or put myself above anyone else. I just like to stay flexible about the best way to meet my needs and other people’s needs at the same time.

  5. A lot of people have assumed that this person is selfish and has always been that way. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that he did not ever give away his talents for free or lend a helping hand to an up and comer.

    The very first thing that came to mind, is that this fellow has become clear about how he wants to spend his time, and clearly makes no apologies for it.

    This is my personal experience and does not necessarily apply to every situation, but it’s pretty close:

    People are offended by abruptness should someone choose not to put a pretty bow on whatever they say.

    If you deal with a situation in a very direct manner, people are uncomfortable. If you say exactly what you mean, they don’t like that either. Most people are uncomfortable with saying no. Those that know how to do it easily are not liked much.

    I have gone a long way towards knowing myself better, by being direct and learning how to say no. I also am no longer bothered when I am told no. I don’t always like it, but I respect it.

    People let their feelings get hurt way too easily. I believe the problem lies in the fact that they look at what the response means to them personally rather than considering why the person chose to respond the way they did. No simply means, no.

    When there are things to be done…. just get to it and say what you mean!

  6. I think that the best part of having this type of letter available is the amount of thought it takes to identify the things which are sucking the life out of your productivity levels. In about 10 minutes, I was able to identify 11 items which I do for people on an (almost) daily basis which have nothing to do with getting me closer to my goals. They not only distract me from the work I have to do but contribute to rising frustration and resentment levels because these “favors” are almost never returned in kind.

    Simply having the letter on my desk as a visual reference to the stuff I need to say “no” to is helpful!

  7. I know of a DJ who has a similar “decline letter”. He actually has it set in an autoresponder as an efficient way to weed out the good prospects from the bad!

  8. I have been going through months of sleepless hell for not being able to say no. I have found that often the little ‘free favors’ people ask can balloon quickly, and feelings can get hurt easier than with fairly priced work. It’s always nice to see people posting photos of their vacation with friends, while you’re working on their stuff on a saturday night.

  9. Edmund who? No writer that I esteem has received either of those awards. I’d be wary of emulating anyone who received any establishment “medal” because it means they are saying or doing things that support the rulers. Did he send such a letter when they contacted him to give him the medals? Of course not.

  10. I have not gotten to the point where it would make sense to have a pre-made rejection letter, and perhaps never will, but I really like the idea of a not-to-do list — basically a list of things that are so unproductive or so outside our core focus that we ought to either outsource them or simply ignore them.

  11. Where was this article when I needed it? lol. I’ve volunteered for way too many things this year! Need to draft one up for next year!

    Due to having better things to do, Vince sincerely regrets that he cannot:

    without compensation:

    be your friend
    give you a shoulder to cry on
    help you with your tie
    be part of your wedding entourage
    visit you at the hospital
    see your relatives
    put the new cover sheets on the TPS reports

    under any circumstances:

    be your beer pong partner
    go to a lame party with you
    talk to a drunk you while I’m sober
    help you deal with your latest break-up
    sleep with your mother

  12. > I was thinking ‘this is great’ right up until I saw that line, then I thought ‘this guy is a jerk!’. That is no way to treat the people who were responsible for the financial gains that he enjoyed.<

    This statement reveals a delusion characteristic of our society. The public do not share credit for the achievements of the people from whose work they benefit. Edmund Wilson was their superior: their consumption of his work was proof of that fact. They did not become his equal by paying him for his work. Delusions of this sort are what bring increasing numbers of complaints from my B and C students, who expect that in paying tuition they have paid for an A, rather than the opportunity to earn one. Readers here would do well to heed that distinction, and express due respect to their betters.

  13. I am amazed at the variety of attitudes that are revealed in a situation such as this.

    In response to Benjamin, the world consists of people who are more accomplished or less accomplished than others. To claim that that others are presumably our betters is truly misguided. That point of view comes across as arrogant.

    You can never be better than someone…. just as you can never be worse.

    I’m expecting a tirade of angry emotion in response to my comment.
    Please surprise me by responding otherwise.

  14. Edmund Wilson was often thought arrogant, as am I. There are many far worse human failings than arrogance. Here’s one: a pathetic propensity to spout inane claims for a classless human family in which no one has greater value to society than oneself — which, when you consider it, is a sign of . . . arrogance.

  15. I thought it was funny when I walked into an oldies record shop and the owner delegated the responsibility of attending me to his associate by saying, “I’m not here.” He also has signs posted all over his store which say, “No browsing,” or in other words, when you come in you should already know what you want. It could have been interpreted as brusque, but after you get to know the man, you understand that this is his way of being efficient, not rude. When he did speak to customers, he was always entertaining. In referring to a certain music producer, he said that the guy “must have fallen on his head when he was a baby.”

  16. They said “Your resume looks great, but we’re hiring someone else” instead of the typical false, hollow formalisms (“We regret that …at this time .. pursue other candidates … “).

  17. Greg Beal writes he best dink letters I’ve ever seen. As director of the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Program of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization that hands out the Oscars), it’s his job to tell screenwriter applicants whether they’ve made each of four successive cuts each year.

    He’s had a lot of practice, sending letters (now emails) to some 55,000 writers over 25 years. I’ve made it to the finals (top 10) twice, but for those who don’t, Greg’s gently-worded you-didn’t-make-it missives can be the difference between trying again next year–and jumping off a bridge. A few slightly modified excerpts:

    “Many exceptional scripts were entered in this year’s competition. Now that scores have been tallied for all 6,304 entries, we have to inform too many writers of scripts featuring intriguing stories, engaging characters and strong craft that they have not advanced into the next round. Regrettably, [Your Script Title] was not one of the [#] entries selected…

    “You should realize that while we strive to make the evaluation of screenplays as objective a process as possible, it is inherently both a personal and an extremely subjective matter. A lack of success here may not have any bearing on your reception in the marketplace where a sale is the ultimate measure of success. I’ll even venture a prediction: several non-advancing writers will become professional screenwriters in the near future…

    [Promises to send application for next year's competition.]

    “Best of luck with all your future endeavors.”

    With a decline like that, in an industry legendary for abrupt and (more often) non-responses–you might be disappointed, but it’s impossible to be angry.

  18. At this time of year, some of my colleagues and I like to show each other our favorite “rejection letters” from the recent crop of grad applicants — that is, the letters that we get from prospective graduate students who decide to accept an offer other than the one from our own department.

  19. “I tried hard to like this. It’s not that it’s not perfectly adequate. It is that I didn’t like it. Chalk it up to my prejudices and try Avon or Ace.”

    - Rejection letter for my first novel, from 40 years ago. Related from memory…

  20. do you know any good webpage for nutritional information?. I need to get charts and lists about negative calorie food, I have info bout them, but if u can tell me more it wouldn’t hurt.. My purpouse is to get a list of negative cal food and very low cal food to help me when going to the market.. I have also hear stuff about food that helps boosting your metabolism. do u know anything?.

  21. Thank you for taking the time to post this and provide exegesis; I’d been looking for it for some time. I’m a high school teacher who plans to use Mr. Wilson’s document as a basis for a similar list of rejections–for administrators who endeavor to use my time for anything other than edifying the minds of my charges.

  22. H. L. Mencken used a briefer card to return mail from those he did not know or that asked for something he was not prepared to give. “Mr. Mencken has just entered a Trappist monastery in Kentucky and left strict instructions that no mail was to be forwarded. The enclosed is returned for your archives.”

  23. “I’m a nice guy”

    This brings up a strong emotion for me and perhaps others too – that of “being a nice guy”.

    Perhaps this is the reason why Edmund Wilson’s approach is evoking such as response in us – as well as Simon Cowell I suppose too !

    We’re fought – and I actually hold but it – that the world is built on kindness – and that helping others is an amazing trait -

    So I can only suggest that maybe there’s a middle ground here – Love your neighbour as yourself – We are tought (in the Jewish Torah/Bible that is – Don’t get frightened off – I’m not a missionary) – that the “as yourself” is a pre-requisite ! i.e. in order to love others we need to love, care and value ourselves first – and perhaps this is what the response letter is doing – it’s putting us first -
    So if we believe that a free viewing or reading or signing for someone that we don’t know is in fact putting our selves/our career first – for example if Oprah asked you to do a free interview with her perhaps? – I think it would be fair to say that this would be putting yourself first. On the kindness side – There’s no reason to make the letter harsh! – Thank you for your understanding – in order to be more focussed I’ve decided not to do the following – thank you for your understanding…

    Just my thoughts – Now I need to do this stuff ! Nice article thank you !

  24. I have appropriated Jack London’s studio door sign to assure no disturbance, “Please do not enter without knocking, please do not knock”. It says it all, but, there is a saying which I cannot remember verbatim, the jist of which is, …[do not disturb the silence unless you have something of greater value than silence to say.] That’s a cumbersome interpretation. Does anyone know the quote or who said it?
    All in all, its about respect!

  25. Great to create the list, even if only to discipline oneself for starters… “What time wasting activity have I been succumbing to??”… And then of course to send it as needed.